A tale of two streets: Winona Drive and Shaughnessy Boulevard

Typical Quiet Street signage and pylon placement, Crawford Street

Earlier this month, as part of Toronto’s long-overdue response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the city introduced ActiveTO. ActiveTO includes several measures addressing the need for safe active transportation and recreation routes as summer approaches and businesses slowly reopen.

Current ActiveTO initiatives include weekend traffic closures of sections of Lake Shore Boulevard and Bayview Avenue to take pressure off narrow and busy multi-use paths, designating specific “quiet streets” to provide safer cycling and pedestrian corridors, and the construction of new bike lanes and cycle tracks, accelerating work on the painfully slow implementation of the city’s cycling network plan.

One of many families enjoying the Bayview Avenue extension closure on May 16. The weekend closure provides a safe, spacious alternative to the crowded Lower Don Trail

I visited two Toronto streets this week included in the initial list of ActiveTO quiet streets that were announced on May 14, 2020.

On Winona Drive, the pylons and signs placed by city work crews were moved by residents to block an entire lane of traffic at each intersection. This enhances their effectiveness in reminding motorists that the space is for local traffic only and that the roadway is shared with pedestrians and cyclists.

Winona Drive at Benson Avenue, May 25, 2020
Close-up of relocated pylons on Winona Drive

Shaughnessy and Havenbrook Boulevards, near Sheppard Avenue and Don Mills Road, connect the densely populated Fairview Mall and Don Valley Village neighbourhoods with the Betty Sutherland Trail, part of the Don River ravine system. Though Shaughnessy is mostly fronted by comfortable, midcentury homes, it borders several apartment buildings and townhouse complexes, including several Toronto Community Housing properties.

Shaughnessy Boulevard looking north at Rochelle Crescent

In 2012, some road calming measures were undertaken on Shaughnessy to slow down traffic, particularly near local schools and parks. A four-lane section between Sheppard Avenue and Glenworth Road was narrowed, including a very short section of bike lanes. A shallow concrete median was added between Glenworth and Esterbrooke Avenue. However, the street remained problematic.

The shallow median on Shaughnessy Boulevard does nothing to slow down aggressive motorists

In a recent Toronto Star article, resident Robin Sacks noted that the street was unsafe as motorists used it as a bypass of parallel Don Mills Road. She, and many of her neighbours, supported Shaughnessy’s designation as an ActiveTO quiet street.

Unfortunately, other residents took it upon themselves to remove the pylons and signs and complain to their local city councillor as soon as they were installed. By the weekend, they — along with concrete barriers placed in the median — were removed, and the street wiped from the city’s website.

Councillor Shelley Carroll, a progressive, was quoted in the Star article that she felt those who objected to the traffic calming measures were on “solid ground,” as there were no community consultations before the measures were introduced. She also noted that Shaughnessy is “a safe street with ample sidewalks and, unlike denser parts of downtown, ‘no one’s having any trouble distancing.'”

To Carroll’s credit, a consultation is planned for Wednesday, May 27. Overall, her track record has been supportive of safer streets in her community and in Toronto as a whole, so I was surprised by her comments. Hopefully, Shaughnessy, like many other suburban streets, will see improvements shortly.

Quiet streets, if planned as a network, are helpful for encouraging active transportation, especially where wider sidewalks and cycle lanes are unable to be installed on parallel major roads (due to streetcar lines, for example), or where they can connect major parks, off-road trails, and other cycling corridors.

To make such quiet streets permanent, curb extensions at intersections and other physical cues should be used to slow down traffic. Traffic circles and well-marked crosswalks could also take the place of four-way stops, which are easily ignored by motorists while frustrating cyclists.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed severe inequities; between those who work in the logistics, healthcare, and food service industries, and those who are able to work at home; between those who have comfortable homes with access to ample green space and those who do not, and those can rely on their own automobiles, and those who must walk, cycle, or take transit. This is why expanding public space and providing safe routes to travel is so important.

“please drive carefully” – sign in median of Shaughnessy Boulevard

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Signs of the times in Northwestern Toronto

Un-plated rental cars stored in the Woodbine Centre parking lot

In a distant corner of Woodbine Centre’s parking lot, dozens of late model cars and trucks sit with their licence plates removed. These are all rental cars, left idle due to the collapse of demand during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Friday, Hertz — the United States’ second-largest car rental company — filed for bankruptcy. Hertz’s brands include Dollar and Thrifty.

Woodbine Centre, a once-vibrant mall in northwest Toronto is a short drive from Toronto-Pearson International Airport, making it an ideal place to store the suddenly surplus fleets. Though in the 1980s and 1990s, Woodbine boasted cinemas, two-full line department stores, Zellers, and dozens of national chain stores, it has lost most of its cachet, with both Sears and Zellers gone, and Hudson’s Bay barely hanging on. Its parking lot was typically half-empty in recent years.

Though the demand for rental cars, especially at the airport, have dried up, many neighbourhood car rental branches remain open, offering attractive rates for daily and weekly rentals. I have taken advantage of the low prices right now (often as cheap as $25 a day on a multi-day rental) to run errands, go for short drives, conduct some field research for future articles and projects, and visit nearby provincial parks and regional forests for physically-distant nature hikes. I am also able to help family members by delivering groceries and medications. With the surplus of available cars, upgrades from the intermediate or standard car booking can be expected. (I was given a Mercedes-Benz E-class a few weeks ago, though I had booked a standard sedan.)

Though we live downtown, my partner and I prefer to shop at a Chinese grocery store in Scarborough, which is calmer, better organized, and better stocked than our local stores (flour, rice, and meat are plentiful). Having a car makes it easy to carry a large load, reducing the number of grocery trips required.

Across the street from Woodbine Centre, in another parking lot, there is another sign of the times: an overflow lot for Humber College has been transformed into a drive-through COVID-19 assessment centre. At 12:30 on Monday, May 25, the centre, which is normally open daily from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM, was already full, and not accepting any more patients who were looking to be tested.

While Premier Doug Ford urged anyone worried about having COVID-19 or being in contact with anyone with it last Sunday, it’s not surprising to see the huge demand. While the change in eligibility is good news, it is troubling that actually getting tested may take so long.

Full COVID-19 assessment centre in North Etobicoke

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Room to share: How cities can make physical distancing work

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Blackfriars Bridge open to pedestrians and cyclists in London, Ontario

For my latest TVO article, I spoke with Councillor Shawn Menard in Ottawa, Councillor Rowena Santos in Brampton, and Ryerson University epidemiologist Anne Harris about how cities in Ontario are reallocating road space for pedestrians and cyclists during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, or why they may be hesitant to do so.

In Brampton, five kilometres of new bike lanes, proposed in that city’s new transportation plan, were quickly approved as part of its response to COVID-19. This benefits both pedestrians and cyclists by reducing conflicts on sidewalks, reducing congestion on city paths, and recognizing that cycling is an increasingly important mode of transportation.

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Cyclists on Howden Boulevard, Brampton

In Ottawa, despite resistance from the the mayor and council, Shawn Menard, who represents an urban ward just south of Parliament Hill, was able to temporarily close two lanes of traffic on a narrow bridge on a major retail street, and worked with the National Capital Commission to re-allocate a section of parkway for active transportation.

Meanwhile in Toronto, the mayor and medical officer of health were resistant to increasing calls for sidewalk expansions in congested urban areas, including where queues formed to enter grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stores, and LCBO outlets.

This was one of my favourite articles I have written so far. 

 

Loblaws queue on Church Street

Queue on Church Street at Carlton to enter Loblaws supermarket

With Walk Toronto, I have been involved with pushing the City of Toronto to take action, especially in pinch points where store queues, construction barriers, and other obstructions have made it difficult — if not impossible — to safely practice physical distancing when walking or cycling for essential purposes, or even getting a little bit of fresh air or light exercise in dense urban areas.

The good news is that ten problem areas — including the intersection of Carlton and Church — have finally been identified for curb lane closures, with potentially more on the way. This is a timid first step, made after weeks of advocacy, but it is welcome.

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All stick, no carrot: the problem with the city’s response to physical distancing

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Parks across Canada are closed, with the exception of walking through

On Saturday April 11, during the Easter long weekend, the City of Toronto announced that a team of over 350 police officers and bylaw enforcement officers would shift from an education-based campaign of verbal and written warnings to people congregating and using closed amenities in parks to a zero-tolerance ticketing campaign. Tickets for violating orders — intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 — include a fine of up $1,000.

In the press release, the city listed twenty parks specifically targeted for enforcement. Though most are located in the old City of Toronto and along Lake Ontario, there are several others located in Toronto’s inner suburbs.

The list of parks include several along Toronto’s waterfront, including Humber Bay Park, Woodbine Beach, and Bluffers Park. It also includes several small downtown parks adjacent to recent high rise residential development, including Corktown Common, College Park, and Allan Gardens. Large suburban parks known for family gatherings and picnics, such as Earl Bales, G. Ross Lord, and Sunnybrook Parks are also on the list.

These parks are illustrated in the map below.

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Parks targeted by the City of Toronto for stricter enforcement (click for larger image)

Though many of us are at home, working remotely or waiting for schools and workplaces to reopen, those employed in essential industries and services do not have a choice. For the rest of us not required to self-isolate, an occasional walk or bicycle ride is good for our mental and physical well-being. It may be necessary to pick up food and prescriptions.

For those of us without yards and quiet residential neighbourhoods, going outside means either navigating narrow and occasionally crowded sidewalks, or going to nearby small and busy parks, especially those without access to a car. In my experience so far, the vast majority of people are respecting the calls for physical distancing.

Closing parking lots and amenities such as playgrounds and picnic facilities makes sense. Where possible, we shouldn’t be straying far from home while physically distancing, and we should be keeping close to those we’re living with. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people live in apartments in Mimico and Humber Bay Shores; they shouldn’t be crowded out of their own backyard by others seeking a stroll along the waterfront.

But downtown and in the Yonge-Eglinton area, quiet open spaces close to home may be hard to come by. Sidewalks are narrow, construction barriers such as scaffolding make physical distancing especially difficult, and along Eglinton Avenue, Crosstown LRT construction has made getting around on foot especially challenging, with pedestrians often restricted to narrow passages.

These help to explain the problems at College Park, Eglinton Park, and Allan Gardens. Furthermore, Allan Gardens is close to several shelters and social services such as Seaton House, and has long been a place for marginalized residents to socialize and linger.

This is one more reason why dense, growing urban neighbourhoods require more space. Increasing the space allotted to pedestrians and cyclists by removing underused traffic lanes would provide some of that relief.

This was the argument made by two associate professors of epidemiology at Ryerson University, who sent an open letter to Mayor John Tory and the city’s medical officer of health, Eileen de Villa, arguing for more road space for pedestrians and cyclists.

It is disappointing to see the city respond only with increased enforcement without providing any alternatives for safe physical distancing.

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How to reimagine our streets during a pandemic

Queen Street West, late March 2020

Nobody’s going to be flocking to the streets during a pandemic

In an interview with local news station CP24, Mayor John Tory said that the city was considering implementing one-way directional traffic on city sidewalks as part of a response to COVID-19. This idea was considered as a measure to ensure physical distancing on Toronto’s sidewalks.

The mayor, however, does not support the alternate solution of increasing the amount of road space given to pedestrians and cyclists. With traffic on major routes such as Yonge, Queen, and Bloor reduced, and most businesses closed, it would be easy to provide additional space for pedestrians without causing traffic congestion. According to the mayor, “it could have the unintended effect of attracting more pedestrians to busy areas, something the city is actively trying to discourage right now.”

That’s ridiculous.

With businesses closed, no patios to linger at, and no programming (unlike at any other street closure, whether it be Taste of the Danforth, Open Streets, Pride Week, or Buskerfest), pedestrians will not be attracted to linger and crowd sidewalks in dense urban neighbourhoods. However, they will be able to walk to work, get to essential services, exercise the dog, or get some fresh air, without having to dodge other people or sidewalk barriers, such as construction scaffolding.

Furthermore, enforcing one-way sidewalks — the city’s only other idea — would be extremely difficult to enforce. It would  only increase the distance pedestrians would have to walk to get to work or essential services. It would go against centuries of practice, and it would encourage less-safe midblock crossings. It would be especially cumbersome for seniors and pedestrians with disabilities. 

While Toronto continues to do nothing to protect vulnerable road users during a pandemic, other cities — including Montreal, New York, Vancouver, Denver, and Oakland— have closed entire roads to better serve pedestrians and cyclists in parks and dense urban areas. Closer to home, Kitchener and Brampton have also taken steps to to assist active transportation during this unprecedented time.

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King Street, Downtown Kitchener

A decade ago, King Street in Downtown Kitchener was reconstructed with new lighting, street furniture, trees, and a rolled curb separating the narrow street with sidewalk and street parking and loading areas, which were separated from the pedestrian area by removable bollards. As a response to COVID-19, most of the parking spots were blocked off, with the bollards moved towards the roadways, quickly and easily expanding the pedestrian zone. With new residential development in Downtown Kitchener, several portions of the regular sidewalk were covered with scaffolding. The widened pedestrian clearway made it easy and safe to get around the barriers, allowing pedestrians to practice physical distancing.

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Bollards moved close to the street, and parking banned. It’s much easier to get around the construction scaffolding.

Meanwhile, in Brampton, where sidewalk crowding isn’t usually a problem, the city government went ahead with a plan to close the right lanes of Howden Boulevard and Vodden Street — four-lane collector roads through residential areas — to install temporary bike lanes. This will provide a five-kilometre bikeway across the city between Etobicoke Creek and Chinguacousy Park, crossing Highway 410 at a safe location.

Installing temporary lanes makes it easier in the future to make the lanes permanent — Vodden and Howden could use road diets after all — which could connect three north-south ravine paths and connect Downtown Brampton with Bramalea City Centre. City Council — including Mayor Patrick Brown — is committed to improving the city’s rather poor active transportation infrastructure.

Brampton Temp Bike Lanes

Temporary bike lanes coming to Howden Blvd. in Brampton

While Toronto continues to drag its heels on providing safe spaces for its residents to walk and bike while being physically distant, its peer cities — and even one of its suburbs, are leading. One can only speculate about the reasoning behind Mayor Tory’s reluctance to do more.

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A sudden drop in transit usage across the Toronto Region

IMG_6299-001Last week, I wrote about how several TTC routes were facing overcrowding, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and a severe drop in system-wide ridership since early March. I shared this analysis on Spacing’s website, and Ben Spurr at the Toronto Star reported more about the story this week.

Though detailed ridership data is not freely accessible, I wanted to see how ridership on the TTC, GO Transit, and other Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area transit agencies was faring. Helpfully, the team behind the Transit app, a trip-planning smartphone tool, made their usage data available to transit agencies, journalists, and data nerds to track transit demand during the pandemic. Although there are some limitations to using this data (more on that later), it’s an excellent metric for tracking transit ridership for dozens of major transit authorities across Canada and the United States, representing nearly every major metropolitan region.

The numbers used to determine transit ridership demand is based on usage of the Transit app. (While Transit is one of several apps that can be used to plan trips, including Metrolinx’s own Triplinx app, Transit is my favourite). Normal usage is defined by Transit as app sessions observed on the same day of the week one year ago, averaged over three weeks and corrected for yearly growth in the corresponding transit agency. Hence, a rapidly-growing system, such as Brampton’s, can be represented accurately by the app.

Data was available for every transit agency in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, apart from paratransit services (e.g. Wheel-Trans, Transhelp, DARTS, etc.) and Milton and Caledon Transit, the smallest fixed-route services. The graph below shows the how the usage of the Transit app fluctuated based upon the expected value, reflected as a percentage.

GTHA Transit app usage from Feb 15 2020

Transit app usage compared to expected for GTHA transit agencies, February 15 to April 6, 2020 (click for larger image)

Note how the actual Transit app usage dropped by over 40% for every transit agency on Monday, February 17, which was Family Day, a provincial holiday in Ontario. Most transit services were operating on a weekend or holiday service, while students and many workers did not take transit. This was likely compared with normal Mondays, hence the one-day drop.

It wasn’t until the second week of March that ridership began to decline as the number of COVID-19 cases began to surge in Canada and the United States, and governments began announcing new measures to reduce the rate of infection. On Thursday March 12, Ontario announced that public schools, scheduled to close for March Break, would stay closed for two additional weeks (the shutdown has since been extended). That day, the National Basketball League suspended the season, followed quickly by all other sports leagues. Employers began to implement contingency measures, such as work-from-home arrangements. By Monday the 16th, all restaurants were closed to sit-down clientele, and most entertainment venues closed.

By the week of March 29, transit demand was down by 75 to 82 percent across the Greater Toronto Area. Although many workers were either laid off or were sent home to work, employees in the healthcare, personal care, logistics, essential retail service (i.e. grocery workers), and food manufacturing industries remained on the job. This is evident in the difference between the demand for the subway (-81%) and the surface network (buses and streetcars, -76%) as they serve very different employment centres. Transit’s numbers are comparable to the TTC’s own ridership estimates.

GTA_Ridership_COVID

Map depicting estimated drops in transit demand for GTHA transit agencies compared to expected use for week of March 29 to April 5, 2020. Data from Transit app.

Brampton Transit had the lowest estimated reduction in demand, at -75%. This could be for the same reasons that several bus routes in Toronto saw crowding despite a system-wide drop in ridership. Brampton’s population is relatively lower-income than many other suburban municipalities in Halton, Peel, and York Regions. Brampton also has many large food processing employers, such as Maple Lodge Farms, and many warehouses and distribution centres, including two major Amazon Fulfillment Centres. Brampton Transit connects to other major manufacturing and logistics employment areas in Mississauga, Vaughan and Toronto, including Pearson Airport.

Oakville Transit had the greatest drop, which can be explained by two factors. The first is that Oakville, is a relatively more affluent municipality, with fewer logistics and food industry employers. Secondly, its bus network is designed entirely to connect with GO Transit’s Lakeshore Line, which feeds Downtown Toronto. Therefore, the ridership dependent on Oakville Transit is more likely to be working from home than Brampton’s.

It must be noted that Transit’s figures are not the same as detailed ridership numbers collected by each transit agency. For example, Metrolinx cited a 90% drop in ridership across the GO Transit train and bus network, compared to Transit’s 79% estimate drop. Nonetheless, Transit’s data is a valuable metric.

With the sudden drop in ridership, there’s also a sudden drop in revenue. While many systems, including Brampton Transit and GO Transit have made service reductions, they have been careful to ensure enough capacity remains to safely meet demand. Every system has also increased vehicle and station cleaning, and most have stopped collecting fares to protect both passengers and operators. Just like laid-off employees, students, and freelance workers, transit too will need a bailout of some kind to rebuild lost ridership and maintain safe and healthy services.

Transit projects such as the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT, the new relief transit service for central Toronto (be it the Relief Line or Ontario Line), and GO Transit expansion must go on, as does the progress made in building ridership at suburban systems such as Brampton and Durham Region.

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Mapping TTC crowding during a pandemic

IMG_6314Rear door boarding on TTC buses is just one measure the TTC has taken to address the COVID-19 crisis

Note to readers: I have since written an updated version article (with a revised map) on Spacing’s website.


While most people are urged to stay home as much as possible during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there are those who must carry on. These include health care workers, staff at grocery stores, pharmacies, and other essential businesses, and others who can not work from home. There are also those who continue to require transit to undertake essential errands, such as medical appointments.

Thankfully, most transit systems have carried on. Through GO Transit has experienced an 80% drop in ridership since the beginning of March, it continues to operate all rail lines and most bus routes, providing fewer trips, but maintaining the same span of service hours. The TTC discontinued most express routes, but it maintains a grid of frequent bus and streetcar services.

However, the TTC and Brampton Transit continue to struggle with crowding on certain routes. Brampton Transit — which has resorted to an “enhanced Saturday service” level –will only carry half a bus’s seated capacity to enforce social distancing, which has resulted in “closed-door” situations where buses won’t stop for waiting passengers. As a result, several routes are now discontinued during peak periods so that buses are sent to address crowding elsewhere. Brampton Transit serves many shipping warehouses, including two Amazon fulfillment centres, which remain busy during this time.

Meanwhile, the TTC is struggling with morning rush hour crowding on ten bus routes:

  • 29 Dufferin
  • 35 Jane
  • 41 Keele
  • 44 Kipling South
  • 96 Wilson
  • 102 Markham Road
  • 117 Alness-Chesswood
  • 119 Torbarrie
  • 123 Sherway
  • 165 Weston Rd North

These routes, mostly clustered in the city’s northwest, are illustrated below.

TTC_COVID_CROWDSMap of overcrowded early morning TTC routes during the COVID-19 pandemic
(click for larger version)

Routes 117 and 119 are industrial services, connecting warehouses and food service plants. These industries — like the infamous Fiera Foods plants served by Route 119 — rely on low-paid, often temporary workers, with early morning starts. Certain warehouses and many food-service plants also have very early starts to the day. It would be tough for workers to accommodate the TTC’s request to travel at later times. Routes 96, 102, and 165 also extend into major industrial areas. Route 123 serves the Metro supermarket chain’s distribution centres on Dundas Street and The West Mall.

Many of these routes run through Toronto’s neighbourhood improvement areas, which are identified by the city as those requiring additional investment due to issues such as poor access to services and higher concentrations of low-income families. In addition, routes 41, 96, 119, and 165 serve the Humber River Regional Hospital, one of Toronto’s largest health care facilities, while the 96 Wilson also directly serves Etobicoke General Hospital.

Though it would be best for private essential employers to stagger shifts during this unprecedented time, there may be a need for the TTC to redirect some resources towards these parts of the city.

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