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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.