PublicationsRegional PlanningTransportation/Transit

Getting the GTHA’s Suburbs on Track

By September 8, 2016 No Comments


The Province of Ontario is investing over $32 billion in GTHA transit over the next 10 to 15 years, primarily in Scarborough and North York, the municipalities of Vaughan, Mississauga, Markham and the City of Hamilton. This enormous investment gives the GTHA a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address a number of issues such as mobility and housing affordability.

So although the $32 billion is about building new transit lines, it’s really about much much more. This investment will affect how GTHA residents live, work and commute in the decades to come.

One of the biggest challenges facing the GTHA is eroding housing affordability. But a closer look reveals an underlying cause: growing demand for housing in desirable residential areas where there is limited supply, especially transit-accessible communities. This demand drives up costs and increases prices. By harnessing the province’s transit investments in innovative ways, we can create more housing options at a variety of price points in these desirable transit-connected communities.

Although high-rise condos are a familiar sight in city centres, they don’t always offer units that are suitable for different family sizes, budgets and lifestyle choices. This limits housing options for people looking for affordable family-sized houses. Unfortunately, the communities where most family sized units are being supplied often require long commutes with limited mobility options. The solution to these issues includes public policy adjustments that encourage building more diverse “missing middle” housing for a range of families and budgets such as townhouses or mid-rises around our transit stations.

“Missing Middle” housing options are ideal for main street transit corridors and around transit stations outside of downtown Toronto. They provide the gentle density needed to support transit and businesses while creating walkable human-scaled communities.

The Suburban Transit Village

The future of housing and transit in the GTHA are inextricably linked. And developing complete transit-oriented communities produces far-ranging benefits that improve the quality of life for residents.

So how do we get there?

In our report Suburbs on Track, we made several reccomendations that would help the privoence and municipanlities usher in a new era of more affordable hoursing in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area. If adopted, these four suggestions would make it easier for the region’s sububrs and the City of Hamilton to better support transit and to meet the Growth Plan’s ambitious density targets

  • Enforce a transit quid-pro-quo:

Incredibly, local governments have never had to achieve transit supportive densities along transportation corridors or around stations. This has resulted in decades of low-density development around transit infrastructure as well as low ridership on many regional transit lines. To complement proposed changes to the Growth Plan, the province could require that in exchange for transit funding, municipalities must modernize land-use plans approve and enforce transit-supportive densities.

  • Speed up planning for transit station areas and corridors:

Although proposed changes to the provincial Growth Plan would require municipalities to meet set densities around major transit areas, it’s unclear if this will happen in a timely manner. This approach risks wasting billions of transit investment dollars on low-density built forms that are difficult to retrofit in the future.

  • Provide support for local municipalities:

Many municipalities lack the resources to plan for complete communities. The province should consider providing technical and financial support for municipalities to undertake a re-zoning process for transit corridors.

  • Sharpen tools for intensification:

Despite the benefits of new transit to cities, many municipalities have outdated planning and financial policies that actually discourage intensification. This contributes to transit-oriented development being less affordable.

Today we have an opportunity to fix some of these public policy distortions and encourage more development around rapid transit – especially in the suburbs. We recommend adopting innovative development tools such as reducing parking minimums and re-tooling development charges and parkland dedication fees to help overcome these obstacles in the specific locations we should be encouraging growth.

Low-rise, car-dependent built form surrounding Scarborough Town Centre. Image: Google Earth

Case Study: Scarborough subway

For an example of a proposed transit line that could be radically improved by adopting these recommendations, one need look no further than the hotly debated Scarborough subway project. This one-stop TTC subway development will take place through a low-density neighbourhood that has boundless room to grow into a complete community with optimal densities and both residential and commercial development within reach of a planned major transit hub – the new subway station at Scarborough Town Centre.

This area could become a transit-oriented community that encourages active transportation and a better quality of life for Scarborough residents and commuters. By not taking new approaches to its planning, we risk persistent low transit ridership and an urban growth centre with wasted potential that generations of Torontonians will regret.

We need to get moving. And building.