The Centre for Urban & Community Studies at the University of Toronto recently published a bulletin entitled The Three Cities within Toronto: Income polarization among Toronto’s neighbourhoods, 1970–2000. This is an important look at the evolution of Toronto’s economy and social structure, with a widening gap between the well-off and the poor.
The authors reviewed the evolution of individual incomes by census tract across the 416 to see which areas showed rises and falls relative to the average level for the “Census Metropolitan Area”. (The CMA includes part of the 905, but is part of the overall employment area for people living in the 416, the City of Toronto proper.)
What emerges is a pattern they describe as “The Three Cities”.
In City 1, incomes have gone up 20% or more than average. No surprise about the areas making up this City: the Yonge Street corridor from Sheppard to downtown, the Annex, the new King West and Railway lands, the Beach and The Kingsway.
In City 2, incomes have stayed within 20% plus or minus of the average.
City 3, where incomes have dropped 20% or more below the average is concentrated in the outer suburbs plus parts of Thorncliffe Park, Flemingdon Park, Don Mills, York/Weston and west central Etobicoke.
This is a troubling pattern, almost the exact opposite of many large US cities over the postwar decades when downtown was abandoned by the wealthy and became the exclusive preserve of the poor. In Toronto, suburbs built for the middle class exodus have converted to ghettos for a largely immigrant community for whom the forest of high-rise buildings are the only affordable housing.
These suburbs were built by councils who believed in the classic 1950s vision of home ownership and the car in every driveway. Social services were not needed because people requiring them were far away downtown in the “old” city. The governance of Toronto with separate suburban and city councils reinforced this attitude, and even now the makeup of Council does not reflect the people living in those suburbs.
The evolution of the Three Cities is particularly striking for the gradual decline of the group whose incomes are close to the average. In brief, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, but the situation is actually more complex.
The largest growth in population over three decades lies in City 3 where high-density rental development absorbed a huge wave of immigration. The new population worked in poorer-paying jobs thereby driving down the average income for their neighbourhoods from the days of white, middle-class suburbia. At the same time, this jump in population transformed suburbs like Scarborough and Etobicoke into major cities at a time when investment in public services like transit was falling.
One notable problem for City 3 is the relatively poor level of transit service and the almost complete absence of rapid transit. The subway network (and GO for the 905 area as well) concentrates on getting large number of people from City 1 and City 2 where they want to go while City 3 must make do with bus service as and when it shows up. Commuters in City 3 tend to have much longer work trips both in time and distance, and they are doubly penalized by the poor transit service.
Oddly enough, the modal split for the Three Cities is almost equal with about 1/3 of work trips made by public transit. Despite relatively poor service, the populus in City 3 takes transit as much as the better-served denizens of Cities 2 and 1. The bulletin does not address this question being socioeconomic study where transportation issues are secondary. All the same, it would be intriguing to know the degree to which the quality and quantity of transit service in each of the Three Cities affects modal choices, and how big the latent market is in each case.
Where does Transit City fit in? Almost all of the Transit City corridors serve City 3 and parts of City 2 (especially when the Kingston Road line, not yet formally part of Transit City, is included). City 1 is served only by the Eglinton Line, inevitable because it crosses the Yonge Street corridor, but Cities 2 and 3 contain much more of that route.
Clearly there is a demand for better transit in the suburbs and not just to get to the office towers of King & Bay. Running a few more buses here and there is not going to make much difference in the overall quality and speed of travel in the outer 416. Transit City will, I hope, be about more than just building infrastructure, but of fundamentally improving what passes for acceptable service in the suburbs.
The Three Cities bulletin is good reading, if only to quantify patterns evident to anyone who has watched the evolution of Toronto and the growth of its suburbs. Alas, we don’t have comparable information for the inner 905 because most of it was farmland in 1970, and I hope that someone will take up the challenge of tracking change beyond the 416 boundary.
Probably the saddest commentary on this situation comes in a quotation from Metro’s Suburbs in Transition which, in the late 1970s, identified the coming change from low-rise, owner-occupied traditional neighbourhoods to the high-rise suburbs we know today. For 30 years, much planning served a model of suburban development that was obsolete, and transit’s secondary status reflected this. (This report, quaint to modern eyes for its absence of computer graphics, is chilling for the portrait it paints, 30 years ago, of the ills of the developing suburbs that would be ignored in decades to come.)
As we redevelop the suburbs with “The Avenues” and the Official Plan’s view of widespread use of medium-rise buildings, will this benefit all of City 3, or simply mask its decline possibly by pushing the least fortunate beyond the 416 border?
Transit City is no panacea, but it can help by focussing resources for car-free mobility outside of the core area. The future of Toronto depends on our looking beyond the gleaming new condo towers to the outer city in all of the services we provide, transit included.