Toronto Urban Planning

An exciting future for Old City Hall

IMG_8119-002Activist New York exhibition, Museum of the City of New York, January 2015

During my last visit to New York City, in January 2015, I visited the Museum of the City of New York. I spent several hours exploring the museum, which is dedicated to telling the story of the city and its inhabitants. The exhibit that fascinated me the most was a temporary exhibition called “Activist New York” which covered everything from campaigns for and against religious tolerance in the 1600s to the struggles for LGBT rights in the last several decades. With rich and trying history of human rights struggles in our city, I felt that this is exactly the type of exhibition that would fit a potential City of Toronto Museum.

osgoode-oasis_30887205805_oOld City Hall’s clocktower overlooks Nathan Phillips Square and Osgoode Hall

With new plans for Old City Hall currently being studied, the dream of a civic museum worthy of the City of Toronto is one step closer to reality. With provincial courts due to vacate E.J. Lennox’s Richardsonian Romanesque masterpiece, the City of Toronto is looking to re-purpose the building for new public and private uses, including a new enclosed courtyard. Retail and commercial uses — such as shops, cafes, educational spaces and offices — would be sympathetic to the historic structure. But the highlight is a proposed 100,000 square foot museum, comparable in size to that in New York.

There’s still the risk that City Council won’t approve a new museum, which would be expensive to build and may not, in itself, be a money-maker. But as a city-building initiative, it’s necessary, like a new major downtown park.

I attended the public consultation meeting at Metro Hall last night; I wrote more about it in Torontoist.

Intercity Rail Transit Urban Planning

GO Transit’s Grimsby problem

The Bruce Trail near Fifty Road, November 6, 2016

On Sunday, November 6, I took advantage of an unseasonably warm November day to go hiking on the Bruce Trail. I started in Grimsby and hiked for 23 kilometres west to the Stoney Creek Battlefield Monument in Hamilton. The hike was lovely as there was still some fall foliage left to enjoy, and the views above the Escarpment over Niagara vineyards and Lake Ontario were spectacular.

View of Downtown Grimsby and Lake Ontario from the top of the Niagara Escarpment

In order to do this six hour, one-way hike, I took the train to Grimsby, and began my trip from there (enjoying a coffee and snack at a great local coffee shop first). Upon arriving at Stoney Creek, I took a Hamilton Street Railway bus downtown for dinner before taking a GO bus back to Toronto.

View from the lookout at Devil’s Punch Bowl Conservation Area towards Hamilton Harbour

The Stoney Creek Battlefield Monument, where I ended my hike as the sun began to set

When I go for a bike ride or a hike, whether it be a solo trip or a hike with friends, I like to plan the trip in advance, and to think about the transportation options for getting there. And so I come once again to thinking about Grimsby, GO Transit, VIA Rail, and local transit.

There is currently only one train each way between Toronto and Niagara Region — Amtrak’s Maple Leaf, which is operated by VIA crews on the Canadian side of the border. The Maple Leaf takes 12 hours and 30 minutes to get from Toronto’s Union Station to New York’s Penn Station, including a stop at the border for customs and immigration checks. Other delays, such as freight traffic and even ship traffic on the Welland Canal, make this train commonly late for Niagara passengers headed to Toronto in the evening. There was once a second daily VIA train between Toronto and Niagara Falls, scheduled to serve commuters, but it was cut by the Stephen Harper-led Conservative government in 2012.

img_6547-001Downtown Grimsby

GO Transit operates a summer weekend train service between Toronto and Niagara Falls, making stops at Port Credit, Oakville, Burlington, and St. Catharines, but not at Grimsby. GO Transit also operates a year-round bus service — Route 12 — that follows the QEW between Burlington GO Station and Downtown Niagara Falls, stopping at several park and ride lots and at Fairview Mall in St. Catharines, a secondary hub for local transit in that city.

The Maple Leaf Train leaves Union Station at 8:20 AM, 7 days a week, and arrives at Grimsby just after 9:30 AM, stopping only at Oakville and Aldershot. Taking GO Transit, it takes nearly two hours to get to the park and ride at Casablanca Boulevard, including the transfer time at Burlington Station.

GO Transit Route 12

The Grimsby Amtrak/VIA station is located on Ontario Street, at a site picked by the Great Western Railway in 1853. It is a mere 5-10 minute walk to Downtown Grimsby, located in the centre of that community’s population. The GO Transit park and ride is located at the west end of town, at Casablanca Boulevard. The planned GO Transit Rail Station is located nearby. The bus stop and proposed rail station is located 3.5 kilometres from Downtown Grimsby, or a 45 minute walk.

img_6544-001Grimsby Station

The current railway station at Grimsby consists of only a small shelter and indoor waiting area, along with a small parking lot for VIA customers. The platform is small, about one rail car’s length. The VIA Rail Canada sign is almost as large as the station building itself. But for me, the railway station’s location was far more convenient than the GO bus stop at Casablanca Boulevard.

A new station at Casablanca Boulevard offers several advantages for GO Transit: easy access to the Queen Elizabeth Way, plenty of undeveloped land for a parking lot, and room for a platform for GO Transit’s 10-car and 12-car trains. But the location is not friendly for customers who wish to walk or cycle to the train, and without a local transit system, it’s inaccessible for many potential Grimsby commuters unless they were to take a taxi, get a ride, or drive their own car.

Overlooking the QEW/Casablanca Boulevard interchange and the proposed location of the Grimsby GO Station. GO buses serve the park-and-ride lot in the middle ground. Note the clear view across the lake to Toronto.

I have argued here before that GO Transit has an unfortunate record of catering to motorists while mostly ignoring the needs of many of its current and potential customers. GO Transit’s need for large parking lots often precludes locating stations in more urban locations. By providing ‘free’ parking, GO forces all passengers to subsidize those who drive alone to its stations.

Of course, GO Transit is going to build Grimsby Station at Casablanca Boulevard; it was announced earlier this year as part of a GO service expansion project. But a useful local transit system, scheduled to connect with GO trains and buses, offering fare integration, can mitigate this problem. Transit riders shouldn’t be told to take a hike.

Politics Toronto Transit

Leadership, John Tory style (part 2)

We’ve seen it before: when cornered on an issue, Mayor John Tory will get defensive, flustered, and counter with disingenuous remarks. Police carding was one such issue, so was the Gardiner East. Today, as Mayor Tory defends his SmartTrack proposal, he’s doing the same thing.

After a staff report on SmartTrack — originally planned for a week ago at the scheduled Executive Committee — became public, we learned more details about the watered-down transit plan that was Tory’s signature campaign promise. (Read Steve Munro’s article in Torontoist for more details.)

  • In 2014, John Tory promised that his “London Style” surface rail subway would open in just seven years. Now, we find out that it won’t be completed until 2025-2026.
  • Only six new stations will be added to GO Transit’s existing stops on the Kitchener and Stouffville corridors; the GO RER system planned by Metrolinx will stop at the same stations as SmartTrack, blurring the lines further between the province’s plans and Tory’s promises.
  • The City of Toronto will be on the hook for all LRT operating expenses, while the Province/ Metrolinx will continue to own the infrastructure.
  • The City of Toronto would be on the hook for some of the GO RER expenses, such as 15 percent of required grade separations, such as at Steeles and Finch Avenues in Scarborough.
  • The Eglinton-Crosstown LRT west extension to Pearson International Airport, which replaced part of the original SmartTrack alignment planned using outdated Google Maps satellite imagery, may not be built beyond the planned Renforth Gateway Hub, the eastern end of the Mississauga Transitway.
  • Tax Increment Financing (TIF) will not be enough to fund the construction of SmartTrack and the LRT extension; development charges and a property tax hike would be required to fund SmartTrack’s construction.

smarttrack_fbThe original SmartTrack plan that John Tory campaigned on in 2014

These are serious concerns, and it is worth asking whether Toronto should remain committed to this plan. After all, the Relief Line Subway remains unfunded, even though it is a top priority for city planning staff. And there’s that $3.2 billion one-stop subway extension to Scarborough Centre, which might become even more expensive if so-called “Subway Champions” Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker and Liberal MPP Brad Duguid get their way with a proposed realignment.

(Interestingly, a SmartTrack/RER stop at Lawrence East may not be able to be built before the one-stop subway extension is opened — a Scarborough RT station is in the way. This isn’t good news for transit riders on the 54 Lawrence East bus, which will lack a rapid transit connection in Scarborough.)

Mayor John Tory’s response is to ask “what’s their plan?” instead of listening and responding to critics. It’s certainly not a productive or mature reaction to very valid concerns.

There were several alternative plans made by rival candidates in 2014 — Olivia Chow and David Soknacki backed returning to the cheaper and longer Scarborough LRT replacement, and building the Downtown Relief Line subway. Chow also proposed additional bus services, which was mocked by Tory’s campaign as no real plan for transit. Once Tory was elected, the TTC ended up implementing much of Chow’s bus plan, including restoring most of Rob Ford-mandated service cuts and adding new express and night routes.

Last week, John Tory also rejected — yet again — the new ward boundaries recommended by the Ward Boundary Review Team, independent consultants who came up –twice — with a 47-ward solution meant to reflect population growth (especially downtown and in central North York) and imbalances in ward populations and councillors’ workloads. The Executive Committee voted against the mayor, backing the 47-ward option, but staff warn it might be too late now for the 2018 election. That might suit Tory’s political agenda, but it’s a blow against local democracy.

Bottom line: Olivia Chow has no plan for transit. She is not a leader.
– John Tory, 2014

So no, John Tory, you’re not a leader. You have failed to acknowledge your errors, you haven’t listened to critics, you’re stubborn, and you lash out when things don’t go your way. And you won’t listen to experts because you don’t like what they have to say. At one point, you claim your critics don’t have any alternative plans to SmartTrack, at other times, you mock the very plans that critics suggest.

So far, John Tory’s critics have been correct about his transit plan. Maybe it’s time to listen.