How TIFF lost the plot

IMG_4193-001.JPG504 King Streetcar diverting onto Spadina on Thursday, September 5

For the sixth year in a row, King Street between University and Spadina Avenues was closed for four straight days. This closure was for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) “Festival Street,” which took place between Thursday September 5 and Sunday September 8. In addition, King Street was closed during the afternoon rush hours the following Monday and Tuesday for “Red Carpet Events.”

TIFF has been recognized among the world’s most important film festivals, and one where the public has the opportunity to take part (albeit at increasingly inaccessible prices for many screenings). It offers tremendous economic and cultural value to Toronto. It compliments and helps to support many other annual film festivals, such as Hot Docs and Inside Out.

But TIFF’s clout and influence has also led to entitlement, with “Festival Street” being the most disruptive result. While King Street is closed off to traffic during the film festival, it has severe effects for the 84,000 daily riders of the 504 King Street, as well as riders on the busy 501 Queen and 510 Spadina cars.

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501 Queen and 504 King Streetcars stuck in traffic westbound at Queen and Spadina

Several major TIFF screening locations are located on or near King Street West, including Roy Thomson Hall, the Princess of Wales Theatre, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and two blocks north, the Scotiabank Cinemas. Industry parties and galas are held at nearby hotels and restaurants. It’s natural that King Street would be a hub of activity for the film festival. But it is also the third busiest transit route in Toronto, after the Yonge-University and Bloor-Danforth subways.

The King Street Pilot, which began in late 2017, prohibits through motor vehicle traffic on King Street between Jarvis and Bathurst Streets through the downtown core, though all vehicles are permitted to use King Street for short segments. Despite spotty enforcement, the pilot project allowed the TTC to operate much more reliably through the busy corridor, with an increase of capacity and ridership. In early 2017, daily ridership on the 504 King was 72,000. By March 2018, it grew to 84,000. In April, council voted to make the pilot permanent. This will allow for streetscape improvements along the corridor and wider sidewalks, with improved physical measures to further restrict through traffic.

A lot of political capital went into making King Street work better, so it is disappointing to see all that advocacy for a proper transit corridor go to waste while TIFF is in town. Torontonians are promised each year would be the last year streetcar service would be wrecked for TIFF, but every mid-August, we find out otherwise.  Continue reading

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Trekking across Northern Ontario

IMG_2761-001.JPGVIA RDC train about to depart Sudbury for White River

Last month, I embarked on a journey from Toronto to Thunder Bay, a distance of over 1,300 kilometres. My journey took me nearly three days as I opted to travel by bus and rail, rather than by car or by air. Though I had to take three separate trips to accomplish it (an Ontario Northland bus, a VIA Rail RDC train, and a Kasper Transportation mini-bus), it was a very interesting trip.

IMG_2768.JPGUnloading a canoe from the RDC on the Spanish River, northwest of Sudbury

Once I arrived in Thunder Bay, I rented a car. Though I know Northeastern Ontario quite well, I had yet to visit Northwestern Ontario (a brief stop in Sioux Lookout on VIA’s Canadian notwithstanding). There are several beautiful provincial parks within a short drive of Thunder Bay, and the city itself has a few interesting sights. Highway 17 along the Lake Superior shoreline is probably Ontario’s most scenic drive.

Travelling without a car has its challenges, especially as the traveler is at the mercy of sudden schedule changes, traffic delays, and other hiccups, but it is still possible to get across Northern Ontario even after Greyhound’s withdrawal from Western Canada and Northern Ontario last year.

I wrote about my experience for TVO.

KasperBusWhiteRiver.JPGKasper Transporation bus at White River – filling the gap left by Greyhound

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The dangers of Don Mills Road

IMG_3664.JPGDon Mills Road looking south towards McNicoll Avenue, North York

On the afternoon of Tuesday July 16, a woman was struck and killed by the driver of a left-turning waste collection truck as she was crossing the street. The tragedy happened at the corner of Cliffwood Road and Barkwood Crescent, in a quiet North York residential neighbourhood. The 68-year old was the eighteenth pedestrian killed on Toronto’s streets in 2019. 

Cliffwood Road is a typical suburban residential street in northeast North York, just south of the municipal boundary at Steeles Avenue. It meets Don Mills Road twice; at the north end, there are traffic signals, with a middle school and a plaza on the east side of the four-way intersection. On the south side, Cliffwood meets Don Mills at a three-way intersection, protected only by a a stop sign facing Cliffwood. As Cliffwood loops back on itself and has no direct connections to Steeles Avenue, it is not a useful short-cut for speeding motorists unlike many other suburban streets.

What, in particular, contributed to this deadly crash? I paid a visit to the area to find out.

IMG_3647.JPGThe intersection of Cliffwood Road and Barkwood Crescent, looking southeast

Between Don Mills Road and Barkwood Crescent, Cliffwood Road is 12 metres wide without any lane markings or medians to separate traffic or slow vehicles turning off of busy Don Mills Road. West of Barkwood Crescent, Cliffwood Road narrows to 8.5 metres. Twelve metres is a lot of road space: Beverley Street in Downtown Toronto is the same width, but it has two driving lanes, a parking lane, and two unprotected bike lanes. The wide street width here only encourages motorists to drive fast after coming off Don Mills Road, while wide curb radii at the corners at Don Mills and at Barkwood Crescent also encourage motorists to take turns quickly.

At Barkwood Crescent, Cliffwood Road has a speed limit of 50 km/h, the default speed limit in the City of Toronto. Closer to the schools to the north, a 40 km/h speed limit is posted, but there are no physical measures to slow down cars and trucks. Cliffwood Road, like so many other suburban streets, was built for speed, and not for local residents on foot.

IMG_3648-001An unnecessarily large intersection at Cliffwood Road and Barkwood Crescent, and a wide approach to Don Mills Road

I also noted the condition of nearby Don Mills Road, a busy thoroughfare connecting office parks in Richmond Hill and Markham with Fairview Mall to the south. Don Mills is a busy bus corridor, with both TTC and YRT buses providing frequent weekday service.

Despite the frequent bus service, Don Mills Road is hostile to pedestrians and transit users. At the southern intersection of Don Mills and Cliffwood Roads, the nearest crosswalk is nearly 300 metres to the north, or 600 metres to the south. Understandably, most transit users will choose to cross at the nearest TTC stop, rather than walk an extra five or ten minutes twice a day, especially in inclement weather.

In late August, a pedestrian was crossing Sheppard Avenue East in Scarborough to get to a nearby TTC bus stop when she was fatally struck by a motorist who then fled the scene. That stretch of Sheppard Avenue is flat and straight.

IMG_3652-001The corner of Cliffwood and Don Mills Roads with bus stops

Most area bus stops are adjacent to bus bays. Bus bays are designed to get buses out of the way of traffic while they are dropping off and picking up passengers. Once the bus is ready to leave the bus stop, it must then merge back into traffic. In addition, many of these bus bays double as right-turn lanes, increasing the distance a pedestrian must cross the street.

Furthermore, Don Mills has several hills and curves north of Finch Avenue that makes this especially dangerous because of low visibility, making it difficult to judge how far or how fast traffic may be coming. There are five lanes plus bus bays/right turn lanes; the centre lane alternates between serving as a left turn lane or a striped buffer space between northbound and southbound traffic, which further encourages high speeds.

IMG_3663-001.JPGBus stop at Don Mills Road and Mogul Drive, illustrating the high-speed curves

It is no wonder too that cyclists choose the sidewalks. Despite the wide right-of-way with generous boulevards between the backyard fences and the curbs, no though has been made to improve cycling infrastructure in this part of Toronto. Separated bike lanes or a multi-use path, similar to those on Eglinton Avenue in Etobicoke, or in Peel Region, would make sense here, and along other suburban arterials.

Cross-ride marking and signals at intersections would improve the safety for suburban cyclists and legitimize a common practice.

IMG_3630-001Cyclists take the sidewalk on Don Mills Road

At the end of my tour of upper Don Mills Road, I could not help but notice I was walking in a signed “Seniors Safety Zone.” As with Eglinton Avenue East in Scarborough, signs were put up but no measures were put in place to slow motorists down, and there was no sign of police enforcement of the posted limit either.

IMG_3684-001.JPG“Seniors Safety Zone” – note the bus bay behind the sign

There are a few things that can be done in Toronto’s suburbs to improve the safety of vulnerable road users (pedestrians and cyclists) and reduce the incidence and severity of crashes when they do happen. The installation of safer pedestrian crossings, such as traffic signals would reduce the distance required to get to a TTC stop safely. Bus bays should be eliminated with every road reconstruction project, as they do not benefit transit riders and encourage fast-moving traffic. Finally, residential streets should be narrowed, especially at intersections to slow motorists down, reduce the time a pedestrian is in the street while crossing, and improve their visibility.

Finally, wide multi-use paths along suburban corridors like Don Mills Road would help promote active transportation and reduce conflicts between pedestrians and cyclists.

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Dysfunction junction: the Union Station malfunction

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Looking west to Union Station, August 2019

Last year, the City of Toronto hastily installed Jersey barriers in front of Union Station. This was a response to a tragic criminal act on Yonge Street in North York on April 23, 2018. A single individual drove a rented cargo van down the busy sidewalk, killing 10 and injuring 16 more before he was apprehended by police. As one of Toronto’s busiest pedestrian areas, city officials decided that the plaza in front of Union Station required special protection in the wake of the attack in North York.

Sixteen months later, the temporary barriers remain, needlessly restricting pedestrian flows. Temporary Jersey barriers, normally used on roadways to protect construction sites, are long and awkward for pedestrians, making it even more difficult to access some of the city’s busiest crosswalks. During peak periods, these become pinch points, making it especially difficult for anyone crossing against the flow to get through safely. Pedestrians using mobility devices, strollers, or carrying wheeled bags are especially affected.

Afternoon rush hour crowds navigate around the Jersey barriers at Front and Bay Streets

Union Station is adjacent to four of the ten busiest intersections in the city where pedestrian traffic was measured: Bay and King, Bay and Wellington, Front and Simcoe, and York and Wellington (traffic counts are not available for Front and Bay or Front and York/University). At Bay and Wellington, one block north of Union Station, 32,319 pedestrians crossed in an eight-hour period in 2009, compared to 16,188 cars, trucks, and buses. At York and Wellington, 32,338 pedestrians crossed in an eight-hour time period in 2017 compared to just 5,575 vehicles.

Employment at the financial district with commuters headed to and from GO trains and the subway at Union Station, tourists, residents, and fans headed to and from games and concerts at Scotiabank Arena all contribute to the high pedestrian activity in this part of Downtown Toronto.

IMG_3585-001.JPGJersey barriers at the southwest corner of Front and Bay Streets at Union Station

Since the April 2018 attack, drivers have continued to mount sidewalks and crashing into bus shelters, buildings, and pedestrians. Early this morning, the driver of a stolen Range Rover crashed into a parked car on College Street, entered the sidewalk, hit a guidepost and then a transit shelter, injuring a pedestrian waiting for a streetcar. The driver then fled on foot. Other pedestrians have been injured and killed this year even when they are using signalized crosswalks correctly, and with all due care.

At Bay and Front, despite the huge crowds of pedestrians, traffic signals favour motorists. Left turn signals make pedestrians wait longer at crossings before having to navigate around vehicles illegally blocking the crosswalk in addition to navigating the haphazardly placed Jersey barriers. The video below shows the danger of crossing this intersection.

Motorists block the crosswalk with impunity while the left turn signal doesn’t help

In his March 25 column in the Toronto Star, Jack “The Fixer” Lakey was not very sympathetic to complaints about the barriers, writing that “they are clearly a pain for people when foot traffic is heaviest, but we couldn’t help but think they would be effective in stopping a driver bent on another deadly attack.”

Lakey then writes that the city is working on permanent barriers that will be “smaller, more aesthetically pleasing and easier to navigate for pedestrians,” with installation this year. It is now almost September, and nothing has been done.

It is hard to argue against barriers in certain places to better protect pedestrians from dangerous motorists. But the Jersey barriers at Union Station are not a sufficient response. Permanent bollard-style barriers would be a definite improvement, and it is disappointing to see the city drag its heels on this.

Meanwhile, the priority afforded to motorists at this downtown intersection, and the lack of enforcement of traffic laws makes it clear that little thought has been afforded to ensuring the safety of all road users. Dropping some road barriers on a sidewalk and calling it a day is unacceptable in a city that is supposedly committed to a Vision Zero action plan.

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The province’s attack on conservation authorities

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View from the Niagara Escarpment at Mount Nemo Conservation Area towards Mississauga and Toronto

One of Ontario’s greatest success stories has been the development of conservation authorities (CAs). The provincial Conservation Authorities Act was introduced in 1946 to provide for new joint provincial-municipal bodies protect farmland and natural features from deforestation, flooding, and erosion, organized not by political boundaries, but by watersheds. In 1954, south-central Ontario was hit by Hurricane Hazel, which caused extreme and deadly flooding. This highlighted the need for strong local authorities to coordinate flood protection strategies, including dams, floodways and reservoirs, but also land use planning, the protection of headwaters, and the naturalization of important landscapes, such as the Niagara Escarpment and Toronto’s ravines. Planners at CAs help to ensure that any new development is protected from flooding or erosion and will not negatively impact other properties or the watershed as a whole.

Most of Ontario’s 36 CAs also operate conservation areas, open to the public as parklands. These may contain hiking trails, wildlife sanctuaries, campgrounds, lakes and reservoirs for swimming, boating, or fishing, as well as waterfalls, caves, scenic lookouts, or other unique natural features. A few conservation authorities also operate historic sites, including old mills, or even entire pioneer villages, such as Black Creek. Many CAs also hold special events, such as festivals, school tours, and even concerts.

Many of these programs and services are incredibly important, but all are beneficial to the public. And they are under attack by the provincial government.

Earlier this year, the province cut funding for natural hazards planning by 50 percent. Late last week, the minister for Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks, Jeff
Yurek, sent a letter to all CAs and their partner municipalities to begin to wind down any programs not directly related to their “core mandate.”

Yurek commented that “over the years, conservation authorities have expanded past their core mandate into activities such as zip-lining, maple syrup festivals and photography and wedding permits.”

One such CA, Conservation Halton, operates several conservation areas in Halton Region and the City of Hamilton.

Kelso Conservation Area includes a ski hill, a reservoir that provides for paddle boating, fishing, and a swimming beach, and a campground. There are also outdoor movie nights. At Mountsberg Conservation Area, Conservation Halton operates a Raptor Centre, where injured birds of prey are treated and shown to the public. It also has one of those maple syrup festivals in its sugar bush.

26437885398_1405516057_o.jpgFeeding chickadees at Hilton Falls Conservation Area

Conservation Halton has a $30 million annual budget, but it only gets $145,000 from the province for core programs. The rest of its funds come from municipalities and from park user fees, rentals, and sales. The festivals, event bookings and wedding permits help fund the important conservation work. Offering festivals and other special events also help engage the public, especially children.

Of course, the Doug Ford-led Progressive Conservative government’s attack on conservation authorities isn’t about saving money. Instead it’s about restricting their mandate, reducing their ability to raise funds and engage the public.

Perhaps this all has to do with the influence of the development industry. Ontario Proud, a third-party advertiser connected with the Progressive Conservatives, ran attack ads on social media and on outdoor billboards against the last Liberal government in 2016 and 2017. It was funded by the development and construction industry, with Mattamy Homes being its largest contributor. The province also weakened planning legislation and municipal power to restrict new development through Bill 108, the so-called More Homes, More Choice Act.

If the Ford government gets its way, conservation authorities will have fewer resources to protect watersheds and natural lands and reduce the risk of the effects of climate change. Without maple syrup festivals and other “non-core” programming, there will also be less fun and reduced awareness of Ontario’s wonderful natural landscape. This isn’t about fiscal responsibility. It’s about ideology and payback.

27035683581_ff87c274c6_o.jpgThere are plenty of developers who’d love to pave over the Greenbelt

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Passenger trains of Northern Ontario

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Southbound Northlander train arriving at Gravenhurst, March 2012

In a few weeks, I will travel from Toronto to Thunder Bay by bus and by train, stopping at cities and towns like Sudbury, Chapleau, White River, Marathon, and Schreiber. I expect to write about the experience and the challenges of getting around Northern Ontario without a car. At one time, it was possible to take just one bus or train from Toronto or Ottawa to Thunder Bay. Now, the same trip can only be done in three separate segments.

Greyhound Canada, which once ran four daily bus trips between Toronto and Winnipeg, reduced service to just two daily trips in 2009, and then to just one trip in 2015. Greyhound pulled out completely from Western and Northern Canada in October 2018, cutting all its bus routes between Whitehorse, Vancouver, and Sudbury.

According to the joint Canadian National/Canadian Pacific railway schedule of 1976, there were daily passenger trains connecting Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto with North Bay, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Timmins, and Kapuskasing. There was also a daily train between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, and there were trains to Fort Frances, and several trains a week through the wilderness in Algoma District.

Most of those trains are now gone. The CP Sudbury-Sault Ste. Marie train lasted just one more year, before being eliminated in 1977. The 1990 cuts to VIA Rail resulted in the loss of the daily Canadian through Thunder Bay, Sudbury, and North Bay, and the end of direct rail service to Timmins and Kapuskasing. The Canadian, now operating on the less scenic and less-populated CN mainline, ran just three times a week, with only a shuttle service on the most remote section of the CP route between Sudbury and White River.

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VIA Rail RDC stopped at Cartier, Ontario on its way to White River

In 2012, the Liberal provincial government announced the elimination of the Northlander, a daily train operated by Ontario Northland between Toronto, North Bay, and Cochrane. This decision was made with the intention of “modernizing” Ontario Northland, the provincial Crown corporation that operates freight and passenger rail and coach buses in northeastern Ontario. In 2014, the federal Conservative government cancelled the subsidy to run thrice-weekly Algoma Central Railway’s passenger train between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst. (A popular excursion train still operates to Agawa Canyon.)

Though I was too young to travel on my own when the devastating 1990 VIA Rail cuts were made, I was able ride the Northlander and the Algoma Central Railway passenger trains while they were still operating.

With a friend from Calgary, I rode the Northlander from to Toronto to Cochrane and back, in May 2012. We continued to Moosonee near the shores of James Bay coast on the Polar Bear Express, which continues to operate. I made a second trip on the Northlander from Cochrane to Toronto in September 2012.

Ontario Northland continues to operate a freight railway, scheduled coach buses, and the Polar Bear Express, a mixed train between Cochrane and Moosonee. There are no all-season roads to Moosonee, so the train remains a lifeline for the James Bay community. We also took that train in May 2012.

In February 2014, after learning that Canadian National (owner of Algoma Central) was planning on discontinuing the local ACR passenger service, a friend and I made the trip to Sault Ste. Marie to ride the train all the way to Hearst and back. It was an especially memorable ride because of the deep snow, as well as the opportunity to take photographs from the vestibules between the rail cars. We traveled with a group of snowmobilers from Wisconsin (their Ski-Doos were in a baggage car) as well as local residents heading to their cabins.

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The last run of the Rogers Road Streetcar

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Westbound Rogers Road Streetcar at Old Weston Road, 1972. Photograph from Toronto Archives – Fonds 1526, File 72, Item 61

Forty-five years ago today, on Friday, July 19, 1974, the Rogers Road Streetcar made its last run. The route ran from a loop at St. Clair and Oakwood Avenue to Bicknell Loop, located on Rogers Road just west of Keele Street.

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) had only recently abandoned its policy of eliminating the streetcar network in favour of buses and the planned Queen Street Subway. By the early 1970s, there were still nine streetcar lines in Toronto, along with two extra rush hour services.

The TTC had to maintain a core fleet of streetcars to continue service until a new fleet could be delivered, and there was a shortage of streetcars in good condition. Despite the new commitment to continue operating a street railway, one more line would have to go. Rogers Road, the last of four streetcars operated for the Township (later Borough) of York, would be sacrificed. (It would not be the last streetcar route to disappear, however.)

For nearly thirty years, service on Rogers Road was provided by trolley buses, a branch of the 63 Ossington route. While the TTC promised to extend the trolley bus to Jane Street (which was one of the reasons why York politicians supported the streetcar abandonment), it never happened. Instead, a shuttle bus route provided service along Alliance Avenue to Jane. Once the trolley bus network was scrapped in 1993, the TTC restructured several west-end routes. In 1994, the 161 Rogers Road bus finally provided the through service York had demanded for twenty years.

In July 2014, before I started this blog, I wrote an article about the Rogers Road Streetcar for Spacing’s website, with the assistance of Steve Munro and author John F. Bromley. Five years later, it remains one of my favourite writing assignments.

You can read the Spacing full article on here.

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