Tracing the Public Transit-Environment Connection in Toronto’s Automobile Age

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As we observe Earth Day, 270 monitors on Toronto’s busy subway platforms are scheduled to play short films that celebrate the little and large things Canadians do to minimize their global environmental footprint. The link between public transit and environmental consciousness embodies our search for sustainable ways to facilitate human mobility in an age concerned with limited resources and the future health of the planet.

A main thread of my dissertation, “Searching for a Better Way: Subway Life and Urban Growth in Toronto, 1942-1980”, examines the complicated relationships between environmental perceptions and urban transportation. In particular, my research traces the development of the Toronto subway system and its connection to changing ideas about city building, the environment, and the limits of automobility.

Torontonians made forceful arguments for the benefits of transit and the shortcomings of cars before the rise of the modern environmental movement in the 1960s. What is interesting, however, is the ways that people framed such arguments – and how these frames changed over time to reflect shifts in values towards the environment. Throughout the years I cover in my dissertation, many Torontonians remarked on transit’s ability to move people efficiently and to fight traffic congestion. Starting in the late 1960s, however, concerns about pollution and environmental degradation as arguments in favour of public transit became much more vocal, a trend that has continued to the present.

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) – the city’s municipal transit provider – began to push for the building of subway lines during the early 1940s. The Commission’s subway promotional literature conceded that automobiles were suitable for “the casual evening or pleasure ride,” but insisted that transit surpassed the car in comfort, convenience, cost, and economy. The TTC often depicted the efficiency of transit with diagrams that illustrated the limited amount of space required to carry people in streetcars and subways versus private automobiles. Torontonians who voted affirmatively in a 1946 subway referendum probably agreed. In March 1954, Canada’s first subway opened under Yonge Street.

By the mid 1950s, awareness of public transit’s economic and spatial efficiencies grew within Metro Toronto planning and political circles. “[Y]ou simply cannot provide sufficient highways and parking space to accommodate every person who desires to drive his motor vehicle downtown and back each day,” Metro Chairman Fred Gardiner stated in 1956. Three years later, Toronto launched construction of its second phase of subway building, this time with funds coming not only from the TTC, but also Metro. Yet Metro Toronto also began its massive expansion of expenditures on roads and expressways in the 1950s and 1960s. The Ontario government, for its part, contributed 50 per cent towards these auto-centric projects and only slowly began to contribute to subway capital costs in the 1960s.

Quiet whispers surrounding the environmental benefits of public transit became louder declarations by the late 1960s. For example, growing anti-expressway activism – along with political strategy – led Premier Bill Davis to halt the completion of Toronto’s Spadina Expressway in 1971, to the chagrin of many suburbanites. Davis cited “rising public anxiety and concern in questions relating to pollution and environmental control” as an influential factor, and delivered provincial policy changes in favour of greater public transit investment. The TTC also started to depict public transit – especially its 1972 decision to retain its iconic streetcars – as what we would today call green technology.

Metrolinx, Ontario’s new transit agency, has recently proposed a massive expansion of public transit in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Metrolinx’ 2008 policy document, The Big Move, draws on older arguments of efficiency and more recent sentiments of environmental concern. As the GTA begins to implement the plan in a region still overwhelmingly built for the private automobile, my research seeks to illuminate the changing justifications for transit building in Toronto’s past.

Jay is a PhD Candidate at York University.

Featured Image: Toronto, Ontario. Photo by Ali Tayyebi on Unsplash.
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Jay Young is an outreach officer at the Archives of Ontario, the largest provincial archives in Canada. He has a PhD in history from York University.


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