Toronto’s construction season traffic is ‘unacceptable.’ Is there a better way?

Gardiner Expressway construction
Click to play video: 'Toronto’s construction ‘catch up’ means ‘unacceptable’ traffic. What’s the solution?'
Toronto’s construction ‘catch up’ means ‘unacceptable’ traffic. What’s the solution?
WATCH - Toronto’s construction ‘catch up’ means ‘unacceptable’ traffic. What’s the solution? – May 6, 2024

Sun’s out, shovels out.

As the warm weather sets in, Toronto will welcome its unofficial fifth season: construction season.

Workers will be outside taking advantage of the weather to get all sorts of projects done, such as road maintenance and sewer upgrades.

However, the season is notorious for its traffic congestion, and with the amount of work going on, planning experts say better execution is needed to reduce the impact on people’s lives.

“Disruption for a day, week or month is understandable. Disruption for five years to your life is something unacceptable,” said Murtaza Haider, a professor of management at Toronto Metropolitan University and director of the Urban Analytics Institute.

“The kind of systems we have put in place (and) the kind of oversights we have put in place are not necessarily conducive for rapid, fast execution and delivery of transit infrastructure or transportation infrastructure.”

Construction season becoming ‘365 days a year’

Every spring, construction crews take to the streets of many Ontario cities to begin work on projects, taking advantage of the warm weather because some work can’t be done during the cold months, said Matti Siemiatycki, a professor of geography and planning and director of the Infrastructure Institute at the University of Toronto.

The Gardiner Expressway is reduced to a pair of lane in each direction between Stratchan and Dufferin for work at in Toronto. April 16, 2024. Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Last year, work during Toronto’s construction season was pegged at $1.14 billion, and involved maintenance and upgrades to roads, bridges, expressways, TTC tracks, sewers and watermains.


But nowadays, Toronto residents are beginning to see projects planned for year-round work.

For example, parts of the city’s Gardiner Expressway were recently reduced by one lane in each direction for “critical rehabilitation work” over the next three years. The lanes will reopen in 2026, albeit temporarily for the FIFA World Cup, before being reduced again.

Click to play video: 'Toronto planning experts call for better execution to reduce construction season impacts'
Toronto planning experts call for better execution to reduce construction season impacts

Furthermore, King Street West between Joe Shuster Way and Mowat Avenue, was closed to all traffic on April 29 for work on TTC streetcar tracks. That work began in February, and is expected to be completed in November.

“We’re now into construction season being 365 days a year,” Siemiatycki told Global News Toronto.

“Part of the reason we have so much going on right now is because we’ve often underinvested in the upkeep and maintenance of our infrastructure, and over time it wears down and it needs to be kept up. We’re now trying to play catch up and do it all at once.”

Commuter frustration rampant

This year-round construction is making it “increasingly challenging” to get around, Siemiatycki said.

It doesn’t take too long either to find commuters venting about Toronto’s congestion, which was recently ranked in a new report as one of the worst cities in the world for traffic.

“Construction and traffic in Toronto has to be like top 3 worst in the world easily,” @rameez08 wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, last Monday.

“Worst traffic ever… going to #Toronto. The whole province and the GTA is under construction!!! It’s going to be a long summer!” said X user @IanMcE1 on April 12.

Click to play video: 'Lane closures begin soon for Gardiner Expressway rehabilitation work'
Lane closures begin soon for Gardiner Expressway rehabilitation work

Haider said people can be stressed by the “inability” to know how much congestion they may face when trying to get around a city facing as much construction like Toronto.

“This is what is happening because they lose control over their lives, they lose control over their meetings and that creates lots of problems,” he told Global News Toronto.

When we do construction, and it’s inevitable … it has to be done in a mindful, planned way where we actually advise people. There’s not much communication that happens these days other than the fact that these two lanes will be closed for the next six months.”

People walk past road woark in Toronto on May 17, 2023. Rachel Verbin/The Canadian Press

Congestion was a major theme during Toronto’s 2023 mayoral byelection, with candidates promising to improve city streets riddled with delays from housing projects, transit expansions and maintenance construction.

The eventual winner, Olivia Chow, pledged to tackle the problem by expanding cycling infrastructure and walkable communities to reduce reliance on cars. She also said she would use technology to improve traffic snarls.


Can construction season become less disruptive?

Both Siemiatycki and Haider stressed smooth planning is essential for a less disruptive construction season, but with the amount of work a city like Toronto faces, that itself is becoming a challenge.

Siemiatycki said construction and asset management works best when it’s done on a regular basis, not when it’s started, stalled or stopped.

“We really need to make sure that once a job starts, it’s planned out; that all of the supply chain issues, all the equipment, all of the materials and the workforce is there, and it can go as quickly as possible,” he said.

“If you’re cutting up a road, (make sure) you’re also replacing the water main, you’re also doing any upgrades to the telecommunication infrastructure … so that these streets are not being torn up twice or three times within a relatively short period of time. That’s when people become immensely frustrated.”

Siemiatycki also floated the idea of modular construction, a process in which infrastructure parts are built off site and brought to the job ready for install.

There’s also the possibility of 24/7 work on certain jobs, which Ontario’s transportation minister recently pitched to speed up work on the Gardiner. Chow said she was supportive of 24/7 work, as long as it doesn’t disturb residents living near the expressway, but Siemiatycki said going that route is more expensive.

“Can we do it faster? Can we hire more folks? I’m willing to examine that,” Chow said on April 19.

“I thank the minister for wanting us to do it faster and sooner, and we thank the provincial government because it’s their new deal – they are helping us finance some of the construction so whenever we can partner together we’ll absolutely do so.”

Click to play video: 'Adelaide and Bay intersection closure leads to more Toronto congestion woes'
Adelaide and Bay intersection closure leads to more Toronto congestion woes

Haider preached effective communication as another solution.

“Not everybody received your first letter that you mailed four years ago that said construction will be going on for three years. People move, people lose letters, people don’t remember,” he said.

“This kind of information should be displayed (and) communicated. Keep talking to the people about the disruptions that you have planned in their lives. Don’t take it for granted.”

At the end of the day, consistency of investment is priority No. 1, Siemiatycki said.

Click to play video: 'Toronto has the worst congestion in North America: report'
Toronto has the worst congestion in North America: report

He added investments in preventative asset management can stave off the period under which work requires much more major rehabilitation.

It’s often the case that in times of financial challenges, it’s maintenance of our infrastructure that’s the first place to cut. … It’s not always politically attractive to cut a ribbon on a maintenance job, whereas on new infrastructure it can be really appealing,” he said.

“People (will) start to see those (cuts) when you’re at the community centre and there’s buckets because the roof has been leaking, or in the roads where there’s giant potholes. … There’s just all of these different impacts when we don’t invest consistently in the management of our assets.”


— with files from Isaac Callan