How to get the inner suburbs moving

Before we broke for the holidays, Imagine a City touched briefly on a surprising statistic that came out of the Toronto’s Chief Planner’s Roundtable last autumn: Up to 60 percent of residents in some of Toronto’s inner-suburban tower neighbourhoods don’t have a driver’s license. (City-wide, most neighbourhoods come in between 20 and 40 percent.)

The easiest way to get a handle on the issue is visually, so thanks to Global News for this map, showing that it’s precisely the parts of the city with the least transit access—distant from current and planned subway and streetcar lines—where residents are also least likely to drive.

These are neighbourhoods that were built around the automobile—when they were designed in the 1950s and ’60s, it was assumed that residents would use cars for most daily tasks. As a result, distances between employment, homes, shops and community spaces are often huge, transit service is less frequent, and, as architect Graeme Stewart wrote at Imagine a City in 2012, pedestrian infrastructure is lacking: sidewalks suddenly end, fences block shortcuts, and cul-de-sacs often make it impossible to walk straight from one destination to another.

Pedestrian amenities are few and far between in many of Toronto's tower neighbourhoods

Pedestrian amenities are few and far between in many of Toronto’s tower neighbourhoods

Limited mobility, of course, makes nearly every other barrier faced in these neighbourhoods even more pressing.

To take just one example: many of these communities have been identified as “food deserts,”  where large grocery stores or other sources of fresh, healthy, affordable food are sparse or non-existent.

Research by the Martin Prosperity Institute indicates that a neighbourhood as little as one kilometer from a major grocery store counts as a food desert:

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That might not seem very far, but a round trip, on foot, in all kinds of weather, can be a major trek (especially with an armful of groceries). Instead, shopping at nearby corner stores and fast-food restaurants are the more convenient ways to feed a family.

In the fall, the Planner’s Roundtable featured a number of suggestions for tackling these problems, many of which are echoed in United Way’s research on tower neighbourhoods: enabling grassroots and resident-led businesses, encouraging flexible zoning to permit more commercial and community spaces closer to homes, and, of course, improving transit.

Join the discussion in the comments, and share your ideas on how getting around can get easier for the 500,000-plus Torontonians living in our tower neighbourhoods.