Ontario’s failed downtown malls

IMG_0392.JPGBayside Mall, formerly the Sarnia Eaton Centre, on a Saturday morning in 2013. Most stores are vacant or occupied by non-profits or independent businesses.

The Toronto Eaton Centre, large, famous, and vital, is only one of many malls built in the downtown cores of Ontario cities between the 1960s and 1990s. From Thunder Bay to Cornwall, the construction of new enclosed shopping centres were seen as a necessary tool to keep the old city centres vibrant and relevant in the face of competition from new suburban malls. But only in the province’s two largest cities did the concept work. Elsewhere, these urban shopping complexes were left largely vacant within ten years of opening, when leases expired. When the Eaton’s department chain went bankrupt in 1997, huge voids were left behind that developers and municipalities struggled to fill.

The Toronto Eaton Centre was opened in two phases between 1977 and 1979. It added hundreds of shops and new office space to Downtown Toronto, anchored by a new Eaton’s flagship and was connected to the Simpson’s store across Queen Street. Today, the Eaton Centre is Canada’s second largest mall (including the Hudson’s Bay/Saks Fifth Avenue building) and the Toronto region’s second most productive shopping centre in terms of sales per square metre. In Ottawa, the downtown Rideau Centre, opened in 1983, is the busiest and most productive mall in that region (Retail Council of Canada, 2016).

But elsewhere in Ontario, downtown malls — mostly built with municipal and/or provincial government support — have been, without exception, commercial and urban development failures. Not only did they suffer from high vacancy rates, they helped to wreck the downtown cores they are located in rather than foster the economic revitalization they once promised.

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Mapping Toronto’s approved new ward boundaries

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On Monday, October 22, 2018, Torontonians will be electing a new city council. And for the first time since 2000, Toronto’s ward boundaries will be changing.

When the new council is formed on December 1, 2018, there will be 47 wards, up from 44. Downtown Toronto will gain three new seats, and North York will gain one, but one seat is lost in Toronto’s west end, in an area currently represented by Wards 14, 17, and 18. Seven wards in Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough will remain unchanged.

Earlier this week, the City of Toronto added the new boundaries to its open data catalogue, so I used the data to create an interactive Google map. This map, embedded below, shows both the current 44 wards, and the approved new 47 wards. Each of the two ward boundary layers can be turned on and off.


Google map showing current and approved new ward boundaries

These new ward boundaries are the result of a long four-year study and consultation process, and represent a compromise that improves representation in high-growth areas, while minimizing the loss of council representation elsewhere. Several other options were explored, including reducing the number of councillors to 25, but they were rejected by the consultants hired by the city to draw the new wards; they were also unpopular among members of the public who attended the consultations.

While Toronto City Council approved the new boundaries in November 2016 (despite Mayor John Tory’s opposition), Councillors Justin Di Ciano (Ward 5) and Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7) appealed the new boundaries to the Ontario Municipal Board. Happily, the OMB dismissed the two councillors’ complaints last month. Both councillors are likely to run for re-election in modified versions of their existing wards.

I will update the interactive map, adding candidate names for each of the new wards. Nominations are open from May 1, 2018 through July 27, 2018.

Thanks to Gil Meslin (@g_meslin), who altered me to the fact that the new ward boundaries were available on the city’s website. 

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The same tired pedestrian safety campaign ignores the real issues

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After five pedestrians were killed on Toronto’s streets during the two weeks of 2018, Toronto Police have announced another pedestrian safety campaign promising increased enforcement and education efforts. Sadly, I do not have faith that the local police service will properly address the safety of vulnerable road users.

Police are once again advising pedestrians to avoid crossing mid-block, to make eye contact with motorists before crossing the street, remove earphones and hoods when crossing, put away mobile devices, and be visible. These are all generally good ideas, but they ignore the larger issue — aggressive and inattentive motorists are most at fault.  Most collisions in which pedestrians are seriously injured and killed are in the suburbs, and not in the downtown core, where most pedestrian safety blitzes take place. And some of the advice the police gives pedestrians is not that helpful.

Previous pedestrian safety campaigns have targeted downtown pedestrians crossing with a flashing hand countdown signal or distracted by their phones. The message is usually the same: in 2012, Toronto police were also saying to “cross the street as if your life depends upon it,” the same as this year’s message. Targeting downtown walkers is an easy way to get a message across, but it is not a very effective one, yet we see it every year.

Statistics collected by the City of Toronto show that most pedestrians hit by motorists were crossing legally in a crosswalk, with the right of way. This latest campaign ignores that very fact.

On January 7, Jessica Renee Salickram was killed trying to cross the street after getting off a TTC bus at Steeles Avenue East and Eastvale Drive, on Toronto’s border with Markham. The intersection does not yet have a traffic signal, and it is nearly 300 metres from the nearest signalized crossing, at Tapscott Road. The eastbound TTC bus stop does not even have a sidewalk, one of many inaccessible bus stops in suburban Scarborough. This was not a mid-block crossing, as it was at an intersection. The TTC has since suspended service at this stop, but that is not an acceptable solution.

 


Pedestrian fatalities in Toronto in 2018

The Toronto Police’s advice to make eye contact with motorists is often difficult — persons with visual impairments have as much right to cross as anyone else. It is also very difficult to make eye contact with distracted motorists, and drivers in cars and trucks with deep-tint windows. Police are advising pedestrians to cross at crosswalks, yet they are often blocked by vehicles.

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It’s pretty much impossible to cross the street safely when the crosswalk is blocked. 

Global News has found that the Toronto Police Service has been issuing far fewer traffic tickets in recent years. Last November, Global reported that Toronto police issued half the number of Highway Traffic Act infractions — fines for speeding, running red lights and stop signs and other unsafe driving — were down by half between 2011 and 2016, as well as a significant drop in impaired driving charges during the same time. It seems wrong that pedestrians are once again being targeted while bad drivers are let off the hook.

As I have written here before, civic leaders have not taken pedestrian and cyclist safety seriously enough. There are a few token gestures to Vision Zero, but “Senior Safety Zones” and reduced speed limits on a few streets are not enough to send the message that we truly value the lives of all vulnerable road users — particularly children and seniors, who are disproportionately at risk. One more quick and easy police blitz on pedestrians at busy downtown intersections does not address the problem.

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Brampton Transit’s evolution from a laggard to a leader

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The introduction of Brampton Transit’s Zum service in 2010, serving York University, was a major turning point for the suburban transit agency

For TVO this week, I discuss Brampton Transit’s impressive ridership growth. In the last five years, Brampton Transit has bucked the trend of stagnant ridership numbers encountered elsewhere in the Greater Toronto Area and North America in general. I argue that Brampton’s success in improving transit ridership comes from sustained investment over many years, the move to a grid-based route structure, and the introduction of Züm, a basic network of semi-frequent, limited-stop bus routes, many of which extend outside of Brampton’s boundaries.


I grew up in Brampton, and I have collected maps since kindergarten; my collection includes several old Brampton Transit maps. These maps help to illustrate the progress made since the 1980s, when the level of service provided was quite basic.

Brampton Transit began operations in 1976 after the old Town of Brampton’s local bus service was amalgamated with the dial-a-bus service operated in Bramalea. (Brampton amalgamated with most of Chinguacousy Township in 1974, including Bramalea.) In 1980, Brampton Transit operated 14 routes, serving a community of just under 150,000 people. Buses operated no later than 9:00 or 10:00 PM, Mondays through Saturdays, and many routes operated with long, meandering loops. Apart from GO Transit, there were no connections to nearby communities.

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December 1980 Brampton Transit map

By 1988, service was offered on Steeles Avenue to Humberline Drive in Etobicoke, where connections could be made to TTC buses on the 96 Wilson and 73 Royal York buses, but didn’t continue east to Humber College. Brampton Transit Route 14 Torbram served Westwood Mall in Mississauga, and connections to Mississauga Transit could be made at Shoppers World. But still, service levels were poor — you were lucky to get a bus every 30 minutes outside of rush hours. Permanent Sunday service wouldn’t come for another ten years. Notable are the four lettered bus routes — A, B, C, and D — that made direct connections to the four weekday GO train round trips to and from Toronto.

Brampton Transit’s maps of the era are also historically notable because of their advertising: only one of the Burger King locations shown on the 1988 map still exists. Other restaurants advertised — the Old Beef Market, O’Henry’s, and Queen’s Pizzeria — are no longer in business.

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September 1988 Brampton Transit Map

 

 

Brampton Transit Maps published in the 1990s and early 2000s were printed on newsprint, and used only a two-colour scheme: blue for regular routes, and orange for rush-hour routes. Service to new subdivisions was often provided by way of long one-way loops, which is an inexpensive way of serving new areas, but are inconvenient and slow for potential riders.

Notable in the 2001 map below is Route 77, launched in the 1990s as a joint Brampton Transit/Vaughan Transit route between Bramalea City Centre and Finch Station along Highway 7. Route 77 was a very slow way to get to the subway from Brampton, but it operated until Züm began service in 2010. In 2001, bus service on 11 Steeles was finally extended to Humber College’s main campus.

Brampton Transit, 2002

September 2001 Brampton Transit map

2005 marked an important turning point for Brampton Transit, as it introduced a grid-based route system on major arterials. Route 14 Torbram, for example, no longer served Bramalea City Centre, but continued north, providing a core north-south route; many other routes were straightened, including Route 2 Main north of Downtown. Changes since May 2005 saw service frequencies improved, more local routes added, and improved connections.

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May 2005 Brampton Transit map

The current system map, dated September 2017, can be found on Brampton Transit’s website.

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King Street complainers need to remember why they’re on King Street

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On Friday, CBC Toronto ran a story on several King Street West businesses that have claimed that the new King Street Pilot have caused them to lose customers in December.  The three business owners mentioned in the article were Laleh Larijani of Forno Cultura, a bakery on King east of Bathurst, and two Restaurant Row restaurateurs: Jesse Warfield, whose family owns the Gabby’s chain of restaurants, and Fred Luk, owner of Fred’s Not Here and The Red Tomato.

The King Street Pilot was launched by the City of Toronto on November 12, 2017. At many intersections between Bathurst and Jarvis Streets, cars and trucks are required to turn right off of King Street, prioritizing streetcar traffic. Most on-street parking spots were removed from King Street through this section, but designated areas allow for deliveries, passenger pick-ups and drop-offs, and access to local properties, including parking garages. Despite some [predictable] hyperbole from suburban politicians and reactionary journalists, cars are not in fact banned from any section of King Street. And there are many public and privately-owned garages adjacent to the pilot corridor for motorists to park at.

For transit riders, the King Street Pilot is working. In December, the TTC reported travel time reductions for the busy 504 King and 514 Cherry Streetcars of up to 24 percent. However, it still struggles to keep up with demand. The continuing delays in the new streetcar deliveries from Bombardier have not helped matters; and streetcars still often run overcrowded, leaving some passengers behind at streetcar stops. There are some necessary tweaks to be made: TTC schedules should take advantage of improved travel times, and transit signal priority is also necessary with the new far-side stop locations at intersections. Signal priority will help to ensure streetcars don’t have to stop at a red light at the near side of the intersection and again to load passengers at the far side.

But since it’s a year-long pilot project, these tweaks can be made.

Unfortunately the CBC article was weak in that it presented only the business owners’ complaints about the King Street Pilot, without hard data to back up the claims of lost business. Only one Toronto city councillor was quoted, John Campbell, who represents Ward 4, Etobicoke Centre. Ward 4 is an affluent, suburban part of the city that does not have any streetcar lines. Councillor Campbell, who also sits on the Toronto Transit Commission, would like to see street parking permitted during evenings and weekends:

“I would like to see people able to park here in the evening, park here on the weekends, because listen, when it’s –15 C people don’t want to walk a block-and-a-half to get to a restaurant. They want to park within 100 metres. I think that would bring more vibrancy back,” [Campbell] explained.

It’s worth pointing out that motorists will walk much further than 100 metres when parking at busy suburban malls like Sherway Gardens or Yorkdale; it’s also the distance from many GO Transit parking spots to the train platform. The walk between the front doors of the Royal Alexandra Theatre and Princess of Wales Theatre on King Street is nearly 200 metres.

Watering down the King Street Pilot would doom it to failure: as any King Street transit rider knows, traffic congestion didn’t suddenly disappear at 6:30 PM. It’s an unreasonable expectation to find ample parking 100 metres from many downtown businesses and institutions.

It’s worth noting that a suburban councillor has taken so much interest in watering down a downtown initiative championed by downtown councillors, and that as a member of the TTC board, Campbell wishes to reduce the benefit to many of the transit agency’s customers.

Fred Luk, profiled in the CBC article, has a long history of complaining to Toronto media, as pointed out by urbanist and writer Shawn Micallef on Twitter. In the last few years, Luk has complained about the increase in the minimum wage, higher energy costs, the effects of the 2003 SARS outbreak and the 2010 G20 Summit, even the 1999 municipal indoor smoking ban. Yet Luk’s King Street restaurants persisted.

There are many factors that can influence the success of restaurant businesses. Obviously, the quality of food and service should be examined. It’s worth noting that Toronto is bearing with unseasonably cold temperatures, it’s the low season for tourism, and there aren’t any blockbuster musicals currently playing at the Royal Alex or Princess of Wales. Motorists still have to get used to the new arrangements and change their habits; it’s only been seven weeks so far. Once the weather improves, the curb lane in front of Restaurant Row can be used for wider sidewalks, even enlarged front patios.

The smart thing for a business owner concerned about a decline in patronage would be to use the free publicity to promote the restaurants, rather than complain about a loss of business. Businesses in the Entertainment District are largely driven by walk-up traffic; there’s a reason why menus are posted by the doors and in the summertime, you can’t walk past Restaurant Row without having a representative out front trying to get you to look at their menu.

Locating a restaurant on King Street West has lots of advantages: the proximity to thousands of residents, many nearby offices, hotels, entertainment and sports venues, and excellent transit access and ever increasing pedestrian activity. It is not realistic to expect ample street parking to be one those advantages.

If access to parking were the chief concern, it would be wise to set up in a suburban plaza somewhere else, like in John Campbell’s Etobicoke. Complaining about a major improvement to the travel times of thousands of commuters, without offering any incentives for potential customers to visit your restaurants isn’t productive. Instead, doom and gloom messaging may only damage business further, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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A farewell to 2017

IMG_0129-001At the top of the Franey Trail, Cape Breton National Park

For me, 2017 was a great year. In June, I wrote about my life up to that point, looking back at some of the challenges I faced over the years, my ability to overcome them, and my accomplishments. I wrote that shortly before I got married to an amazing life partner, and together, we look forward to many great things.

Elisa and I honeymooned out East, touring the Cabot Trail, Prince Edward Island, and Halifax before taking the train back home. We also visited Point Pelee for the first time, and made trips to Detroit, Chicago, and across Ontario, to places like Southampton, Sudbury, and Collingwood.

I met a few new friends in 2017, and I also got to know some great people even better. Along with our own wedding, Elisa and I got to help celebrate three others this year.

In Brockville, exploring the newly re-opened historic railway tunnel, I spent a few hours catching up with a high school friend who moved from Brampton to a town in Eastern Ontario. That was one of this year’s nice simple highlights. Day trips with friends and groups walks with others were another thing that made this year good. But also in 2017, I lost contact with a few people I knew, including another of my best friends from high school. I regret not keeping in closer contact; social media has its limitations.

At my full time job, I stood up in front of an audience at an industry event, presenting the work that I did on an interesting interactive map that I developed. This year was one of  the most challenging years I had at work, but also one of the most fulfilling.

2017 also marks the tenth year since I started writing on urban issues and transportation for fun. Spacing is one of my favourite publications, and it has been an honour to write for them on occasion. My first blog post described some of the places where Toronto’s old streetcars were sent to once they were retired by the TTC; my latest contribution, a full-page spread in the Fall 2017 issue of the print magazine, highlighted all the major transit projects across Canada planned or in progress. This year, I also wrote for Torontoist and TVO, and of course, in my own blog.

IMG_1524.jpgNation on the move: my latest article in Spacing

In 2018, I look forward to many things: a trip to see family and new places in Europe, catching up with friends, having some more writing opportunities, new challenges at work, and a municipal election, where three new wards will help deliver some new faces to Toronto City Council. Maybe, too, there will be a strong mayoral candidate worth supporting.

My top six posts of 2017

These six articles might not be the most read, but they are among my favourite posts in 2017. They all deal with some of my favourite subjects: urban planning, transit, and local history.

  • Ontario’s land use scandal: Another greenfield hospital for Niagara: A commentary on poor land use planning decisions (which I have discussed previously on this blog) which puts major health and educational institutions far from where people live, on sites difficult to serve by transit.
  • Hallam Street and the Harbord Streetcar: The history of Hallam Street in west end Toronto and the Harbord Streetcar, which was one Toronto’s most interesting carlines until it was abandoned in 1966.
  • How intercity bus service is failing Ontarians: my first article for TVO, I examine how the intercity bus network in Ontario declined since the 1980s, and how many communities in the province have since become disconnected.
  • A need for high speed rail reality: an article I posted to Spacing, as I express my skepticism for the province’s proposal for a high speed rail line between Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, and London, with a possible extension to Windsor. It’s an interesting contrast to the neglect paid to rural bus services.
  • Toronto’s Zero Vision and the folly of Seniors Safety Zones: Putting up a few new signs as part of a reluctant response to an unacceptable level of road violence isn’t  Vision Zero, it’s Zero Vision. As a pedestrian advocate and co-founder of Walk Toronto, I believe that the city does a lousy job of protecting its residents from injury and death on its roads.
  • Rosedale NIMBYs Push Back Against Four-Storey Condo: There are few things more fun than writing about entitled, unreasonable NIMBYs.
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Why Finch West is the best of Toronto’s new subway stations

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The dream is finally a reality for thousands of York University students

On Sunday, December 17, six new TTC subway stations opened, and tens of thousands of excited people crowded the new extension to York University and Vaughan (the free TTC fares, courtesy of the provincial government, might also have had something to do with it). I also took the opportunity to explore the new subway stations, and get a second sense of their layout and their ridership potential.

While Pioneer Village Station remains my favourite architecturally, I have found myself liking the simplicity of Finch West Station.

As I have argued here before, I expect that Finch West and Pioneer Village Station will be well used – mostly due to the TTC surface route connections. York University Station will do well during the academic term, and Vaughan Metropolitan Centre has potential — but only if York Region commits to operating a decent transit system with convenient and frequent service to the new subway. I also suggested that the main GO Transit connections — Downsview Park and Highway 407 — will see very little usage. Both stations rely on GO Transit connections, and at the time, GO did not make their plans public.

We now know that GO Transit service to Downsview Park Station will begin December 30. The Barrie Line will see new midday and evening service, and all trains will call at the new stop. Existing rush hour trains will also continue to stop at York University Station. All GO Transit buses on Highway 407 that terminate on the York University campus will also continue to do so, instead of taking full use of the new bus terminal at Highway 407 Station. (Only GO bus routes 25F, 46, 47, 47F, 48, 48B and 48F, along with route 40, will call at the fancy new terminal, adding up to 10 minutes to existing travel times.)

I predict that GO Transit will abandon York University Station and direct all its bus services to Highway 407 Station after the end of the 2017-2018 academic year, and after the provincial election is over. It would not be the first time that GO Transit abandoned one of its railway stations, either. In 1969, train service at Lorne Park was abandoned, in favour of nearby Clarkson.

The province announced a $1.50 TTC fare discount for Presto card transfers to and from GO Transit and UP Express in October, to take effect January 7, 2018. But without further fare integration for transfers to and from York University, students and staff who currently arrive on campus directly might have to get used to paying an additional $3.00 a day. But at least Highway 407 Station will be useful.


In a previous post, I also explained that Pioneer Village Station was architecturally my favourite of the six new stations. That is still true. But in terms of functionality, my favourite is now Finch West.

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Southbound 41 Keele bus loads in front of the new Finch West Station. Note the nearby apartment buildings.

Finch West Station, like Pioneer Village, was designed by  aLL Design, a global firm led by Will Alsop. The various tile patterns used in the design are a bit jarring, but to me, they recall those used in older TTC stations in North York.

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Ascending the escalator at Finch West

The station serves buses on routes 36 Finch West — the TTC’s third busiest surface route in 2016 — along with Route 41 Keele, 107 St. Regis, and 199B Finch Rocket. Only Routes 36 and 199B enter the 3-bay bus terminal, all others (along with the 36 bus) stop on the street. This simplicity is in contrast to the Highway 407 Station terminal, which will be little-used for quite some time.

Route 36 serves neighbourhoods such as Jane-Finch and Rexdale. These large, lower-income communities of Toronto will benefit from a much shorter ride to the subway.

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Simple new TTC bus terminal at Finch West Station

In 2022, the Finch West LRT is scheduled to open, connecting Finch West Station with Humber College. On the mezzanine level, a temporary wall, as seen in the photo below, can be knocked out for a passage to a yet-to-be-built underground LRT station. Major construction is scheduled to begin in 2018.

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Looking towards the temporary wall that will lead to the Finch West LRT

Finch West might not be the most stunning of all the new stations that opened on the Line 1 extension, but it might be the most useful and the most functional. In design, and in function, Finch West is a throwback, recalling a simpler time in TTC subway construction.

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