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Five birds, one stone: Improved transportation in Ontario

Posted by Daniel Hoornweg on December 15, 2015

The adage ‘two birds with one stone’ is a bit outdated with the decline of hunting, and really, who uses a sling shot today? But the expression quickly captures those rare ‘win-win’ opportunities where multiple problems can be solved with one action.

But what if the potential opportunity is five birds with just one stone? Ontario now has a once-in-a-century opportunity – five of Ontario’s biggest challenges are converging and can be addressed through just one solution: improved transportation, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

First, five of Ontario’s biggest challenges:


In response to Ontario’s declining post-secondary enrolments, global competition, and efficiency targets for the $3.5 billion spent annually on universities, a series of recent reviews suggest sweeping improvements. A key study released this month calls for improved undergraduate student experiences. The GTA is home to more than 30 post-secondary institutions. Coordination among them is more the exception than the rule. Satellite campuses spring up as every community wants its own full-service university.


People who take the subway to work, or drive in to Toronto from Durham or Halton, or even try to walk to work (more than 40 pedestrians killed this year) know we have a huge problem getting around. There are many studies and reports on congestion in the GTA, outlining costs (about $6 billion per year) as well as health impacts (more than a dozen pedestrians were struck in Toronto alone in one day this fall; vehicle emissions are one of the area’s largest contributors to respiratory disease) and policy options to reduce impacts (e.g. tolls, congestion pricing, ride-sharing software). These studies often overlook one of the most important aspects of congestion and improved mobility: the best way to get economies and wealth growing in a community is to get people interacting more. Southern Ontario’s congestion (road and rail) is a major drain on the local economy.


For 14 years Ontario’s Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity has issued an annual lament on Ontario’s declining economic productivity and competiveness relative to U.S. comparators and globally. Ontario’s declining productivity is the biggest threat to future prosperity.

Aging society

In Ontario, the number of seniors is projected to more than double from almost 2.1 million (15.2 per cent of population) in 2013 to over 4.5 million (25.5 per cent) by 2041. These older people will put enormous stress on the provincial economy as the baby boomers head into retirement, while still trying to be active and mobile.

Climate change

Every year Canadians generate about 21 tonnes of greenhouse gases per person (among the highest in the world). As an indication of just how big a task was being negotiated at this month’s Paris climate conference, any chance to meet the goal of keeping the world below the 1.5o Celsius warming threshold would require Canadians to reduce GHG emission to below four tonnes per person (an 80 per cent reduction). Transportation-related emissions are Ontario’s largest and fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions (about 60 million tonnes per year – more than a third of the province’s total emissions).

Reducing GHG emissions associated with the transportation sector is Ontario’s climate change mitigation priority. To get there we need to drive less, embrace ride-share programs, carpool, switch to electric vehicles, and replace diesel in heavy-duty trucks, trains and buses with natural gas and electricity. Ontario also needs to increase resilience to better adapt to pending climate change. This requires bigger culverts, roads better able to withstand flooding, and emergency planning to ensure that critical transportation services keep operating through the coming storms.

There is one thing that can simultaneously address these five issues:

Improved transportation across the GTA

By looking at transportation, holistically enormous benefits can accrue across the economy.

With a high-speed rapid transit system along Highway 407 and fast corridors along Yonge Street, the QEW, and Highway 6, all universities from Trent, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, University of Toronto, York, Ryerson, Guelph, Waterloo, Wilfred Laurier, Brock and McMaster, along with 20 community colleges, could be connected. The goal should be to link all of these post-secondary institutions, and major health centres, so that a trip to or from the Toronto core could be completed regularly and in less than an hour. Frequent, safe, reliable, high-speed, WiFi-enabled, rapid transit can serve as the region’s urban skeleton. Employment, education and entertainment nodes would pop up in strategic locations. These could be hardened to serve as emergency centres.

With students more easily able to move between universities; libraries, laboratories, courses and research could be better shared. Add easy links to major health care facilities and students and the elderly especially become more mobile. With a rapid transit corridor along key highways it’s also much easier to bring in self-drive electric vehicles. This gives the elderly a far greater chance of staying mobile (contributing longer to the economy and reducing costs of health-care provision).

Better emergency preparedness and transportation infrastructure are critical aspects of Ontario’s climate adaptation strategy. The biggest possible productivity shot in Ontario’s arm is to get more people interacting with each other. Cities grow, and wealth is generated as people meet, strategize, learn and work together. Make it easier for people to work together and the economy benefits enormously.

A stronger GTA is also one of the best ways to help cities like Ottawa, Kingston, Windsor and Thunder Bay. As the world urbanizes, with most of the growth in Asia and Africa, there is a premium on larger cities. The GTA will increasingly be called on to buttress Canada’s economy (as will Montreal).

Strengthening Ontario’s transportation systems, will improve our productivity, the coordination of universities, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase resilience and prepare for a changing climate, as well as prepare for a community with more than twice as many elderly than today. We need to move much more quickly, especially when there’s an opportunity like a ‘five-for-one’ offer.

Filed under: Sustainability 101