Toronto city council can’t get it done on affordable housing — or safe streets

OPINION: The city is facing a housing-affordability crisis, and it’s recently suffered a series of pedestrian fatalities. Our officials have failed
By Matt Gurney - Published on Oct 21, 2021
Toronto is an undeniably dangerous city for pedestrians and cyclists. (veggiefrog/ iStock.com/CC BY 2.0)

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You might not see the link right away, but when I read about New Zealand taking steps to permit denser housing construction across the country, overriding local regulations and limits, I thought about Shawn Micallef, a senior editor at Spacing magazine, a columnist at the Toronto Star, and, very recently, a man who was kind enough to agree to an interview with me for an article at TVO.org.

Toronto has suffered a series of pedestrian fatalities in recent weeks. There have also been a few bizarre incidents of drivers sending their cars directly into immovable objects, such as buildings. I’m not sure that we’re even seeing more of these incidents, per se, so much as that we’ve just had a group of them clustered close together. But, in any case, it hardly matters — Toronto is an undeniably dangerous city for pedestrians and cyclists in part because our drivers are notoriously awful but also simply because the city is designed in such a way that even uniformly excellent drivers could still experience some fatal accidents. This is all known. None of this is new. And the city government and police seem utterly unable to do much about it. Worse, they don’t seem to be particularly fussed.

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So Shawn has been hanging out with a radar gun in parts of the city known to be particularly dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians and tweeting out the speeds he’s capturing on his gun. Suffice it to say, they are wildly above the posted limits. I have half a mind to invite Shawn to come sit in my driveway and capture the cars zooming down my street. I live on a pretty typical low-rise midtown street, with a school just a few minutes’ walk away, but there’s a traffic light in the area, and drivers are constantly stomping on the gas in order to make the light before it changes red. There have been a series of accidents in the intersection, and whenever I’m crossing it with my kids, as a rule, I make them stop about 15 or 20 feet back from the intersection and wait until the light changes, because on several occasions, after collisions, cars have spun into — or in one case, landed on — the corner where we’d otherwise have been waiting. 

I have adjusted to insufficient traffic enforcement and poor road design by literally keeping my family away from an area I’ve concluded there’s a reasonable chance they could be killed, in large part because I have zero faith in the willingness or ability of the city to take some very mild and easy steps that would make it safer. Assigning a police officer or even an automated camera would bring speeds down. Some kind of road redesign involving, say, speed bumps, would bring speed down. But it’s not going to happen, because this is Toronto. My best course of action is stopping a full house short of the intersection and hoping Shawn shows up with his radar gun. (One of my neighbours has simply relandscaped her front yard and created an outer perimeter of beautiful and very heavy stones — she told me that they are explicitly there to stop any further careering cars from ending up on her lawn.)

Now it’s time to segue back to the New Zealand thing, and there’s no particularly graceful way to do it, so I’ll just be blunt and inelegant: the federal government in New Zealand intervened on local housing rules because there was a crisis that local leaders were unable or unwilling to address. New Zealand has severe housing-affordability challenges (though Canada seems determined to close the gap). This has been a problem in New Zealand for years, and not enough was done, so the federal government stepped in and said that landowners can build structures up to six stories in height, add one or two additional structures to lots that already hold one, and use up to 50 per cent of the lot area for structures. Within these confines, no further local zoning or construction variance approvals are needed. The government expects this to immediately spur construction of new housing units.

We’ll see if it does. Let’s hope! In Canada, meanwhile, as I wrote about just recently here, housing construction also lags well behind both realized and projected population growth. We’ll need to build almost a million additional houses in Ontario by 2030 just to keep up with forecasted population growth. There are major logistical challenges to construction on that scale, including a shortage of skilled workers and continued supply-chain chaos around the world. But right now, due to resistance from local officials and restrictive zoning laws, we can’t even begin to get that work started. Local rules will not permit it, because they’re geared toward preserving neighbourhood character and not overly alienating the resident NIMBYs who show up at council meetings and sway local elections. 

The housing-affordability crisis in Canada will get worse until we take the steps to make it better. This cannot be a controversial point any longer. We know what the main problems are, and we also know that the people tasked with fixing them either can’t or won’t. If they were capable of addressing these challenges, poor Shawn wouldn’t be spending parts of his day sitting outside getting radar speed readings on drivers the police can’t be bothered to pull over speeding down streets the city can’t be bothered to redesign. 

A point I’ve made repeatedly throughout the pandemic about our COVID-19 response applies here: competency does not scale up with the scope and complexity of a challenge. Many of us like to think that the same government that struggles with the day-to-day has vast reserves of untapped materiel and intellectual resources just sitting around ready to be deployed in the case of a more serious emergency. That’s not the case. The leaders who are so stymied by the small, fixable challenges are the same ones who run the show when the big, complicated emergencies come along. Toronto’s city council can’t get it done on safe streets, and it can’t get it done on housing expansion.

Fine. Steamroller them the way New Zealand did its own local politicians. The housing problem, in particular, will become a matter of social and political unrest if it’s not met head on and mastered. The city officials have failed. It’s time for the province to step in and simply cut them out of the loop.

Do I expect this to happen? Not particularly. But it’s clear that it’s the only real chance we’ve got. 

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