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Ontario’s return to the business of building roads to sprawl

Ontario’s return to the business of building roads to sprawl

Twenty-five years ago, Mike Harris’s “common sense revolution” heralded a of shredding the province’s planning rules, and proposals for a network of highway expansions in every direction outward across the Greater Toronto Area.

The government’s plans prompted a backlash. Harris’ approach was widely seen as a strategy for sprawling urban development that threatened the Oak Ridges Moraine and other prime agricultural and natural heritage lands and would embed growing traffic congestion and smog for decades to come.

The Harris government eventually beat a partial retreat on its approach to planning — most evident in the development and adoption of the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act and Plan — and made a deathbed embrace of the concept of “smart growth.” But its highway plans continued, including a GTA West Corridor, a Bradford Bypass linking Highways 400 and 404, northwards extensions of Highways 427 and 404, and a Mid-Peninsula Highway through the Niagara Region.

Following its 2003 election victory, the incoming Liberal government established the GTA Greenbelt, revised the province’s planning rules, and adopted a “Growth Plan” for the region.

As part of the 2006 Growth Plan, many of the highway projects, including the Bradford Bypass and Highway 427 extensions were dropped on the grounds that they would do nothing but facilitate automobile-dependent urban sprawl across the region. The GTA West/413 and Mid-Peninsula projects were also eventually abandoned as uneconomic and environmentally destructive throwbacks to a different age.

Now fast forward to 2021. Mike Harris is no longer premier, but Doug Ford is, and his government’s highway-focussed, developer-friendly approach to planning seems to be going far beyond even the Harris government’s imagination.

The revival of major parts of the abandoned GTA highway network expansion program has emerged as a central component of the Ford government’s re-election strategy. The Vaughan to Milton 413/GTA West Corridor, and the 404 to 400 Bradford Bypass/Holland Marsh Highway have been at the forefront of the government’s plans.

Both projects would run through the agricultural and natural heritage lands of GTA Greenbelt and are widely seen as likely to enable sprawling automobile-dependent development patterns far into the future.

The Ford government’s political calculus around the highway projects appears to be grounded in an assumption that these projects will appeal to suburban voters, particularly in the 905 region. The possibility of a backlash in the region against the development that will go with these projects seems to have been discounted — although such a response to the same kinds of proposals was a factor that contributed to the downfall of the Harris government a generation earlier.

The government’s approach seems premised on an assumption that voters have forgotten this history and are unaware that developers and speculators have already bought most of the land along the proposed routes for the 413 and Bradford Bypass.

The “induced demand“ typically prompted by new highways is already waiting in the wings to take up whatever capacity these projects add almost as soon as they are built. At a regional level, both projects will simply dump more drivers and trucks into the already intensely congested 401/400 and 401/404 intersections further south.

The management of the burgeoning economic and population growth and resulting urban development in the Greater Toronto Area has been one of the defining features of the province’s politics for decades. The region holds Canada’s largest concentration of prime agricultural lands, as well as major natural heritage features like the Oak Ridges Moraine and Niagara Escarpment.

Uncontrolled urban growth threatens these resources and is widely seen to embed unsustainable infrastructure maintenance costs, deepen traffic congestion problems, increase transportation-related emissions of greenhouse gases and smog precursors and reinforce social divisions.

Yet, as in so many other things, the Ford government offers no vision for a path forward for the region other than to reach far into the past. The Harris government learned that such an approach is neither practically or politically viable in the longer term.

Planning and infrastructure decisions affect the shape of communities for decades, even centuries to come. Ontarians need serious, transparent and accountable infrastructure planning processes, based on clear and consistent rules designed to advance the environmental, social and economic sustainability of their communities, not the interests of developers and speculators.

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