Over a century ago, Jarvis Street was Toronto’s most fashionable address, and home to prominent families including the Masseys, who made their wealth from the farm equipment industry, and whose names live on through Massey Hall, Hart House, the Fred Victor Mission, and Massey College. The wide boulevards allowed for lush street trees to flourish, and without streetcars, there was no need for a wide roadway, despite the generous right-of-way.
By the 1920s, though, Jarvis was no longer fashionable, with Forest Hill, North Rosedale, and Moore Park taking its place. Many of the old mansions fell into disrepair or were converted into apartments or businesses. The street became lined with low-rise apartment buildings, budget hotels, and missions to the poor and unhoused. After the Second World War, the city government decided to extend Mount Pleasant Road south of St. Clair Avenue to Bloor and Jarvis Streets and widen Jarvis Street to accommodate the increased traffic. Along with building the Dundas Street East extension, widening Dufferin Street, and pushing through Eastern Avenue, the City of Toronto was bending to the whims of the automobile, several years before the creation of Metropolitan Toronto in 1954.
By the 1960s, Jarvis Street became the preferred address of federal institutions such as the Moss Park Armoury, the regional Unemployment Insurance offices at Dundas Street, and the brutalist Ontario headquarters for the RCMP. The provincial government expanded the old Juvenile Court with a new modernist building, and Simpsons-Sears, the predecessor of Sears Canada, built a new imposing office building at 222 Jarvis, adjacent to the Simpsons warehouse on Mutual Street.
Jarvis Street was also the home of several of the CBC’s scattered radio and television studio spaces until they were consolidated at the CBC Broadcasting Centre on Front Street, and it was also the location of the first Four Seasons Hotel, when it started out as a chic motor hotel.
By the early 1960s, Jarvis Street was reconfigured further to include a new reversible centre lane between Queen Street and Mount Pleasant Road at Charles Street. Then, as now, the centre lane was designated for southbound traffic, except during weekday afternoon rush hour, when the flow is reversed. Parking is prohibited at all times on the east side of the street, while on the west side, street parking is permitted except during the morning and afternoon peak periods. This, at least in theory, allows for two lanes of unobstructed traffic in both directions at all times, and in the rush hours, three lanes of peak-direction traffic. This, of course, depended on strict enforcement of parking and stopping prohibitions, and the lack of construction or other obstructions.
As Jarvis Street rebounded and new residential development and commercial development began to line the street between the mid-1980s and the present day, the five-lane traffic arterial layout became less suitable. In 2009, City of Toronto staff recommended, with extensive public input, that it was desirable to remove the reversible centre lane, narrow the roadway, and widen the sidewalk on the east side of the street to improve the public realm and address the needs of the thousands of new residents who were moving into the east end of Downtown Toronto. The additional space would have allowed for tree planters and wayfinding signage that would highlight the street’s history. Studies conducted by city staff found that there was no need for the fifth lane to provide adequate traffic movement along the street.
Cyclists, however, were unhappy that the road redesign did not include cycling lanes and they were able to convince council to alter its plans. As a result, in 2010, the road was not reconstructed, but the reversible lane was removed, with new painted cycle lanes on both sides of the street.
When Toronto elected Rob Ford as mayor that October, he promised an end to “the war on the car,” even inviting now-disgraced hockey commentator Don Cherry to give the inaugural speech, which turned out to be a controversial rant against “pinko cyclists” and “left wing kooks.” In 2011, with the support of suburban councillors, Rob Ford reversed the decision to install bike lanes on Jarvis Street (along with Pharmacy Avenue and Birchmount Road in Scarborough), and the reversible lane was re-installed.
Ironically, the demand by cyclists for bike lanes made it easy to restore the auto-oriented configuration, while widened sidewalks would have been much more difficult to remove.
With much needed watermain and road reconstruction in the last few years, the traffic advantage provided by the reversible lane was negated because of the construction barriers. Several condominium towers being constructed along the street, at Carlton, Gerrard, and Shuter Streets, have further affected the ability of that fifth lane to move motorists quickly, effectively, or safely. Between Dundas and Gerrard Streets, the lanes temporarily shift for a long-term lane closure on the east side, just south of Gerrard. This lane shift adds additional confusion to an already confusing road layout.
At Shuter Street, the construction of the Hyatt Place hotel and condominium apartment development has seen the northbound curb lane closed for several years. Approaching Shuter, the curb lane is marked as a right-turn lane, but it is used as an illegal bypass of traffic waiting at the light or turning left onto Shuter towards St. Michael’s Hospital and the Eaton Centre. This, combined with the hidden sightlines caused by the construction hoarding on the northeast corner, makes it especially dangerous for southbound motorists as well as pedestrians and cyclists crossing at this point. Beyond the construction hoarding, the right lane is used for construction crew parking, as well as staging for vehicles such as cement trucks.
The long-term closure of lanes on Jarvis Street should make it clear to city officials that the outdated and unsafe middle lane is of no practical use, and it finally has got to go.
Collisions are common on Jarvis Street because of the reversible centre lane — which exists nowhere else in Toronto, and in only a few places elsewhere in Canada — because of driver confusion, impatience, negligence and incompetence. As Jarvis Street becomes home to thousands of more residents in the next few years, is beyond time that the street becomes safer and more attractive to live, work, and enjoy life on.