Automobile Urbanism and the Reclamation of Public Space

An Essay by Nikola Miloradovic

Audio Transcription

Automobile Urbanism


Living in a North American city, it is common to take for granted the most prevalent conditions that structure and determine our daily lives. One condition of interest that has a major role in city planning is the automobile. This is not only a device for movement, giving the freedom of speed and private transportation. The car is a tool of convenience and has a lasting effect on all inhabitants that come in contact with it. Architecture is planned around it. The city is structured and grows through the possibilities afforded by it. And the lifestyle here is dependent on it. This is true even more so than ever during this global pandemic.

The automobile is essential to the upper-middle class North American lifestyle, especially in the cold winters of Canada and our current pandemic life. We do not only travel with it, from A to B. We eat in it. We shop from it. We work from within. Discuss and hold meetings. We can now go to art exhibits in the car. Christmas drive-thrus. Cinema from the car. It is a floating space, a moving space. An extension not only of the human but of the house. On the city-scale, it is a pocket-able version of the home, that we can take anywhere with us. We feel comfortable in it. A new type of convenience is offered to us within this moving pseudo-private space, and a societal dependency is created. What are the necessary conditions for a pleasurable experience within the automobile? Security, isolation, separation from the outside world. No sounds, no smells, no feeling of the exterior conditions. Definitely no tastes other than what we decide. Only vision. And that of serene, seamless, speed.

Typical climate control dashboard on a contemporary vehicle. Photo by Nikola Miloradovic.

The spaces of Toronto have long been resultant due to the advent of automobile urbanism. Relative to their European counterparts, the settlers of Canada had no nostalgia for the ancient city plans of Europe. Into the future, they rode, and laid out a city in the name of efficiency. Only hindered by the natural features of the valleys and ravines, this new city would spell out convenience and pragmatism, the cornerstones of a young society on the brink of a great industrial revolution. Throughout the 19th century, Toronto gradually expanded outwards from the lake, country farms, and forests in the North, distributed into rationalized rectangular plots lined by concession roads. As the population grew, the era of the automobile rolled into Canada and soon became very popular in the city. Toronto even had its own assembly plant and showroom at the intersection of Dupont and Christie, producing the incredibly popular and affordable Ford Model T. From the showroom’s opening in 19151 to the post-war city of the 1960s, the automobile became a household device, and city inhabitants began experiencing the city like never before.

So, with a city increasingly becoming cluttered and congested with vehicles, the car is given priority, and public space starts to transform into less body-centric and more car-centric infrastructure. Tracing the history of drive-thrus and drive-ins, we can observe a complete denial of public space in Toronto. Sidewalks, a sliver in proportion to the street, are set to a bare minimum width to satisfy planning requirements. Public squares, the rare ones not converted into extremely profitable parking lots, are mostly barren, unused wind tunnels. Even our City Hall, the modernist structure designed in the late 1950s, seems to favour this new advent of automobiles. What should be the gem of the city, where culture, civic discussion, and celebration all come together, the building instead presents a long curving ramp scaled better for a machine to roll along its smooth surface than a minuscule human body.

As a society, we have given up entirely and come to understand the automobile as a given factor in the city. Our selective memory has chosen to block out livable examples of cities where cars are slightly less prioritized. Even Rome, the mother of all metropolises, having banned all automobiles within the centre of the historic city, does not stand as an example to Toronto. As Jean Baudrillard writes, “America is the original version of modernity. We [Europeans] are the dubbed or subtitled version.”2 So it’s a worthy debate how the future of transportation will play a role in our cities, and at what it will cost us. The obvious failure is the extent to which the lack of public space is experienced in Toronto.

There are many examples to choose from to illustrate the loss of space that we've endured due to the automobile. We could examine the growth of the city, out from the economic and cultural core to the green fields that we have paved over and onto which we've erected endless copies of suburbia; or the power-centres, the Foro Romano of today, where cars congregate to fill biblically sized parking lots to funnel our bodies through shopping malls, food courts and entertainment venues. To take it a step further, we have completely integrated the car into our lifestyles, “breakfast, movie, religious service, love, and death — the whole of life as a drive-in.”2

And if we thought that we have reached the end of this modernist dream, this delusion of a society moving towards the future in its sleek vehicle of speed and power, then we should reexamine the pandemic: a whole new set of amenities and experiences brought to the car-life. If we thought drive-thrus were seamless, then we have yet to experience curb-side pickup. No longer do we require to interact when we order from the car. Simply drive up, don’t even open your window, let the employees scan your barcode and they’ll deposit yet another unnecessary token of the outside world into your vehicle. This must be the end, the most efficient and soulless exchange possible, only short of a robotic exchange with no humans involved at all.

Canadian Tire employee scans an email code from a smartphone during a curb-side pickup. Photo by Nikola Miloradovic.

Not only has the pandemic created a new system of convenience for the car-dwellers, but it has also introduced a new sense of safety. What we see now is an exponentially separated class of car owners and the others. The other in this sense being anything outside of the car: service workers, pedestrians, the dangerous outside air; anything outside of the controlled comfort of the car interior. There is a new space created, where the environment can be micro-tuned, the sounds are isolated and dampened, and the exchange between yourself and the outside world is decided by the operator of the vehicle. The street is no longer a stage for the unexpected. Everything is planned, routed, managed by traffic control. The safe-zone is the one-metre radius within your car, and the danger-zone is everything outside.

How does this further shape our city? As a start, the space of consumption is separated into car-space for the fortunate and human-space for the less fortunate. Where the pandemic creates a fear of shared space and proximity to others, the car provides a safe space, separate from everyone else. But this space is inflated, much too large for the single operator of the vehicle. To necessitate an efficient service for the valued car-consumers, the outside space needs to be inflated, as well. Parking lots become plazas for picking up orders; streets become cues of cars waiting for deliveries; humans crossing become second-rate citizens, forced to fight for their own diminished space. As public spaces, as we know them, disappear, the car-owners adapt and develop a new alternative. Parking lots become a site of discussion and engagement. Whether it’s a short conversation with your parking neighbor, or a fast-food dinner with your family, the space of the car can accommodate any activity that was once enjoyed in the company of city residents.

Aerial of a shopping mall plaza parking lot. Photo by Nikola Miloradovic.

In the case of movement, the city has had to drastically transform to accommodate for this inflated car-space. As more congestion builds up with more vehicles being added to the roads, short-sighted solutions call for widened streets, adding to the feedback loop of the theft of human-space. We are then left with massive infrastructures that lack any sense of scale to the body. Infrastructures that feel perfectly fine, even inspirational while driving, yet hard to fathom when experienced on foot.

Eastern portion of the Gardiner Expressway, under the Don Valley Parkway merging ramp. Photo by Nikola Miloradovic.

The Gardiner Expressway

“To think of city traffic problems in oversimplified terms of pedestrians versus cars, and to fix on the segregation of each as a principal goal, is to go at the problem from the wrong end. Consideration for pedestrians in cities is inseparable from consideration for the city diversity, vitality and concentration of use. In the absence of city diversity, people in large settlements are probably better off in cars than on foot. Unmanageable city vacuums are by no means preferable to unmanageable city traffic.”
- Jane Jacobs3

A perfect example of the prioritization of the automobile and now apparent consequences is the conceptualization, realization, and lived experience of the Gardiner Expressway. In a pure move of ignorance on the part of city planners in the 1950s, the highway puts first the movement of automobiles and totally separates the downtown core from the waterfront of Lake Ontario. The construction of this massive infrastructure is a missed opportunity to create a connection between the urban fabric and the natural beauty of the lake. Initially built above industrial lands serving the railway, we now experience a mostly unusable space in an otherwise very dense and populated downtown core. What’s interesting, and somewhat expected too, is how contrasting the reality of the Gardiner is to the experience of driving it. Listen to anyone speak fondly of entering the city, especially at night, via Gardiner with the rhythmic lights lulling you into a hypnotized state of euphoria, and right away we can understand its purpose and importance within a driver’s life. But walk its grounds below, an act not even possible to the common pedestrian, and a whole new world opens up. It is precisely this lack of walkable space that has created a dead zone entirely ignored by city residents, a blind spot in the downtown that has been overlooked far too long.

With the popularity of the automobile surging in the mid 20th century, congestion was clogging up the streets of the city. Post-war Toronto deemed that further expansion of automobile infrastructure was the proper course of action to help the city deal with the 105,0004 cars driving through downtown on a daily basis. So in the mid-1950s, after years of discussion between the city and neighboring townships, the construction of the Gardiner Expressway began. The project was lead by Metro Toronto, a branch of the municipal city government which also included the neighboring towns, similarly affected by the congestion. The executive committee was led by Frederick Gardiner, hence the name of the highway. After a decade of construction, the area was presented as a pristine floating surface, entirely dedicated to the vehicle of the future. What was initially a breath of fresh air for the driving class, a seamless experience of effortless movement through the city, quickly turned into yet another congested through-way. From its completion in 1965, it only took three years for traffic to start accumulating and clogging the highway.5 Almost 60 years later and nothing has changed.

Today, city residents, especially the ones living and working in the downtown core, are faced with the reality of this behemoth covering the entire corridor of Lakeshore Boulevard. Nothing remotely representative of a boulevard, Torontonians have simply turned a blind eye to this corridor and traverse it as quickly as possible to reach the actual lakeshore. What’s even more unfortunate is that not only is it an eyesore to the pedestrians, but it acts as a physical barrier for anyone trying to cross its endless intersections. It could take more than eight minutes6 to cross a single intersection found under the Gardiner.

Along with its perpendicular crossing, there is also the condition of travelling parallel to the Gardiner. Like any major city, Toronto is well known for its corridors of arts, culture, music, finance, and natural features. If the North-South streets are seen as cross-sections of the city, cutting through its history and growth outwards from the lake, then the East-West lines are transverse sections, samples of specific communities or timestamps with highly unique characters. Take a ride along the Martin Goodman Trail following the Harbourfront, or walk along the Queen Street corridor for shopping, food, and countless cultural experiences. King Street, long being the financial hub of the city is another corridor of significance, just as much as Bloor Street, and the many others in between. So, it’s bizarre to think that Lakeshore Boulevard is so bland and difficult to traverse; it doesn't even fit the architectural description of a boulevard: “a wide street in a town or city, typically one lined with trees.” To even attempt to walk this decrepit space of concrete piers and barren gravel lands is riddled with difficulties. There is no direct path, but a collection of dead-end sidewalks, sad crosswalks to nowhere, and a reality of zig-zagging back and forth under the highway to avoid the endless construction of repair work on this dying monster. Not to mention the unbearable unbearable sound of the constant flow of speeding vehicles.

Lakeshore Boulevard seen under Eastern portion of Gardiner Expressway. Photo by Nikola Miloradovic.

But none of this should be a surprise. It simply points to the mentality of the city, that it was never meant to be used as a pedestrian space, but simply a vehicular one. No one would ever consciously try to walk this area and observe it, much less enjoy it or conceive of a use other than an inaccessible intersection. What we are left with now are poorly lit, oddly shaped and severely monotonous spaces to be renewed or reinvented, in the words of unimaginative developers looking to spotlight their new investments along the Gardiner.

Certain solutions have started to appear in the last decade as a response to the failure of this space, but it’s only a hint at reclamation. The best-known space is "The Bentway" under the Western portion of the Gardiner, currently found between Fort York Boulevard and Strachan Avenue. A space that’s quite popular, mostly for exercising, it definitely benefits from the increased height of the highway above the ground, as well as the generous Garrison Common Park immediately to the North. There are no other spaces like it under the Gardiner, with so much light reaching the ground. The rest are merely attempts at attracting people to so-called public spaces, way too dark, and extremely loud from the reflected drone of automobiles above. Cheap solutions like lighting installations or murals painted on the crumbling concrete are never going to give back space to the pedestrians of the city. Major work needs to be done, and where demolition is not an option, then a huge reworking needs to be considered, like the proposed Rail Deck Park but for the Gardiner instead. Somehow, the constant drone needs to be dampened, and driving popularity needs to be reduced, while the beauty of walking and enjoying city spaces on foot needs to be reintroduced, if we are to return our city back to us humans.

Reclamation

Maybe it’s unfair to criticize the city and its decisions so strongly on such a small portion of its history. Like any metropolis, this collection of people all living together in the same space will likely last hundreds, if not thousands, of years to come, and endlessly redefine itself over the course. This portion of the city, this failed corridor, is only a snippet of the large picture, a smudge in the grand painting called Toronto. Generations who have watched the failures of today will enter the scene and push aside the ideas of the past, to work towards a better space, more inclusive and accessible.

And it’s not only the Gardiner due for reevaluation, but all of the spaces in the city where the automobile is given priority. Could we dare to imagine a city where car transportation is pushed to the edges of the city or even underground as Elon Musk proposes7, and to give back the city to humans? What if entire neighborhoods were cordoned off, and only cyclists and pedestrians were allowed to pass through? Leave the streetcars, quiet and respectful as they are, as a means for efficient travel through certain larger corridors, and the rest can be left for foot travel. Imagine the possibilities that would arise with this kind of attitude to city planning. We already see it today with outdoor patios encroaching on street-space to provide for socially distancing customers looking for a restaurant or bar to sit at. It’s almost as if the natural response to such drastic lockdown measures is a simple reclamation of outdoor space to maintain a healthy civic balance of the private and the public.

Maybe there will be a day when we will no longer be limited to the sliver of concrete called the sidewalk, but rather have vast open corridors to explore and enjoy on foot. What if we were able to roam the streets, encounter natural spaces and features, enjoy a picnic in the middle of the road where nature has started to reclaim its land; what if we decided that we didn’t want to be consumers that day, but still had ample space to enjoy the city with friends and family? It’s a dream for now, but maybe we can slowly work towards public-oriented designs, where the options for the car are slim or non-existent entirely. It would take example after example, and attempt after attempt to begin to create this reality, but maybe it would catch on, and maybe with enough momentum, we could finally reclaim our space back from automobile urbanism.

Works Cited

1"Bits of History” under “HISTORY”, Faema Canada website, http://faemamdd.com/faemawebsite/History.html
2 Jean Baudrillard, “America” (Verso, 2010), 82,69
3 Jane Jacobs, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (Vintage Books, 1992), 348-349.
4 “About the Gardiner Expressway” under “History”, City of Toronto website, https://www.toronto.ca/services-payments/streets-parking-transportation/road-maintenance/bridges-and-expressways/expressways/gardiner-expressway/about-the-gardiner-expressway/
5 “Gardiner Expressway: Dreams and milestones” (The Toronto Star, May 6, 2000), B4.
6 Sean Marshall, “This Intersection Takes More Than Eight Minutes to Legally Cross and Shows What’s Wrong with the Gardiner” (The Torontoist, September 22, 2016), https://torontoist.com/2016/09/gardiner-expressway-a-barrier-to-the-waterfront/
7 5Matt McFarland, “Elon Musk’s tunnel project hit a milestone. But the future is unclear.” (CNN Business, June 12, 2020), https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/12/business/vegas-musk-boring-company/index.html

Nikola Miloradovic is a student currently completing his Master of Architecture at the Architectural Association (AA) in London, UK. His thesis focuses on the social alienation that has proliferated through Toronto due to the disintegration of public space as a result of the priority given to the automobile. The work is based in architectural and urban theory while presented as a short documentary film in the style of Cinéma Vérité.

Reach Nikola on Instagram @niko_milo.