The north needs roads

IMG_2905.JPGNipigon River Bridge, August 2019

In January 2016, a bridge over the Nipigon River failed. Located roughly 100 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, it formed part of the Trans-Canada Highway. The only east-west link between Western and Eastern Canada was severed, with the only detour through the United States.

Climate change, road safety, and access to remote First Nations communities are some of the unique challenges facing Northern Ontario, where highways are especially important. Though highways fall under provincial jurisdiction, the federal government has a role in funding infrastructure and economic development.

I examine these issues in more detail in my latest article on TVO’s website.

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Let’s rock out for Vision Zero

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The Major Street Boulder

On September 18, Toronto Star columnist Jack “The Fixer” Lakey wrote about a boulder that was dug up during construction in the Annex. Bloor Street is currently being dug up between Bathurst Street and Spadina Avenue as the city replaces watermains and reconstructs the roadway. New parkettes at Major Street and Howland Street are also part of the work. As this is going on, bike lanes and parking spaces have been removed, and traffic is rerouted to one side of Bloor Street.

The billion-year old boulder (its age is unremarkable; the Canadian Shield is older than that) will be incorporated into a nearby parkette. For now, it sits on the side of Major Street immediately south of Bloor. When I visited Thursday evening, the boulder was moved slightly south by a construction crew that was working on the parkette.

Major Street, despite its grand name, is a minor residential road that leads one-way south from Bloor towards Sussex Street. It is part of a one-way maze of local streets intended to discourage through traffic and permit on-street parking (while frustrating cyclists looking to cut through quiet local streets instead of taking Bathurst or Spadina).

Lakey was informed about the Major Street boulder by a motorist complaining of turning right onto Major from Bloor and scraping the passenger side as she passed the boulder. She said she couldn’t see the rock because it was below the height of her windows, though there were pylons adjacent to the rock. Lakey visited the site and found two pylons next to the boulder. The city’s response was to ensure that pylons be secured to the rock with caution tape, and to block it off if necessary, as it can not easily be moved.

IMG_4347-001Bloor Street is a mess of construction and signage as construction continues through September

Though the city was right to improve the visibility of the boulder, placed in a spot where it wouldn’t be expected, I can’t say I have too much sympathy for drivers who miss it and scratch their cars. Bloor Street is a mess, but it is an active construction site. The bike lanes have been closed off, with cyclists expected to travel with traffic, single file with motor vehicles. The lane configuration has changed, and pedestrians must navigate the construction clutter, signs, and fencing on sidewalks and crosswalks. Such an environment calls for slow and considerate driving.

The motorist quoted in Lakey’s column said that she could not see the 80-centimetre tall boulder as it was below her line of sight. Other things that might be below a driver’s line of sight at close proximity include pylons, knock-down posts, mailboxes, garbage bins, dogs, cats, recumbent bicycles, strollers, small children, wheelchairs, and other mobility devices. As the average vehicle size has become larger (with Ford and General Motors phasing out sedans in favour of SUVs and light trucks), the line of sight has become higher as well.

But this gives me an idea that can balance the City of Toronto’s supposed commitment to Vision Zero with the mayor’s desire to keep property taxes too low to pay for the implementation of true Vision Zero across the city. Just add rocks. Lots and lots of rocks.

Boulders can take a pounding, unlike plastic knock-down poles that motorists can just drive over to get into a cycle track. They can be used to narrow wide residential streets at strategic points and discourage fast turns at intersections. Of course, they can be marked with metal reflective signs, but they’d be cheap to install and very effective.

Boulders are easy and cheap to source with of all the construction going on in Toronto, with foundations being dug for high rise offices and apartment buildings. But if we’re stuck, we can source rocks from Northern Ontario, where the Canadian Shield is blasted away for resource extraction and the twinning of Highway 69.

Vision Zero on a zero-vision budget.

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A departure from TTC wayfinding improvements

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TTC stops have improved with the addition of route numbers, but this bus stop is deceiving 

In the last few years, the TTC has made significant improvements in its maps, signage, and wayfinding standards. It also introduced new streetcar and subway fleets, retrofitted elevators into older stations (all but one streetcar line and a majority of subway stations are now fully accessible), and opened a new subway extension. Though overcrowding, bunching, and weekend closures continue to be aggravations, it is important to recognize where the TTC has improved.

Specific changes to TTC wayfinding include a new simplified system map, better signage at subway stations, introducing standard signage for diversions, scheduled closures and construction notifications, and revising the classic TTC bus stop.

However, two recent changes represent an unfortunate departure from these improvements. Continue reading

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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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