Research: Air Quality Impacts of the Bradford Bypass

The proposed Bradford Bypass highway will negatively impact the air quality of residents, though to what extent and where is more difficult to determine. Our research shows that proponents haven’t thoroughly studied these impacts, and attempts to provide some further information regarding what they might be.

This is a post dealing with the impacts that construction of the Bradford Bypass could have on the surrounding community and, more broadly, on the GTA and Ontario.

To view more content related to the proposed highway visit our Bradford Bypass page.

A rendering of what a Bradford Bypass bridge could look like crossing over the East Holland River. Credit SCGC.

New research by SCGC shows that the negative impacts from construction of the Bradford Bypass could be more wide-spread and severe than what is shown by proponents, specifically in the final Environmental Conditions Report.

Two maps were created to illustrate findings, highlighting additional information regarding where these impacts could be felt, as well as the severity of impacts.

The first map identifies Critical Receptor locations in the Bradford area where the impacts from degraded air quality might be most severe, is shown below. The second incorporates the dispersion distances of common contaminants, and combines that with the CR location’s proximity to each other, weighted by proximity to the highway and contamination dispersion areas, to illustrate where the greatest cause for concern might be.

Critical Receptor Map

Traffic related air pollution (TRAP) is both a well-known risk and emerging concern to public health.

The fact of negative health impacts of TRAP, which can be long lasting, cumulative, and severe, is well established among researchers and public health practitioners, though perhaps less well by the public. As the technology of our vehicles changes, however, and as research methods evolve new concerns regarding negative health impacts continue to emerge.

In the Final Environmental Conditions Report (ECR), prepared by AECON for the Ministry of Transportation, 20 Critical Receptor (CR) locations are identified. These are defined in the ECR as, ‘“retirement homes, hospitals, childcare centres, schools and similar institutional buildings” within the Ministry’s Air Quality Guide.”1See page 208 of the ECR, linked above.

We conducted a desktop review, the method used by AECON in ECR for their assessment of CR locations, and found an additional 11 CR locations that match the types outlined above.

We found a further 20 locations within the study area that we believe, while not strictly within the definition, represent locations where risk of health impacts due to poor air quality is heightened, and should thus also be classified as CRs. These include recreational facilities, such as outdoor sports fields, parks, playgrounds, as well as community and recreation centres.

On the map below AECON/MTO identified CR locations are shown in blue, while locations found by us are shown in orange. A triangle indicates retirement homes, cross schools, star daycare centres, and ellipse recreational facilities.

In total 31 additional CR locations were identified where poor air quality could have an out-sized impact on human health.

Mapping showing where critical receptors for air quality impacts were identified by the MTO and AECON, as well as additional locations identified by research conducted independently by SCGC.

This research discovered an additional 31 locations where degraded air quality due to highway traffic could have an out-sized impact on the health of children and other residents.

Click the map to view a larger size.

While research into the health impacts of short-term, high-intensity exposure to TRAP is still emerging, concerns already exist that strongly indicate a prudent approach, mitigating exposure where and when possible, would be wise.

Health Canada, together with the Sport Information and Resource Centre, provide guidance to this effect,2Understanding Air Quality: A Guiding Document for Sport Organizations while recognizing that better understanding remains necessary to protect the health of sport participants.

What should give more cause for concern regarding sport participation among the youth in areas affected by TRAP is that young cardio-vascular systems are still developing. While this may mean there is more capacity for them to develop out of negative impacts, it also means that potential impacts have out-sized influence on physiological development.

Sport participants, furthermore, are more likely to continue to engage in strenuous exercise, and to the extent they do so in areas impacted by TRAP the likelihood of developing negative health outcomes increases.

This all strongly supports, we believe, the inclusion of recreational and exercise facilities in air quality studies and the impacts TRAP may have on human health.

Select locations are highlighted, below, to show instances of critical receptors that were not included in the Environmental Conditions Report.

Hover over the arrow hotspots for a description of the highlighted location.

Henderson Memorial Park, located at Line 9 and Sideroad 10, is a recreational facility that includes a playground, splash pad, sports fields, tennis and basketball courts, and more.

This facility is a prime example of what we believe should be included in the MTOs Critical Receptor air quality mapping, but which is not.

Bradford Children's Academy offers daycare for infants and children, as well as before and after school care for children up to 10 years old.

Website

Holy Trinity Catholic High School has several hundred students, and is one of two secondary schools in Bradford.

Website

Lions Park is one of the most popular public parks in Bradford, with a ball diamonds, outdoor ice rink, basketball and tennis courts, splash pad, and playground.

Numerous public parks like this, where people, including young children, spend significant amounts of time outdoors were not included in the critical receptor research by MTO and AECON on the impacts of poor air quality resulting from construction of the Bradford Bypass highway.

Traffic Related Air Pollution (TRAP) Map

This map shows areas where that risk may be most profound along the proposed route, though there are caveats that should be understood that may increase the severity of risk.

There are two key elements to the map, dispersal zones indicating the extent at which identified TRAPs are reduced to background levels, and an illustration of Critical Receptor locations identified in our Critical Receptor Map.

Mapping showing where critical receptors for air quality impacts were identified by the MTO and AECON, as well as additional locations identified by research conducted independently by SCGC.

This research discovered an additional 28 locations where degraded air quality due to highway traffic could have an out-sized impact on the health of children and other residents.

Click the map to view a larger size.

As with the identification of Critical Receptor locations on the previous map, this map includes locations where people, including children, spend time outdoors, including, in particular, engaged in strenuous activity like sports.

By combining proximity to each other, as well as to the dispersal zones of pollutants, a heatmap is generated to show where exposure is likely to be most severe. While those living within the darker red areas are more likely to be exposed to TRAP, this does not account for more fluid dynamics of weather patterns, which may alter how pollutants are dispersed.

Another caveat is, while the severity of exposure tends to increase with closer proximity to the highway, ultra-fine particulate matter (UFP) is generally dispersed more broadly than larger size particulate matter. UFP is particularly concerning with regard to its impact on health as it is able to easily translocate within the body, passing through tissue and into organs, including the brain.

As a result, a person may experience a high severity of exposure at distance from the highway, somewhat in contradiction to the closer, proximity based, modelling that the heatmap indicates here.

MTO's Future Modelling Based on Faulty Assumptions

The ECR notes that “there are anticipated improvements in vehicles combustion efficiency, with older models retired from the vehicle fleet. Therefore, the expected impact from emissions in 2051 and 2061 should result in greater reductions than present for in the 2041 scenario.”3ECR June, 2023. Page 345

There are two points that need to be made with respect to this.

False Choice Dilemma

First, this argument, as with the entire approval process for this project, comes very close to exemplifying a false dichotomy in the sense that, almost exclusively, the choices are presented as either build a highway to solve an increase in traffic, or don’t build a highway and suffer the consequences of congestion due to increased traffic.

The air quality modelling, and associated assumptions regarding emissions, only hold if a highway is seen as the only solution to enabling transportation in the Bradford area.

Alternatives, such as stronger policy direction in support of complete communities, along with investment in establishing efficient regional and inter-regional transit, ideally with electrified rail, would accomplish transportation objectives, and improve the quality of life in our communities at a cheaper cost and with less emissions than the old build more roads and highways approach.

While there is a nod towards a “no-build” scenario, this is discounted due to an absence of traffic modelling for the projected time horizon.

From our perspective this betrays a lack of interest in finding answers regarding what the impact of this project may be on the health of those living nearby.

Relatively simple modelling can be done based on available population and uptake of either personal vehicles, whether ICE or EV, or uptake of mass- and active-transit options, such as what would be available with a commitment to building 15-minute communities and inter-city rail.

Ignoring, or Unaware of, the Research?

The second point addresses the claim that improvements in combustion efficiency will result in emissions reductions. A similar claim is made by oil companies operating in Alberta’s tar sands, and is effectively an intensity based argument. 

The math here only works to the extent that the number of vehicles, or the number of barrels of oil, remains the same.

Aggregate emissions may be reduced in this case, but if the number of vehicles grows, which is the business case for building this highway in the first place, then the aggregate amount of emissions also grows.

A reliance on the transition from Internal Combustion Engines (ICE) to Electric Vehicles (EVs) is implied in this argument as well, and it also needs to be addressed because there is a lot of  misinformation regarding how EVs impact the environment.

Even with a reduction in the number of vehicles travelling over this route, which is highly unlikely to the case since the case for building it in the first place is a projected increase in vehicle use, it is likely that UFP emissions will increase.

Electric vehicles, due to their increased weight, cause far higher amounts of UFP to be dispersed into the environment than lighter vehicles, and than tail pipe emissions from an equivalent amount of ICE vehicles.

Graphic from The Guardian, showing amount of ultra fine particulate emissions due to tires and due to tailpipe emissions. Credit The Guardian.

This graph, from The Guardian, shows how much particulate matter tires produce relative to tailpipe exhaust.

Source: Car tyres produce vastly more particle pollution than exhausts, tests show

Much of the UFP comes from the friction between the tire and the road, with particulate, in effect, being rubbed off the tire and cast into the air. There is also evidence particulate matter from tires is a major source of micro-plastics that are increasingly polluting waterways.

Brake dust is another concern, though evidence is somewhat mixed whether this will increase with EVs, which utilize regenerative braking and so don’t engage brake discs as often.

The MTO/AECOM seem to have either simply ignored these findings, or to be unaware of them. Neither of these positions is acceptable given the public health implications.

A Public Health Approach

The myth that more people means more cars and traffic needs to be dispelled. More people in fact generate the opportunity for more efficient and accessible transit options. All that is needed for this to happen is sound policy and political will.

One of the best choices local governments can make to combat climate change is to increase the density of their communities and move people away from cars and towards active and public transportation.

Pursuing this approach not only improves public health outcomes through more active lifestyles, it also solves the tension that arises when the increase in population drives an increased demand for road infrastructure, which in turn negatively impacts the health of residents.

It is increasingly clear that policies that promote increased vehicle traffic should be seen as a last resort, and implemented only where no other options are possible.

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Governments have failed to act to protect our communities and the futures of our children and grandchildren, and they continue to treat our environment as if it’s incidental to life, rather than a foundation for it.

We need strong community organizations to fight for our future, now more than ever.

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The New Growth Plan Puts Sprawl Over All

We can no longer treat land use as its own issue, nor can we always assume that growth is always a net benefit to our communities. This is simply not true. We can grow our communities in ways that provide affordable housing, protect our natural spaces and water and aspire to create healthy, vibrant centres where people can live and work.

The Ford government is rolling back progress on building healthier communities.

How Did We Get Here?

The transition from 1950s sprawl development to smart growth policies as a provincial concern was really solidified by Premier Mike Harris. 

Yes, that Mike Harris. 

Despite his first term, which gave municipalities more freedom to grow as they wish, by the second term key grassroots movements to protect the Oak Ridges Moraine demonstrated to the public how sprawling growth patterns were hurting our water, our land and our health. 

In response, the Harris government decided to get sprawling growth patterns under control and set up a series of Smart Growth Panels across Ontario. 

That was in 2002.

Central Zone Smart Growth Area map.
Central Zone Smart Growth Area map.

The Central Zone panel, which included Simcoe County region, concluded early on in its mandate that the status quo sprawl and growth at all costs mentality would lead to dire consequences for the region by 2035 including: commuting trips that would take 45 percent longer, mostly due to congestion; a marked deterioration in air quality; worsening delays in the movement of goods; and higher taxes.1Neptis: Smart Growth and Places to Grow

Complete Communities Connected by Public Transit

The panel sketched out a concept of how growth in this area should go to avoid those outcomes – its vision relied heavily on compact, complete communities connected by public transit: TTC rail, GO rail, bus rapid transit, and inter-city and inter-regional rapid transit. There were also delineated areas for protected natural zones and an awareness of agricultural lands that were under increasing pressure from growth. 

When the Liberals came into power in 2003, they used a lot of the concepts from the Smart Growth Panels to form Ontario’s first Growth Plan. The award-winning Growth Plan directed growth to form complete communities and stop sprawl.

Ontario's Growth Plans, through the years.

Cover of Ontario's Growth Plan 2020

Growth Plan (2020)

This is the most recent version of the Growth Plan, revised by Doug Ford’s government, which contains many of the problems pointed out in this post.

Cover of Ontario's Growth Plan (2017)

Growth Plan (2017)

The plan as it was under the previous Liberal government.

Cover of Ontario's Growth Plan (2006)

Ontario's Growth Plan (2006)

The original the Growth Plan, titled “Better Choices, Better Future.”

Unfortunately, these efforts were short lived.

A series of amendments and regulations watered down the objectives over the years, but at its core it still aspired to keep sprawl in check through limiting growth in rural areas, ensuring large developments were on municipal services, promotion of public transit, climate change considerations and rigorous criteria in order to expand settlement areas.

So why the history lesson on planning? 

Well it’s important to note that governments, over previous decades, have been trying to avoid the situation the province is now promoting, which is sprawling subdivisions, and with a very little strategy to deal with climate impacts, water impacts, and loss of farmland and biodiversity that come with it.

What is Happening Now?

It’s not hyperbole to say that the changes  made recently by the province with respect to growth and planning take us back to the 1990s. Some of the problematic changes include:

  • Density targets for our region have been scaled back tremendously.

This calculation outlines how efficiently we use land to house people and places of employment.   

  • The limits that were put on growth, previously known as population allocations, are now set as a minimum target, not as a maximum as they were before.
  • Formerly, settlement areas could only be expanded during the Official Plan (OP) process, so long as evidence is presented to demonstrate need. Now  they can be expanded up to 40 hectares outside of the OP period.
  • New developments no longer need to prioritize being serviced by municipal water or wastewater – septics and communal septics are now allowed more easily.

This enables development to get into more natural, rural areas, and puts water quality at risk.

  • Calculations to determine how much land must be set aside for new growth outside of built upon land have changed too.

The municipality must now plan for growth to 2051. This means that in the middle of a pandemic with no knowledge of how work/commute/travel patterns will change, municipalities must decide by June, 2022, how much new land to give up to development.

It also means that due to COVID restrictions this Municipal Comprehensive (MCR) process, that requires public consultations, is limited to online interactions. That’s why many communities are asking their local government to delay these decisions until people can properly consult with staff and neighbours.

  • Municipalities are now forced to calculate how much land based on market needs.

Simply put, there are two ways to calculate this – looking to see what you will need in the future based on changing demographics, what you already have planned, and anticipated need (e.g. more rentals/apartments/seniors residences etc.)…

OR

…you can look back to what has historically been provided by the market (e.g. detached homes, McMansions) and then just extrapolate that forward. 

The current government chose the second option.

This means that in places like Simcoe County where large homes dominate housing stock, we can expect more of that despite more people requiring smaller units and apartments (seniors downsizing, youth, low income).

This also means that more of our green spaces and farmland will be sacrificed to provide for McMansions and sprawl, while people who need housing types that are more affordable (laneway homes, stacked townhomes, apartments) will be mostly ignored.

Photo of "McMansions". Credit: Brett VA - CC BY 2.0.
Photo of "McMansions". Credit: Brett VA - CC BY 2.0.

Why Is It A Concern?

In all of this we need to understand one simple truth – how we grow and where we grow has a massive impact on climate change, water health, biodiversity and our health consequently. 

Growth patterns lock in centuries of impacts and GHG emissions. We can no longer treat land use as its own issue, nor can we always assume that growth is always a net benefit to our communities.

This is simply not true. We can grow our communities in ways that provide affordable housing, protect our natural spaces and water and aspire to create healthy, vibrant centres where people can live and work.

Or, we can grow our communities in ways that use 1950s thinking to deal with 21st century challenges – which will lead to more sprawl, more highways and less public oversight.

One path chooses the needs of the people and our natural communities, the other helps line the pockets of speculative developers at the community’s expense. 

Unfortunately, the province’s policies are 60 years behind the evidence and science, and our communities, now and in the future, will be worse for it.

How Can You Get Involved?

  1. Push back against mega-projects, such as the Bradford ByPass, The Orbit, and the Upper York Sewage Solution.
  2. Share your concerns on social media.
  3. Sign up to our newsletter to stay informed on developments with growing the Greenbelt and limiting sprawl.

Links to Further Reading

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