Streets paved with gold: urban expressway building and global city formation in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

Author:Perl, Anthony


Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver are Canada's most significant locations of global city formation today. Their distinctive spatial development and mobility mix were greatly influenced by decisions regarding inner-city expressway building. This article explores the hypothesis that choices made regarding how to move motor vehicles through Canada's three major metropolitan areas between 1960 and 1980 can be better understood by examining the dynamics of global city formation in these jurisdictions.

Montreal implemented a comprehensive expressway network to align with its status as Canada's leading global city during the 1960s. Toronto's attempt to complete an expressway network was partial, reflecting fragmentary global city aspirations during the 1970s. Vancouver, where global city ambitions only began to form during the 1980s, cancelled urban expressway plans and became Canada's 'freeway-free' major city. New insight into the structure of these cities can be gained when a global city analytical framework is applied to their urban expressway development experience.

Keywords: global cities, urban development policy, urban highway conflicts, urban transportation


Aujourd'hui, Montreal, Toronto et Vancouver sont les villes globales au Canada. Leur developpement spatial particulier et la mixite caracteristique de leurs moyens de mobilite ont ete largement influences par decisions prises dans le cadre de la construction d'autoroutes urbaines. Cet article examine l'hypothese selon laquelle les choix relatifs au trafic automobile dans les trois grandes metropoles canadiennes entre 1960 et 1980, sont comprehensibles en etudiant les dynamiques de formation des villes mondiales dans chacune de ces juridictions.

Dans les annees 1960, Montreal a mis en place un reseau autoroutier complet pour affirmer son statut de ville mondiale de premier plan. La tentative partielle de Toronto refletait son aspiration moyenne a devenir une ville mondiale au cours des annees 1970. Vancouver, dont les ambitions de ville mondiale datent seulement des annees 1980, a quant a elle annule ses projets d'autoroutes urbaines et est devenue la grande ville canadienne sans autoroutes. Ce developpement autoroutier inegal nous offre l'occasion de comprendre pourquoi les dynamiques spatiales de ces villes ont evolue selon des trajectoires differentes. Notamment en analysant le developpement des autoroutes urbaines a la lumiere des perspectives propres a chaque metropole, sur son statut de ville globale emergente.

Mots cles: villes mondiales, politique de developpement urbain, conflits d'autoroutes urbaines


Freeways or 'expressways' are important elements in shaping urban form and transportation patterns in cities (Mumford 1963; Newman and Kenworthy 1999). Four decades after distinct quantities and configurations of expressways were built in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, the urban transportation and development impacts have become apparent (Germain and Rose 2000; Frisken 1994; Kaplan 1982; Raad and Kenworthy 1999). We argue here that these development trajectories can be better understood by re-examining the forces that have shaped urban expressway construction in the 1960s and 1970s.

While the effect of expressways on Canadian land use has resembled experiences across North America, the degree to which Canada's three largest metropolitan centres have arrived at different balances of preserving urban space and building expressway infrastructure during the 20th century calls for explanation. This article applies global city theory to develop a new perspective on these variations. We propose that the different mobility development paths followed by Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver depend on the timing of their integration into global cultural, financial and communication networks, which influenced both their capacity and motivation to deploy urban expressways. Our close examination of these three cities at the specific historical juncture when expressways entered the urban transportation agenda both illuminates their divergent paths, and sheds light on the spatial and social constructions of each mobility trajectory.

The characteristic global city formations of Canada's three major cities have been widely acknowledged domestically (Lightbody 2005) and internationally (Globalization and World Cities Research Network 2012) and Canada's major cities have long been recognised as having a distinctive set of characteristics (Goldberg and Mercer 1986). Each city regularly appears highly ranked in global 'best city' polls and all three are frequently cited by urbanists, planners and politicians as worth emulating (Economist 2011; Mercer 2014; Harcourt and Cameron 2007). Although still more auto-dependent than most European and Asian cities, Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto each exhibit lower automobile use and higher reliance on sustainable transport options (e.g., bike, walk, public transit) than any major U.S. city aside from New York (Statistics Canada 2006; Newman and Kenworthy 1999). When one compares whole metropolitan areas, as opposed to just the core, each of these three perform better in sustainable transport metrics than even the New York Tri-State metropolitan area (Kenworthy and Laube 2001).

Even without a national expressway building program to foster policy convergence, as occurred in the United States (Squires 2008), another source of exogenous influence in shaping Canada's big city expressway development has been the drive to attain, retain, or forgo a recognized place among global cities. Previous research into Canada's urban highway building has examined local and provincial policy dynamics (Frisken 1994; Kaplan 1982; Bourne 2000; Pendakur 1972; Lee 2007; Leo 1977; Colcord 1987), including the role of community organizing, citizen activism, municipal politics and provincial development agendas. These assessments, however, paid little attention to the role that global linkages and aspirations might have in Canada's urban transportation decision-making. Differing approaches to global city formation in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver can be seen to have affected critical decisions that were taken about how to respond to growing urban automobile travel during the 1960s and 1970s.

Variations in expressway development

Across many fields of enquiry, Canadian researchers have investigated developments, trends and outcomes in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, focusing on these three cities as legitimate fields for urban research on a global scale. In a study of housing price inflation on home ownership in Canadian cities, Harris (1986:302) wrote that "Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver have been selected in part for their intrinsic importance." A considerable body of urban research has accumulated that compares and contrasts these cities to reveal important insights into subjects as diverse as: immigration patterns (Hou and Bourne 2006; McDonald 2004; Newbold 1996); housing (Mah and Hackworth 2011; Skaburskis and Moos 2008; Haan 2005; Downs 1997); growth management (Turcotte and Vezina 2010; Shearmur et al. 2007; Tomalty 1997), and quality of life (Murdie 2008; Frenette and Sceviour 2004; Mason 2003). We join this analytical trajectory in search of insights into the relationship between expressway building and the global city dynamics in Canada's three largest cities.

While the kind of major road infrastructure needed to move vehicles rapidly through a city can be expected to exert a significant impact on urban form and function, the effects of Canada's urban road building can be harder to identify due to the inconsistent terminology that has been applied to their design. Unlike nationally planned and financed highway networks (e.g., the German autobahn and U.S. Interstate Highways (1)), specifications that distinguish an "expressway" from other road configurations are not officially promulgated in Canada. Canadian expressways often blend into boulevards and other major arterial roads when they transect urban areas. Understanding how the expressway infrastructure that reshaped urban development around the world has influenced Canada's cities requires a clear and comparable measurement of the extent to which Canadian municipalities introduced controlled access (i.e., no direct entry from adjacent property), fully grade-separated automotive infrastructure into their urban space.

We have selected the expressway as the road infrastructure category that reveals the clearest evidence for a priority on motor vehicle movement through an urban area. Expressway infrastructure has been clearly defined by the Transportation Association of Canada (TAC 1995), a non-governmental organization that promulgates "technical guidelines and best practices" in transport infrastructure (Transportation Association of Canada n.d.). TAC's Urban Supplement to the Geometric Design Guide for Canadian Roads recommends a specific set of physical characteristics for expressways. These include grade separation, traffic volume, restricted access to adjacent lands, and minimum traffic speed (2) (Transportation Association of Canada 1995: U.A. 16-17).

Applying the TAC definition, we then measured centre-line length for expressway infrastructure on street maps published by Perly (1990), Rolph-McNally Ltd. (1983), and the City of Vancouver's Planning Department (1991). (3) These maps provided sufficient detail to differentiate expressways from other road infrastructure. We assembled a chronology of all expressway infrastructure that was inaugurated within each city's municipal boundary, beginning in 1958 when infrastructure that met the TAC expressway definition was first introduced in Toronto. (4) We then worked backwards, calculating a total municipal expressway length derived from maps published between 1988 and 1991, when expressway networks had stopped growing within all three cities' boundaries, although expressway construction has continued in the suburban periphery...

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