Signs of the times

IMG_8110
Electronic sign on the Don Valley Parkway

I had access to a car yesterday, so I drove to a suburban supermarket to stock up on some large and bulky items we needed — things such as laundry detergent — to get through the next few weeks of physical distancing. Normally, I’ll walk to the nearest supermarket, only a few minutes away, but this way, I could get a lot done at once.

Though many shelves remain empty (pasta, rice, paper towels, and toilet paper remain in short supply), and cashier lines long (with tape marking where customers should wait, minimizing close contact), the mood remains friendly and polite among shoppers and staff alike. This is certainly a bright point in these difficult times.

IMG_6324Empty shelves at the supermarket

While running these essential errands, I took a GoPro camera, and mounted it to the front of the dashboard. It made for a very interesting view of the Gardiner Expressway at mid-morning, when the elevated highway is usually congested. When built, the Gardiner passed by rail yards, factories, and warehouses, south of the Downtown Core. Now the roadway runs between tall office and residential towers, with more being built all the time.

When it’s free-flowing, the Gardiner makes for a visually fascinating drive.

Posted in Roads, Toronto | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A week of social distancing in Toronto

Overlooking Eaton Centre, March 19 2020

Ten days ago, I spent the day at City Hall and addressed the Infrastructure and Environment Committee. While I was following news of a novel coronavirus that was affecting China, Italy, and Iran, it wasn’t on my mind that day.

What a difference a few days makes.

On Thursday, the province announced that elementary and high schools would close for a three-week-long March Break in an effort to contain an outbreak here. One by one, universities and colleges cancelled in-class lessons, with instructors having to move the remainder of their classes online. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Travel restrictions came into place. Restaurants were asked, then forced, to close for dine-in guests. Theatres, cinemas, and some retail chains followed suit. Most office workers were now working from home. Libraries, recreation centres, and even outdoor skating rinks were all shut down.

By Monday, March 16, the city was quiet.

My spouse and I live in an apartment downtown, without a car, so we’ve been going on short walks in the neighbourhood, careful to keep our distance from others (this has been tough to do in supermarkets as I pick up essential food and supplies). But I find the walks are necessary for my mental well-being. They’re also surreal.

Though most stores in the Eaton Centre were open on Monday (Apple and Nike were among the first to voluntarily close all their retail stores), by Tuesday, nearly half were closed. On Thursday, only a handful were open, including, controversially, EB Games.)

The last time I saw the mall so empty during daytime hours, was walking back towards Union Station to go home from Ryerson University on the afternoon of September 11, 2001.

Eaton Centre March 19 2020Keeping distance inside Eaton Centre, Thursday, March 19, 2020

As a condition for permitting the mall’s construction in the 1970s, the City of Toronto required permanent, twenty-four hour public access along the corridor between Shuter Street and James Street, behind Old City Hall. This concession was made because the new mall required several east-west public streets to be closed between Queen and Dundas Streets.

As a matter of practice, most of the mall’s corridors remain open during all hours, providing access to local streets and two subway stations. The only time I encountered locked doors was during the 2010 G-20 Summit fiasco.

York Concourse, March 16 2020GO Transit’s York Concourse at Union Station during the afternoon rush hour on Monday, March 16

Meanwhile, other busy public spaces, such as the GO Transit concourse at Union Station were also eerily quiet. While it is good that most are able to heed the calls from public health officials and political leaders to stay home where possible, I hope that we can continue to build transit, and not enter another lost decade of service cuts and ignoring needs for more infrastructure.

Busy streets, like Bloor and Queen, are also quiet. With no where to go, there’s very little traffic.

"Hug Me" Queen Street West, March 19 2020The “Hug Me Tree” on Queen Street West

Though I want to remain optimistic, I suspect it won’t be until the end of April at least before some of the social distancing requirements are relaxed. Though it’s tough for many of us, it is necessary to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed and the population as healthy as possible.

We’ve been streaming more movies and television shows and playing party games remotely with family and friends online, with audio and video links to keep us engaged with each other. Sometimes on our walks, we’ll order takeout from some of our favourite independent restaurants and coffee shops.

These are some of the little things that can be done when very little is asked of most of us.

IMG_8066-001

Posted in About me, Toronto, Walking | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

On right turns, advocacy, and civic democracy

DeputationOn Wednesday, March 11, I deputed to the Infrastructure and Environment Committee at Toronto City Hall in support of a motion by Councillor Mike Layton to have city staff examine and report back on expanding right turn on red (RTOR) restrictions in the City of Toronto.

Though I had the time and willingness to attend the committee meeting and speak to city councillors, I attended on behalf of Walk Toronto, and the motion was primarily written by my colleague Daniella Levy-Pinto, with input from myself and several other steering committee members.

I found myself much more relaxed deputing this time, especially compared to my deputation late last year to the Toronto Police Services Board. Taking a continuing education course on public speaking and presentations helped, as did increased confidence, and a less intimidating environment.

Fellow advocacy group Friends and Families for Safe Streets’ Jess Speiker spoke first to the motion, at 21 minutes; I speak at the 26 minute mark.

We argue for blanket RTOR prohibitions, rather than simply at selected intersections, for several reasons. red A citywide or neighborhood ban of right on red would eliminate the cost of creating, installing, maintaining, and replacing prohibition signs at each intersection. Too many signs create a visual overload. Furthermore, eliminating right turns on red only at selected locations is problematic in terms of predictability: some vulnerable road users will have difficulty determining what rules are in place at a particular intersection; Montreal, New York, and Mexico City already prohibit right turns on red. It’s time that Toronto seriously debate the idea, and work towards implementing such a ban.

Meanwhile, while the city has implemented leading pedestrian signals at many intersections, their effectiveness is limited by allowing right turns during the leading pedestrian signal, when the red light is still on. Montreal, which has a slightly different implementation, allows through traffic, including cyclists, to proceed with the first few seconds of the walk signal, while turning vehicles must wait.

Though the Infrastructure and Environment Committee adopted Councillor Layton’s motion, it also passed amendments proposed by Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong. Minnan-Wong’s amendments asked for, among other things, a report on the impact that Vision Zero measures have on traffic conditions, and how those traffic delays and congestion have increased stress on drivers.

So, by the deputy mayor’s logic, congestion and traffic safety measures are causing drivers to be aggressive and that is why pedestrians and cyclists continue to be killed on our streets.


Wednesday made for a good lesson on the challenges of grassroots advocacy and participating in local democracy. Recently, City Council voted to increase security at city hall by requiring all visitors to submit to bag searches and metal detector scans, hardly a friendly sight at Toronto’s seat of governance, originally designed to be a welcoming place for all people. Although the committee meeting started at 9:30 AM, it broke for lunch at 12:30, before getting to Councillor Layton’s motion. That meant that I had to leave for lunch, line up again and go through security, before speaking around 2:00 PM. Any citizen with a day job or other commitments wishing to participate in local democracy is at a disadvantage.

But I am glad I had the time and opportunity to speak up for something important.

Posted in About me, Politics, Toronto, Walking | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The consequences of losing the GO-TTC discount

IMG_7846-001

When the Toronto subway system was extended by six stops to York University and Vaughan, it marked the first time the TTC’s rapid transit system extended beyond the city’s boundaries. But it also exposed a major failing of the Golden Horseshoe’s transit structure: the complete lack of fare integration.

In 2017, the provincial government announced a new fare discount between the TTC and GO Transit, which operates the region’s commuter rail and bus network. This $1.50 fare discount, available to Presto card users, was funded by the previous Liberal government’s fledgling cap-and-trade carbon pricing scheme, with the promise of further fare adjustments (such as discounts for transferring between the TTC and other suburban transit agencies, such as York Region Transit and Miway) to come.

With the election of the Progressive Conservatives in 2018, the cap-and-trade scheme was cancelled, and with it, the continued funding for the GO-TTC fare discount. That discount is set to come to an end on March 31, 2020. Neither the cash-strapped TTC or Metrolinx, the provincial agency responsible for GO Transit and transit planning, will step up to make up the difference.

IMG_7865-001GO Transit buses used to stop right in front of Vari Hall, in the heart of York University’s campus

Though many regular GO rail commuters will feel the impact of the loss of the fare discount, the impact on York University students and staff will be especially felt. That’s because the new subway extension was planned to remove GO Transit buses from the heart of the campus to a purpose-built terminal at a remote new subway station next to Highway 407. I recently wrote about the problematic fare structure on those GO buses serving Highway 407 Station. Now, those commuters going two more stops will pay $6.40 a day in TTC fares on top of those expensive GO fares.

Unless they decide to walk to campus.

On Thursday, March 5, I tried do just that. It was not a pleasant experience.

Highway 407 Station features a large bus terminal for GO Transit and YRT buses, a passenger drop-off and pick-up area, and a commuter lot. But it was not built with pedestrians in mind. That’s understandable. The only places within a few minutes’ walk are Beechwood Cemetery across the street, a warehouse, and the employee entrance to a major UPS parcel centre.

The main — and only authorized — entrance is on the opposite side of Jane Street, facing the passenger drop-off/pick-up area and the parking lot. It is quite clear in the design that most passengers would be transferring between bus and subway, perhaps with the idea that the fare boundary issue would be resolved by the time the station was open.

IMG_7830-001
Jane Street, with the entrance to Highway 407 on the right, and Beechwood Cemetery on the left

The vertical circulation prioritizes bus-subway connections. At the bus platform level, I spotted a sign that said “to street, subway” leading to a downwards escalator. But it led me past the mezzanine level straight to the subway fare gates. I had to climb halfway up to get to the entrance doors.

IMG_7848-001The stained glass at Highway 407 glows in the late afternoon sun. But it doesn’t take away from a poor user experience.

Once outside, I noted that the pedestrian path between the parking lot and the passenger waiting area was completely covered by a giant dirty snow pile. It’s clear that pedestrians are not welcome here.

Snow left on the only legal sidewalk leading out of Highway 407 Station

The circuitous route is designed to keep pedestrians out of the way of the buses entering and exiting the station. But I was left wondering why a shorter, direct, and snow-free route was not designed into the station plan at the beginning. It would have cut a few minutes from my efforts in leaving the station.

IMG_7835-001
Pedestrians are barred from the more direct route into the station, even though the bus terminal is not a TTC fare-paid area.

Eventually, I made it to Jane Street, and began walking south towards Steeles Avenue and campus. The narrow sidewalk hugs Jane Street, and right into a splash zone under the CN Railway underpass.

IMG_7853-001
An unpleasant walk along Jane Street

After twenty-seven minutes, I made it to Pioneer Village Station, which was designed with two separate bus terminals. YRT buses use the smaller bus loop on the north side of Steeles Avenue, outside the fare-paid area. TTC buses use a larger terminal south of Steeles Avenue, on the York University lands. YRT passengers headed to campus must cross Steeles Avenue at grade as the mezzanine level underneath is fully within the TTC fare paid zone. Technically, one could transfer from GO to the YRT 20 Jane bus at Highway 407 Station (with a Presto card, it would cost only $1 each way with the YRT-GO co-fare). But it would still only get you part of the way to campus.

IMG_7863-001

After 35 minutes, I made it from the GO bus platform at Highway 407 Station to the Life Sciences Building at York University, on the northwest corner of the central campus, with another 5-10 minutes to major buildings such as Vari Hall or Scott Library. This was at a relatively quick pace (I’m an able-bodied thirty-something man), in quite pleasant weather. A rainy or bitterly cold day would be quite a different matter. Therefore, most will be forced to pay $3.20 each way (the current TTC Presto fare).

The subway, with the major GO and YRT terminals off campus, was designed for a new fare structure where students and university staff wouldn’t be penalized for having to transfer one or two subway stops to get to the middle of campus. The most we got was a fare discount for GO Transit riders, with nothing for YRT commuters. (Only Brampton Transit continues to directly serve York University.) And now that meagre fare concession is going away, because no one wants to pay for it.

Sadly, this is just further evidence of how we get transit so wrong in the Golden Horseshoe, despite it being the country’s economic heartland.


Transit advocacy group TTC Riders, along with allies at York University, have been calling on Queen’s Park to continue to fund the fare discount. You can find out more here.

I also expect that the opposition New Democrats will submit a motion in the legislature to maintain funding for the discount next week. I’ll update this post as necessary.

Posted in Ontario, Politics, Toronto, Transit, Walking | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

One hundred years of Ontario’s provincial highways

IMG_2956

On February 26, 1920, Ontario’s provincial highway network was born. That year, 16 highways were established across southern Ontario, between the Ottawa and Detroit Rivers. These highways, previously maintained by townships and counties, connected the province’s largest cities and provided important links to Quebec and the United States.

In 1925, these highways were assigned numbers 2 through 17, in rough order from west to east. There was no Highway 13; instead, the Port Hope-Peterborough Highway was assigned Route 12A. Highway 2, alternatively known as the Trans-Provincial Highway, extended from Windsor to the west to the Quebec border in the east, continuing eastwards as Quebec Highway 2. (That province renumbered its entire highway system in the 1960s and 1970s.) Meanwhile, Highway 15, connecting Kingston and Ottawa, took a deviating “S” shaped route via Perth. Highway 7 only went as far east as Brampton. While the province used triangular highway markers at the time, in 1930, they were renamed “King’s Highways” and assigned crowned highway shields still in use today.

The map below illustrates the highway system at the time.

1920OntarioOntario Provincial Highways, 1925 (click for larger version)

Several of Ontario’s first highways no longer exist. Highway 12A was later renumbered to Highway 28; that first section was later downloaded to Northumberland and Peterborough Counties. The first section of Highway 14, which originally ran between Foxboro and Picton via Belleville, was later integrated with the longer and more important Highway 62. The short stub of Highway 14 between Foxboro and Marmora was also downloaded in the 1990s.

But Highway 11, formed out of Yonge Street and the Barrie-Muskoka Highway, eventually became the province’s longest and one of its most famous highways (even if it never was the world’s longest street). To mark the occasion, I wrote about Highway 11’s history for TVO. 

If you’re interested in learning more about Ontario’s highways, nearly 100 years of digitized provincial road maps are available on the Archives of Ontario website. I also suggest visiting The King’s Highway website, which contains histories and photographs for most of Ontario’s highways.

Posted in History, Infrastructure, Maps, Ontario, Roads | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The TTC needs customer buy-in, not a campaign of scolding its passengers

IMG_7472-003Imagine any retail store welcoming its customers the way the Toronto Transit Commission does these days.

This week, at least two TTC streetcars were wrapped with messages promoting the transit agency’s new aggressive anti-fare evasion campaign. Any passenger caught by fare inspectors or special constables without a valid fare is subject to a fine of up to $425.

As a regular, fare-paying passenger, I am sympathetic to the TTC’s need to balance its books — it relies on transit fares for 68 percent of its $2.14 billion operating budget — but the more aggressive fare enforcement program — including advertisements inside vehicles and stations and hiring 50 more fare inspectors in 2020 — is insulting to its customers.

Typically, businesses and public services strive to welcome their clientele and promote themselves to potential new customers. At one time, the TTC even ran television commercials, with a particular focus on promoting off-peak ridership.

Not anymore.

Customer notices on posters and on the PA system are restricted to subway closure notices, reminders about etiquette, and now warnings of $425 fines for not tapping a Presto card. Riders are no longer thanked for using the TTC. Instead, we’re subjected to poor and inconsistent service, streetcar shortages, regular weekend subway closures, fare hikes, and repeals of recent fare integration measures, along with lectures on fare payment.

Other transit and municipal politics writers, including Steve Munro, Matt Elliott, and Ben Spurr have written about the TTC’s push for stricter fare enforcement as well as the problems passengers have when paying, including malfunctioning Presto readers and fare payment machines, and overcrowded vehicles. Fare payment machines do not accept bank notes, debit, or credit cards. Though the TTC estimates that 5.7 percent of all riders engage in fare evasion, the rate on streetcars, where passengers board from all doors and tap or pay on board, is 15.9 percent.

There has been an inconsistent approach to fare enforcement, with inspectors commonly found at streetcar terminals at subway stations. There are reports and credible accusations of racial profiling by fare enforcement officers.

A friendlier and more wholesome approach would be addressing the technical problems, including the reliability of fare machines, and replacing generic Presto cards being used for child fares that other passengers — such as York University Station — are illegitimately using. There should also be a friendlier education campaign, enforcement discretion, and less aggressive behaviour towards customers, would make far more sense. If the TTC is truly interested in “disrupting” negative behaviour, it should adopt a customer service model, and address the distrust towards its officers from racialized and economically marginalized communities.

Putting aside the bad optics of the crackdown on fare evasion, transit ad wraps are an insult to transit riders. Furthermore, they are a detriment to the brand. Toronto’s streetcars are an icon of this great city; this is cheapened by gigantic ads for Starbucks, Sephora, or Scotiabank.

Inside, the large panoramic windows are obscured by perforated vinyl sheeting that is difficult to see out of. Though the vinyl wraps leave a sliver at seat level, the view is obstructed for anyone standing on a crowded vehicle.

IMG_5204-001A typical streetcar advertising wrap

The current 12-year, $324-million contract with Pattison Outdoor brings in a total of $27 million a year. The contract includes interior and exterior transit advertising (traditional placards, posters in stations and vehicles, and wraps). In total, advertising in all forms represents 1.1 percent of the entire TTC budget, with wraps representing a small portion of that. These wraps, commissioned by the TTC itself, are part of the contact.

Messages on the newly wrapped TTC streetcar

The streetcar wraps that scold, rather than welcome, riders are even more of an insult. What message do they send to visitors to Toronto? And what message do they send to potential riders?

Customer buy-in is about so much more than just paying one’s fare. The TTC should realize that.

Posted in Politics, Toronto, Transit | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Viva Rapidways: hurry up and wait

IMG_6574.JPGA broken system

When York Region Transit was formed in 2001, it promised great things for the large, growing suburban region north of Toronto. It amalgamated four local transit systems, and took over local services provided by GO Transit, and extended service to outlying communities, including Stouffville, King City, and Holland Landing. In 2005, YRT introduced Viva, a series of limited-stop bus routes along major corridors, offering distinct, comfortable buses, off-board fare payment, and signal priority to speed up service.

Since YRT formed, Durham Region amalgamated its municipal transit systems, Brampton introduced Zum, a similar network of limited-stop bus routes, and Mississauga and Toronto rebranded and expanded their express bus routes. For a while, it appeared that York Region was leading the way in growing transit ridership in the suburbs.

Unfortunately, by focusing on building new Rapidways in the median of Yonge Street, Highway 7, and Davis Drive while neglecting service levels, — even cutting back bus service on Viva routes — York Region has fallen behind. I also found that those Rapidways — meant to speed buses through congested arterials — are poorly designed for pedestrians and transit riders. Continue reading

Posted in Infrastructure, Roads, Transit, Walking | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments