What On Earth

Proposed new Toronto-area highway comes at a high cost to environment and personal health, say critics

Supporters of a proposed new highway near Toronto say it will relieve the gridlock experienced by long-suffering commuters in Ontario — but for how long? What on Earth takes a close look at the debate, and what it tells us about urban sprawl, green spaces and human health.

Supporters say Highway 413 will ease congestion, but critics say it will actually make it worse

Vehicles driving down a street.
Cars makes their way along a congested highway in Toronto on April 26, 2007. Proponents of a new highway plan say it will help alleviate congestion, but critics say it will actually do the opposite, while also contributing to climate change. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

The Ontario government's proposal to build a highway through the northwest of the Greater Toronto Area could cause a cascade of environmental and health problems for people living in the region and beyond, according to several experts and residents.

"If you were trying ... to make the greenhouse gas emission problem worse, this would be a very, very good strategy to follow," Mark Winfield, a professor of environmental and urban change at York University in Toronto, told What on Earth host Laura Lynch.

Highway 413, a proposed four-to-six lane highway known as the GTA West Transportation Corridor, could cut through the York, Peel and Halton regions of Ontario. 

On Friday, 59 scientists — including Winfield —  sent a letter to Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, urging the federal government to conduct an environmental assessment of the proposed highway.

"Emissions from transportation are the largest and fastest-growing source of GHGs [greenhouse gas emissions] in Ontario. Nearly all these emissions come from fossil fuel use in vehicles. A new 400-series highway — which will incentivize car-use — will make the climate crisis worse," the letter reads.

The Ontario government's preferred route for Highway 413, running from Highway 400 in Vaughan and curving west to where Highways 401 and 407 meet in Halton. (ontario.ca)

The letter cited a 2020 environmental assessment by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), which found over 1,000 hectares of land "identified as important for local wildlife movement … will either be removed or intersected by the proposed highway."

It also cited Canadian environmental law charity Ecojustice, which said the proposed highway would "destroy" forests that support wildlife and plants; and "partially destroy 75 wetlands, 28 of which are designated by the Province as provincially significant."

Wilkinson had not publicly responded to the letter at the time of publication.

In an email statement, a spokesperson for Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said the province plans to conduct an environmental assessment of its own.

"Without strong action, the projected population growth ... will overwhelm our existing infrastructure and make life more expensive for working families," the statement continued. "We need our roads infrastructure to keep up."

The highway, in its current form, was first proposed 15 years ago, until it was shelved in 2018 by the Liberal government under then-premier Kathleen Wynne, before being resurrected by Doug Ford's government.

Mark Winfield is a professor of environmental and urban change at York University in Toronto. (Submitted by Mark Winfield)

Winfield calls it "the zombie highway," noting that the origins of the proposal go back all the way to the 1950s, when it was proposed as a connection between the GTA and the Kitchener-Guelph area.

His gravest warning is that it will only spread urban sprawl, leading to increased use of single-occupant vehicles that will contribute to greenhouse gas emissions over time.

Several municipal councils, including Toronto, Mississauga and Orangeville, have either voiced opposition to the plan or called for an environmental assessment.

Will 413 alleviate traffic, or make it worse?

As a trucker for Mackie Transportation based in Oshawa, Ont., Greg Heasman, who crisscrosses the province on the 401 and other existing highways, sees gridlock every day.

Greg Heasman, a trucker with Mackie Transportation in Oshawa, Ont., would welcome a new highway or anything else that could help alleviate the constant traffic congestion he encounters while on the road in the Greater Toronto Area. (Submitted by Greg Heasman)

Amid the regular volume of traffic, he said it can take him two hours to drive just 75 kilometres — and that time is stretched out even further if there's an accident, or snowfall.

A new highway, he says, would help reduce the traffic, promote growth and development, and reduce the pollution created by vehicles idling during hours of gridlock.

"Anything they can do to alleviate some of this congestion would be a great help."

Some experts warn, however, that adding more roads will simply make the problem worse.

"When you create more space on roads for cars, you're actually making driving more convenient for people. And so they're more likely to choose to drive over things like taking public transit or cycling and walking," said Malkeet Sandhu, a community organizer with the David Suzuki Foundation.

Vaughan's city council has officially withdrawn its support for the 413. But one of its councillors, Gino Rosati, hopes it'll go ahead, saying it will help relieve gridlock as the region anticipates rapid growth and development in the near future.

"We're looking at the need in the future. York Region will grow to over two million people by 2051. And I think that infrastructure, and what's needed to meet that growth is important," he said.

Malkeet Sandhu is a community organizer with the David Suzuki Foundation. She works with cities like Brampton, Ont., to figure out ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions. (Submitted by Malkeet Sandhu)

Sandhu, who lives in Brampton, Ont., raised particular concerns about Heritage Heights, an undeveloped area in the city currently planned to incorporate high-density housing, mixed-use buildings and a reliance on public transit, cycling and walking instead of vehicles.

Highway 413's proposed route goes right through the area and "completely bulldozes all of the plans," she said.

"We've seen this pattern repeat itself in Ontario for many, many years. And for some reason, the province is insisting on continuing that cycle instead of breaking it."

To Winfield, Highway 413 symbolizes a step back in time, away from so-called "complete communities" such as the Heritage Heights proposal, and others like it.

"This return to the notion that we're going to expand the highway network forever outward, just sort of takes us back into a different age in terms of how we thought we would deal with these problems," he said.

Health effects also possible

Dr. Samantha Green, a family doctor in Toronto and board member at the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, warns that Highway 413 will lead to both short-term health problems for many people, and long-term effects due to climate change.

Dr. Samantha Green warns that Highway 413 could bring serious health effects to commuters and people living in the region. (Submitted by Samantha Green)

"People who live near the ... highway will be exposed to more health-harming air pollution," said Green, who also signed the letter to Wilkinson. She told Lynch she's treated patients for asthma, which was exacerbated by air pollution from highways close to where they live.

According to a 2020 report by the Canadian Medical Association, there was a total of 8,400 deaths related to air pollution from fine particulates in 2018, with 7,200 of those from man-made sources.

Additionally, the mere act of driving regularly can lead to bad health, said Green, explaining that people who commute by car have "increased rates of obesity ... mental health and depression" and less physical activity overall.

Like Sandhu, she favours infrastructure development that favours densification, and "more walking-friendly communities" over highways and urban sprawl.

"If the highway were built, it would be a permanent decision that's causing damage to our generation and also future generations."

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Molly Segal and Serena Renner.

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