This week, I appeared on two podcasts, talking about municipal open data, crowdsourced mapping projects, and Brampton’s success in building suburban transit ridership.
For Spacing Radio’s Future Fix series, I spoke about a recent Walk Toronto initiative to map sidewalk pinch points during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. We used Google Maps to pinpoint specific locations where queues to enter grocery stores, pharmacies, and other essential businesses and services made physical distancing difficult or impossible.
Through Walk Toronto’s social media accounts, we asked Torontonians where these locations were, then submitted a list to city staff and public health officials. Not long afterwards, CurbTO was announced to address this specific problem, the first of several initiatives that recognized the need to get outside.
Also on the podcast are Shabnem Afzal, road safety manager for Surrey, British Columbia, speaking about that city’s Vision Zero plan, and Halifax City Councillor Waye Mason, who spoke about that city’s interactive map that allows its citizens identify spots where safe street interventions are needed.
Just before the pandemic hit, I spoke with Helen Lee and Vincent Puhakka of the new podcast The Next Stop about Brampton Transit’s success, and the implications for other suburban transit agencies. Also on the podcast are Brampton Transit General Manager Alex Milojevic and Mayor Patrick Brown.
I hope you have a listen to each of these podcasts, and consider subscribing.
Kingston Road is one of Toronto’s oldest and most important thoroughfares. Sections of the road were first laid out by Asa Danforth in 1799, though a straighter, more direct route was established by the early 1800s. By the 1830s, it was a busy stagecoach route, connecting Toronto with Cobourg, Belleville, and Kingston.
As Toronto grew into a major city, Kingston Road was an obvious route for a radial railway line serving Scarborough Township; by 1906, radial cars extended as far east as West Hill, near Morningside Avenue. The radial line’s stops were numbered from the beginning of the line, first at Queen Street and Kingston Road, then at Kingston and Victoria Park Avenue after the TTC took over city operations.
Stop 0 was at the city limits at Victoria Park (with connections to TTC streetcars). Stop 14 was Halfway House at Midland Avenue. Stop 26 was the Scarborough Post Office, near today’s Scarborough Golf Club Road, and Stop 35 was the end of the line, at West Hill.
With increasing automobile ownership and new intercity bus lines in the 1920s, Kingston Road was busier than ever, becoming part of the new provincial highway system, but ridership on the radials declined, especially after the TTC extended city streetcars east to Birchmount Avenue in 1928, leaving behind a mostly-rural service. Radial service was cut back to Stop 26 in 1931, and completely replaced by buses in 1936 (the 86 Scarborough bus route is the modern legacy).
Despite the switch to buses, the stop numbers carried on for many years, listed in TTC timetables through the 1950s. Locals would often refer to stop numbers instead of street intersections. Stop 17, at Kingston Road and St. Clair Avenue East, is one example that has lingered on. A mural on the side of Stop 17 variety depicts a green radial car in front of the Scarborough High School), with a cow blocking the way of a truck looking to pass.
Scarborough High School, on the opposite corner of the variety store, was built in 1922, expanded several times, and later renamed R. H. King Academy. The original building was torn down in 1976, but the entrance way, depicted in the mural, was retained.
Nearby, towards Brimley Road, several older motels date from the motoring era, when Highway 2 was the main route into the city. Though Highway 401 drew some of the traffic away in the 1950s, it wasn’t until the completion of the Don Valley Parkway (which provided a direct route downtown) and the rise of chain hotels saw a decline in independent motels along Kingston Road and Lake Shore Boulevard. Some have been repurposed as shelters, while others, like the Hav-A-Nap, diversified by offering paid parking for nearby Bluffers Park.
Last month, Metrolinx held a virtual open house to present information on the progress of the Hurontario LRT project, planned work, and details on some of the stops along the line. For now, roadwork is limited to median removal and utility relocation, but by next year, heavy construction will commence along the 18-kilometre long corridor.
If Metrolinx goes ahead with their plans for a minimal station on the south side of the intersection, anyone connecting between modes will be forced to cross two sides of a busy, hazardous intersection at grade, impacting both accessibility and safety. We can thank politicians on the 2014-2018 Brampton City Council for this situation, which provide just one of many examples of how systemic racism manifests in transit decision making.
On Sunday, June 7, Olivia and Julia Sarracini were crossing Calvington Drive at Keele Street. It was 12:15 in the morning. The walk sign turned on, and the two sisters, aged 17 and 19, entered the crosswalk, walking north. Behind them, the driver of a black SUV waited for southbound traffic to clear the intersection before turning left, directly into the two young women, who were already halfway across the intersection.
Julia suffered leg injuries and was sent to hospital. Olivia, who was just finishing Grade 12, was pronounced dead at the scene. The driver of the SUV did not stop, but fled westbound on Calvington Drive.
The driver was definitely at fault for striking the two women, who were walking with the right of way and all due care necessary. But it remains quite possible that if the motorist remained at the scene that night might only be facing minor Highway Traffic Act charges. (Without a vulnerable road users’ law, justice for pedestrians and cyclists injured or killed on Ontario’s streets is terribly inadequate.) Yet road design and a poor transportation network in Toronto’s inner suburbs played a significant role here.
This section of Keele Street provides a link between Highway 401 and Humber River Regional Hospital to the south, and Finch Avenue, York University, and several industrial areas to the north. Downsview Park is just to the north of Calvington Avenue, and along with the large parkspace, new residential development is well underway, with more planned.
The area around Keele and Calvington was developed in the 1950s and 1960s, though visages of the old village of Downsview can be found close by, towards Wilson Avenue to the south. Between Wilson and Sheppard, Keele Street is five lanes wide, with a centre left-turn lane. Traffic is heavy throughout the day and evening, with many trucks headed to and from industrial lands and nearby construction sites. Even in heavy traffic, motorists regularly exceed the 50 km/h speed limit.
Pedestrians are provided only with narrow sidewalks, close to the road. These sidewalks are not separated from strip plaza parking spaces. Despite a major hospital, nearby elementary and secondary schools, a library, Downsview Park, and urban intensification taking place in the area, there are no cycling facilities. Cyclists, therefore, usually take the sidewalk. While cyclists avoid heavy traffic on Keele’s narrow lanes, they infringe on the little bit of space given to pedestrians.
Calvington runs west from Keele, with a strip plaza and gas station on the east side of the intersection. Though most traffic off Calvington turns south, pedestrians are prohibited from crossing at the north side, lest they slow down left-turning motorists off of Calvington. Furthermore, an advance left turn signal gives priority to northbound motorists turning on to Calvington from Keele, though the advance signal is only triggered by a queue of several left-turning vehicles.
Though neither the advance signal nor the crossing restriction were factors in the collision on June 7, they are just further reminders of who the streetscape was designed for.
The trouble with that motion is that it too narrow. There are dozens of similar intersections in Toronto’s post-war suburbs. The intersection already has an advance green traffic signal. I would suggest that a review of the whole district is necessary in the the context of new and upcoming urban development, poor access to Downsview Park from the south and west, and inadequate and unsafe active transportation infrastructure. Nearby Highway 401 and the GO Transit Barrie Line both create significant barriers to pedestrians and cyclists in the area.
Olivia Sarracini was killed and Julia Sarracini was injured by a dangerous and callous driver who did not have the humanity to stay and offer assistance and take responsibility. This tragedy shouldn’t warrant a narrow safety review. Without changing the built environment, tragedies like these will continue.
Toronto took its time recognizing the need for pedestrian space during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It wasn’t until late April that the mayor and the medical officer of health considered limited curb lane closures to accommodate crowded sidewalks in front of supermarkets, drug stores, and other essential businesses.
But those curb lane closures — called CurbTO — later expanded to ActiveTO, which includes hundreds of kilometres of “Quiet Streets” for pedestrians and cyclusts and regular weekend road closures on Lake Shore Boulevard and Bayview Avenue. By June, CurbTO and ActiveTO were joined by CafeTO — which would expedite restaurant patio licences and even allow temporary patio space in parking lanes — as well as CampTO and SwimTO, programs to safely open up public pools and day camps for the summer.
Most significantly, new cycle tracks and bike were approved by a wide margin at Council in May, including the entire stretch of Bloor-Danforth between Runnymede Road and Dawes Road.
Through the weekend road closures are closed off with metal barriers and enforced by police, the Quiet Streets are protected only by pylons and temporary signage. On Shaughnessy Boulevard, one of the first Quiet Street implementations, pylons were removed by angry motorists. Elsewhere, residents rearranged pylons to block half the street, doing more to discourage through traffic.
In Kensington Market, pylons were moved by drivers onto the sidewalk, creating additional barriers to pedestrians, especially those with disabilities.
Clearly, pylons are not enough.
While I was in Brampton recently, I noticed a more effective approach. On Scott Street, just east of the city’s downtown core, a narrow bridge was closed to motor traffic in order to provide a quiet and safe crossing of Etobicoke Creek to connect two sections of the Etobicoke Creek Trail. Instead of moveable pylons, rigid plastic bollards were bolted to the roadway, with a compliant “road closed” sign posted in the middle.
Signage approaching the closed bridge was also also quite clear.
I also noted that bolted bollards were also used to mark the interim bike lanes on Vodden Street and Howden Boulevard at every intersection, precluding their use by through traffic. On that early weekday afternoon, only one vehicle was illegally parked in the lane along the entire four-kilometre route. Not one pylon was out of place either.
While Brampton was one of the first cities in Ontario to implement improved active transportation infrastructure during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has done little else since. However, Brampton has an ambitious new active transportation master plan to fix many gaps in its cycling infrastructure and expand its paths system; hopefully it will able to accelerate parts of its plan as Toronto is now doing.
But what Brampton did right was putting in effective barriers and signage to protect its temporary walking and cycling routes. This is something Toronto could learn from.
On Thursday, I took the subway for the first time since Ontario declared a state of emergency in March. I entered Queen Station at 9:45 that morning, and rode to Wilson Station. The subway ride north was noticeably quiet, and I had a good choice of seats, even though most were marked as restricted for physical distancing.
On my return home, at 4:00 PM, the subway was busier, but still quiet enough to take a seat in the middle of the train, while just about everyone had a non-restricted seat through the downtown core. That never happened prior to March 13.
As I am used to crowded subway trains — even on Sunday mornings — my first subway rides in months proved to be a surreal experience. Though as most passengers were wearing face coverings and keeping distance, it felt safer and more comfortable than many of my recent supermarket trips.
Though subways are mostly empty, and streetcars pass through downtown with only twenty percent of their normal ridership, things are very different on the buses. In Toronto, Brampton and Mississauga, vehicles regularly bypass crowds of waiting passengers while displaying a “sorry bus full” sign.
Back in March, I mapped the TTC’s most crowded early morning routes. These ten routes were generally located in Toronto’s suburbs, serving employment lands and neighbourhoods with lower incomes and higher proportions of racialized persons. Brampton and Mississauga, which also have large food production and warehousing industries and significant immigrant and racialized populations, are experiencing similar problems with crowding.
All buses only allow passengers to enter through the rear doors, with many seats marked restricted with paper signs similar to those on the subway. The area behind the driver is closed off as well. While the TTC expect riders to tap their Presto cards at the rear or pay by cash or ticket at a subway station, Brampton, Mississauga, and other systems are permitting free rides for now.
A typical TTC bus contains only 33-36 passenger seats; an articulated (“bendy”) bus has 46. The TTC operators’ union instructed its members to allow only 10 customers aboard a standard bus (though the operator has discretion), and 15 aboard an articulated bus. Transporting that few people on each bus is unsustainable, and with tens of thousands of essential workers relying on the TTC to get to work — many of those jobs difficult and poorly-paying — it’s yet another inequity laid bare by this pandemic.
With loosening restrictions, the demand for transit has already begun to increase. By early July, local transit agencies will require all passengers to wear masks or face coverings. At the same time, passengers will be directed to enter buses through the front doors, while reinstating mandatory fare payment.
Front-door boarding and mandatory mask use will help with some of the capacity issues on buses. Offering free masks is a welcome acknowledgement that many who have taken transit may not have money or time to purchase or make their own face coverings. (The TTC has instructions on how to make rudimentary masks posted in subway stations.)
Even then, bus capacity will continue to be limited to ensure physical distancing, and buses will likely still pass by crowds of waiting customers.
While central Toronto benefits from walkable neighbourhoods, existing and new cycling infrastructure, and subways and streetcars with more capacity to spare, suburban residents will still have to rely on buses. Though I see mandatory mask use as a necessary step towards mitigating the risk of viral transmission, I fear it may not be enough for those who work at hospitals and clinics, food plants and warehouses, and grocery stores, restaurants, nursing homes, and daycares.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.