Credit: STR

TORONTO, Canada — Toronto's populist mayor Rob Ford was apparently wrong when he famously declared that "the war on the car is over."

It's not, and surprisingly, the latest salvos have come from people he would normally count on for support. 

Ford swept into the top job in Canada’s largest city last fall on a wave of anti-elitist sentiment. He tapped into anger among voters in the sprawling, postwar suburbs, who resented the leafy, transit-friendly and oh-so-cosmopolitan downtown area.

(Read more: Toronto's Tea Party mayor)

Ford's first official act was to rescind a car registration tax, leaving a $64 million hole in city revenues. He also torpedoed an extensive, cross-region light-rail transit plan and, just last week, orchestrated the removal of bike lanes along one of Toronto’s main north-south arteries.

All this is aimed at restoring the supremacy of the automobile, and rewarding the base that elected him: people who drive to work, usually by themselves.

Unfortunately, these are the very people who are strangling Toronto’s economy and it’s not just bike-riding "pinkos" who are saying it.

Last month, the city’s blue-chip Board of Trade reported that Toronto had, at an average of 80 minutes, the longest commute time among 24 global metropolitan areas (even worse than notoriously congested Los Angeles). It warned bluntly that gridlock was rapidly destroying Toronto’s competitiveness and called for measures aimed squarely at picking the pockets of motorists — including roads tolls and parking fees — to dissuade them from taking their cars.

The board’s report comes on the heels of similar public musings by the man Ford himself appointed to sketch out a new transit plan. Gordon Chong told the Toronto Star that tolls and other congestion charges may be unavoidable.

“Everybody in the world is paying tolls, what’s so special about us?” asked Chong.

The short answer: A deeply-entwined, decades-long dependency on the automobile that has proven stubbornly resistant to change.

Historically, Toronto’s economy has relied heavily on the auto industry. From the mid-1960s to early 2000s, the U.S.-Canada Auto Pact guaranteed a lucrative share of North American auto manufacturing, much of it based at the sprawling GM and Ford plants that still bookend the city. Coupled with the relatively cheap power of nearby Niagara Falls, the pact fostered thousands of high-paying jobs and an attitude, especially among the political class, that what’s good for the car is good for southern Ontario.

Housing developers made billions, real estate agents retired young and newspaper tycoons felled entire forests to supply newsprint for their fat “Homes” and “Wheels” supplements. In the process they helped create the vast suburban hinterland that surrounds Toronto, home to millions of car-dependent commuters.

There were naysayers, of course, and some significant victories. A civic reform movement in the 1970s, led in part by the great urban thinker Jane Jacobs (who famously left New York for Toronto), saved a huge swath of the downtown that would otherwise have been run over by an expressway.

The result is the contradiction at the heart of Toronto’s political divide: superhighways, choked daily by frustrated, four-wheeled hordes of suburbanites, ringing a downtown core of neighborhoods full of renovated century homes and gleaming new condos — many walking distance from streetcars or the city’s rudimentary but useful subway lines.

It’s that livable (though increasingly expensive) downtown, and its attendant cultural and social vibrancy, that figures prominently in the consistently high marks Toronto scores on international surveys as a good place to locate business and attract talent.

In its report, the Board of Trade notes that recent surveys by key groups — the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Economist Intelligence Unit and PricewaterhouseCoopers among them — have all cited transportation infrastructure as Toronto’s Achilles heel, “the biggest threat to our continued growth and economic prosperity.”

(That should be a matter of national interest since the Toronto region is the economic heart of Canada, generating a full 20 percent of the country’s GDP. Yet Canada is the only G8 country without a national transit strategy.)

The report notes that every year, some 100,000 people move to the Toronto region. By 2031, the population is expected to grow by 50 percent — “one of the fastest population growth rates globally.”

“Toronto’s population is growing at near Asian rates, but infrastructure is being built to support this population growth at less than North American rates” — a damning thought indeed when compared to what Asian and European countries invest in infrastructure.

The report estimates that the annual cost of congestion to the Toronto region economy was $6 billion in 2006, and will more than double in the next 20 years if no “significant” action is taken — and the average commute time will hit close to 2 hours, the “equivalent to almost 3 more work-weeks a year spent in traffic.”

Not a happy prospect for commuters who already face gridlock daily. Even weekends and evenings can be a travel ordeal as road crews shut down lanes to patch up the bits that are falling apart.

On the recent July 1 Canada Day weekend, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that the major roads in and out of Toronto, including Highway 401 (by volume, the busiest highway in North America), were “a never-ending sea of red lights.”

Police said it was the busiest day they’d ever seen.

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