Poor Public Transit Is a Big Factor in the Number of High-rises in Toronto

There are many elements that determine whether a city will grow taller or wider. Toronto has a unique confluence of factors that seems to be pushing it to grow taller. It has 2,326 buildings that are considered high-rises. To put that into perspective, Tokyo and London have 1,259 and 1,058 high-rises respectively meaning Toronto has more high-rises than both cities combined. At the same time, Toronto only has a fraction of their populations, which continuously surprises U.S. investors. What could be pushing Toronto to create so many high-rise buildings? This article explores a few of the factors causing Toronto to build more high-rises than almost any other city in the world.

Population density and economic factors

The way a city develops is directly related to the needs of the people living there and the predominant type of business. For example, Detroit was once the automotive manufacturing capital of the world. The popularity of cars in the city allowed for the widespread development of suburban housing. Even as its automotive industry wound down, the lack of any major economic concentration within the city prevented any incentive for the further development of more dense high rises. 

On the other hand, New York is considered one of the financial capitals of the world. It has a legacy of financial institutions that needed their staff to be close together. Cheques and documents had to be transferred by hand from bank to bank. High-rise buildings allowed corporations to get more floor space, collaboration, and efficiency with a smaller land footprint. 

We cannot forget the affordability issue. Generally speaking, condo apartments, typically high-rises, are cheaper than other property types such as detached homes. The average price of a detached home in Toronto is around $1M as of January 2020. This implies that afford a mortgage, the household income must be over $200k. Considering the fact that the average household income in the GTA is less than $100k, many families don’t have any other option for buying a property except buying a condo apartment.

The simple truth is that the denser the city, the more high-rises there are to accommodate the people living and working there. The question then becomes, what makes some major cities like Hong Kong, Toronto, and Tokyo so dense while others like Atlanta aren’t? This question may not have a single answer but one major factor is the availability of public transportation.

Public transportation and commuting

One of the factors affecting the number of high-rises in a city is how efficient the public and private transportation systems are. Both London and Tokyo each have a population of about 9 million people and based on population alone, both of these cities should have many more high-rises than Toronto. When you look a bit closer, a different picture emerges.

Tokyo operates the 8th largest subways in the world [1]. It carries roughly 8 million people to and from downtown Tokyo every single day and spans over 300KM [2]. These numbers are impressive but what’s even more impressive is the punctuality of the trains. The subway services are so reliable that most people don’t own cars even though they live far from the city center.

In London, a similar situation unfolds. At 402KM [3], the London Underground is the third-longest subway system in the world and is also the oldest one. It serves as the arteries for commerce in London and carries millions of people to and from the city center every day. This makes it possible for workers to live in a large metro area surrounding the city center instead of living in high-rises closer to their offices.

In Toronto, the situation is different. Tokyo and London boast of over a billion yearly trips and millions of daily trips. In Toronto, a meagre 76KM of subway lines [4] has to handle over three million people. When compared to Tokyo or London, its subway system has a low adoption rate with on average only around 15% of the population using it for everyday commuting. Without ready access to public transport, people are forced to live in higher density areas closer to downtown in order to get to their jobs.

The poor adoption of alternative public transportation contributes to the traffic congestion in Toronto, costing the city $6 billion in lost productivity annually [5] and making it the 6th worst city in the world for commuting [6]. The traffic congestion then creates increased demand for high-rise buildings close to the business districts. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that’s turned Toronto into a city of high-rises.


The way a city grows is dependent on many factors. The businesses present, the public transportation system, weather, and government policies all play a part. Despite its relatively low population compared to other supercities around the world, Toronto’s poor public and private transportation have contributed to its disproportionate development of high-rises downtown.


  1. Metrobits. “World Metro Database”. http://mic-ro.com/metro/table.html
  2. Tokyo Metro. Transportation Services – Business Situation. https://www.tokyometro.jp/lang_en/corporate/enterprise/transportation/conditions/index.html
  3. Jolyon Attwooll. The Telegraph. “150 London Underground facts (including the birth of Jerry Springer in East Finchley station)” https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/england/london/articles/London-Underground-150-fascinating-Tube-facts/
  4. The Canadian Encyclopedia. “Toronto Subway” https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/toronto-subway
  5. Star Editorial Board. The Star. “Toronto needs action on road congestion” https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2018/10/12/toronto-needs-action-on-road-congestion.html
  6. CTVnews.ca Staff. CTV News. “Toronto is 6th worst city for commuting, study finds” https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/toronto-is-6th-worst-city-for-commuting-study-finds-1.3983117
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