Categories
Brampton Cycling Infrastructure Ontario Roads Walking

Room to share: How cities can make physical distancing work

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Blackfriars Bridge open to pedestrians and cyclists in London, Ontario

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.

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Cyclists on Howden Boulevard, Brampton

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.

This was one of my favourite articles I have written so far. 

 

Loblaws queue on Church Street
Queue on Church Street at Carlton to enter Loblaws supermarket

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.

Categories
Ontario Transit

A patchwork of new intercity connections in Ontario

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RideNorfolk buses at Norfolk County Hall, Simcoe

Over the last three years, I wrote about the gaps in intercity rail and coach services in Ontario, and how some companies were working to fill them.

In Northern Ontario, Ontario Northland and Kasper Transportation worked to fill the void left by Greyhound’s departure from Western Canada, with both companies offering new links to towns such as Hearst and Fort Francis.

Unfortunately, there have also been some setbacks. Wroute, a shared taxi service in the Kitchener-Guelph-Hamilton triangle, was operational for less than a year. Though GO Transit added new weekday trains between Guelph and Kitchener, none allow for Kitchener-bound commutes, and there has not been interest in serving those gaps identified by Wroute.

Outside of Northern Ontario and the Golden Horseshoe, many cities and towns remain disconnected from nearby communities and larger centres. Though every city and town in Ontario had daily bus and/or rail service in the 1980s, many communities are now completely inaccessible for anyone without access to a car. Though GO Transit expanded to Peterborough, Brantford, Niagara, and Kitchener in the last fifteen years, they are extensions of GO’s radial network from Toronto rather than a true intercity network.

St. Thomas, population 41,000, is the largest city in the province without any passenger links, despite being a short drive to London. Many other cities and towns — particularly in Midwestern and Eastern Ontario — find themselves in similar situations. A few other cities, such as Sarnia (which has just one train a day each way to London and Toronto), are grossly under-served.

But thanks to municipal innovation and a new provincial grant program, this is finally changing. Though several municipalities addressed this problem early on, three new inter-municipal bus systems began operations in 2019, with many more launching this year.

Categories
History Roads

The road to Paris and London

Sign with the distance to Paris and London OntarioDistance Sign on Highway 5, Clappison’s Corners

Early European settlers to Ontario were not very imaginative when they came up with local place names. Although some towns and townships have First Nations names (Toronto, Chinguacousy, Niagara), or named for First Nations leaders allied with the British (Tecumseh, Brant), most cities, towns, and townships were given the names of European settlements, British royals and nobility, or the names of those settlers.

The list of Ontario towns and cities includes no less than ten world capitals: Athens, Brussels, Delhi, Dublin, London, Paris, Vienna, Warsaw, Wellington, and Zurich. Other towns and cities across the province include the names of British royalty and nobility (Cobourg, Hanover, Port Arthur, Fort William, Richmond Hill) or the towns settler arrived from. These towns can be found throughout the province.

At Clappison’s Corners, a busy intersection outside of Hamilton, Paris and London appear on the same sign, amusing the occasional visitor. By driving west on Highway 5, Paris is just 42 kilometres away, with London an additional 80 kilometres’ drive via Highway 2.

The other Covent Garden Market, London, OntarioThe other Covent Garden Market, London

London was named for the British city in 1793, and was chosen as the site of the new capital of Upper Canada by governor John Graves Simcoe. He felt that the interior location, on the banks of the Thames River (Simcoe named that, too), would be safe from American attack. However, York (now Toronto), became the capital. But London became the regional centre for Western Ontario, and is now the world’s second-largest London with over 350,000 residents.

Paris OntarioParis, Ontario’s main street backs onto the Grand River

Paris was named in the 1840s not for the French capital, but for the large gypsum deposits in the area, used to make plaster of Paris. In 2000, the town of Paris was amalgamated with rural Brant County. The community has a population of just 12,000, the third-largest Paris (between Paris, Texas and Paris, Tennessee).

Before the provincial government downloaded thousands of highways to local municipalities in the late 1990s, Highway 5 ran from Highway 2 (Kingston Road) in Scarborough to Highway 2 again at Paris. At Paris, a motorist could continue on Highway 2 west to London and beyond. New freeways, such as Highway 403, offered a faster trip, while local roads, such as Highways 2 and 5, were downloaded as a cost-cutting measure. Today, Highway 5 runs for just 13 kilometres connecting Highways 6 and 8.

Today, the route to Paris and London is merely an anachronism of an earlier time, when King’s Highways covered the province and when motorists passed through many small towns on their way to places like Toronto, Detroit, and Montreal. At some point, the sign at Clappison’s Corners will be removed to make way for a new interchange. Until then, this humble monument to European settlement and rural King’s Highways will stand guard.

Categories
Development History Ontario Urban Planning

Ontario’s failed downtown malls

IMG_0392.JPGBayside Mall, formerly the Sarnia Eaton Centre, on a Saturday morning in 2013. Most stores are vacant or occupied by non-profits or independent businesses.

The Toronto Eaton Centre, large, famous, and vital, is only one of many malls built in the downtown cores of Ontario cities between the 1960s and 1990s. From Thunder Bay to Cornwall, the construction of new enclosed shopping centres were seen as a necessary tool to keep the old city centres vibrant and relevant in the face of competition from new suburban malls. But only in the province’s two largest cities did the concept work. Elsewhere, these urban shopping complexes were left largely vacant within ten years of opening, when leases expired. When the Eaton’s department chain went bankrupt in 1997, huge voids were left behind that developers and municipalities struggled to fill.

The Toronto Eaton Centre was opened in two phases between 1977 and 1979. It added hundreds of shops and new office space to Downtown Toronto, anchored by a new Eaton’s flagship and was connected to the Simpson’s store across Queen Street. Today, the Eaton Centre is Canada’s second largest mall (including the Hudson’s Bay/Saks Fifth Avenue building) and the Toronto region’s second most productive shopping centre in terms of sales per square metre. In Ottawa, the downtown Rideau Centre, opened in 1983, is the busiest and most productive mall in that region (Retail Council of Canada, 2016).

But elsewhere in Ontario, downtown malls — mostly built with municipal and/or provincial government support — have been, without exception, commercial and urban development failures. Not only did they suffer from high vacancy rates, they helped to wreck the downtown cores they are located in rather than foster the economic revitalization they once promised.

Categories
Intercity Rail Politics Transit

A need for high-speed rail reality (Updated)

IMG_6258-001VIA Rail train at Brampton Station, on the Toronto-Kitchener rail corridor

Updated Friday May 19, 2017:

Today, Premier Kathleen Wynne announced the commencement of an Environmental Assessment on bringing high-speed rail to Southwestern Ontario, connecting Toronto and Pearson Airport with Guelph, Kitchener, and London, with Phase II continuing to Windsor, with a potential stop in Chatham.

Former federal Transport Minister David Collenette was assigned to write a report on building the corridor; it is now public on the Ministry of Transportation’s website. It proposes operating speeds up to 250 km/h, making it a true high speed line (though slower than many lines in Europe and East Asia, which have cruising speeds between 270 and 320 km/h). The estimated cost of the project is estimated to be $21-billion, reducing travel times from Toronto to Windsor to a mere two hours.

figure-es-2-proposed-future-southwestern-ontario-passenger-rail-network.jpgProposed High Speed Rail system for Southwestern Ontario

An option for a 300 km/h HSR service was studied, but found to be even more expensive, requiring more dedicated tracks. The 250 km/h option will allow it to use most of the existing Toronto-London and London-Windsor corridors.

For southwestern Ontario, high speed rail could be a boon. Kitchener-Waterloo is a major educational and technological hub; faster and more frequent rail service will benefit university students, tech workers, and other commuters, perhaps those priced out of the Toronto housing market. London’s economy has taken some hits in recent years, so bringing it within commuting distance to Toronto and K-W gives residents there more options.

Between Toronto and Kitchener, the report assumes two off-peak HSR trains an hour, and one GO train every hour, making local stops. It also assumes that GO RER service will continue to terminate at Bramalea, a poor location to terminate regional rail services; Downtown Brampton is one stop away. Building the “missing link” along Highway 407 will allow many more trains to pass through Downtown Brampton, which would allow for local RER trains to be extended to west Brampton, at Mount Pleasant GO. It would be a shame if the HSR plans (which, in principle, I support) pushed aside regional and local needs.

Statford and St. Marys, which are only served by VIA trains (and no intercity coach service) will also have to be considered, as they will be bypassed by HSR. As well, towns and cities elsewhere in southwest Ontario, such as Simcoe, Tillsonburg, Wallaceburg, and St. Thomas, have no bus or rail access. For less than the $15 million pledged for the HSR EA, the province could fund several years’ worth of basic intercity bus service to connect these communities together.

Unless assumptions change, Brampton residents will see twice as many trains speed by their downtown core than stop, which I think is unfortunate. In the original post below, I was worried that high speed rail dreams would distract from more immediate needs. I’m now afraid that I was right.


Original post dated April 26, 2017

When have I heard this one before?

According to CTV News, the provincial government is looking to build a new high-speed rail line between Toronto, Kitchener, and London. The new plan, to be announced next month, is based on the work of former federal Transport Minister David Collenette.

During his time as Transport Minister under Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Collenette backed incremental VIA Rail improvements, as well as VIA-FAST, a higher-speed train service between Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. Those proposed improvements were cancelled when Paul Martin became prime minister; currently VIA is pushing for a revised version of that previous plan. Collenette also pushed hard for a rail link between Toronto Pearson International Airport and Union Station, a fundamentally flawed proposal known as “Blue 22.” That airport rail link proposal was later relaunched as a provincial project and opened as UP Express in 2015.

Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca was not especially clear about the plans for such as high-speed rail service, saying “…there are multiple definitions for high-speed rail depending on what you’re looking at.” Del Duca cited “geographical limitations,” while hoping that the federal government would contribute funds towards the project.

Interestingly, only a week ago, Deputy Minister Deb Matthews (and London MPP) was downplaying the province’s plans, saying the province only promised to study, but not necessarily build, the high-speed rail corridor.

I worry that high-speed rail is a distraction. In Canada, we have an abysmal record of proposing high-speed rail projects, but never following through. Even VIA’s less ambitious plan for dedicated tracks and new equipment to provide more frequent and reliable service, with somewhat faster travel times, is not yet secure.

There is already a Toronto-Kitchener-London service; two VIA trains operate daily in each direction along the entire route, while GO Transit operates more frequent weekday trains to Brampton and four weekday round trips to Kitchener. Before the 1990 Brian Mulroney-era VIA cuts, there were five round trips on this line. In the 1980s, the fastest VIA train between Toronto, Kitchener, and London took 3 hours, 2 minutes; today, the fastest train is 3 hours, 22 minutes.

This Rick Mercer Report video will never get old

All that I want for the Toronto-Kitchener-London corridor in the short-to-medium term is the same as what VIA is proposing between Toronto and Montreal:

  • Dedicated tracks. On the Toronto-Kitchener-London corridor, this means building a new rail corridor, known as “The Missing Link” for freight trains between Halwest (near Bramalea GO Station) and Milton. This new route would divert Canadian National (CN) freight trains that currently pass through Brampton and Georgetown on the Toronto-Chicago mainline. Potentially, Canadian Pacific (CP) trains passing through Toronto and Mississauga could also be diverted, freeing up capacity on GO Transit’s Milton Line. CN freight traffic limits the frequency and speed of GO Transit rail service to Brampton and Kitchener; moving the through freight trains would allow for frequent, electrified, GO RER service beyond Bramalea, as currently proposed. CN is interested in partnering with the province to build this link; CP has not expressed interest.Ibi Missing Link map.jpg
    Map of the “Missing Link” from a 2015 IBI Group report
  • Rail improvements. Between Georgetown and Kitchener, the railway is owned by Metrolinx, and hosts four weekday GO Transit trains in each direction, two daily VIA trains in each direction, and several Goderich-Exeter Railway (GEXR) freight trains. Track is in good shape, but has several slow sections, including a two-kilometre section west of Guelph Central Station where trains crawl at 10 miles an hour (16 km/h).

    Improving rail speeds in central Guelph will be expensive, especially where the railway runs in the middle of residential Kent Street, but it will be worth it.
    Beyond Kitchener, the track is leased and maintained by GEXR, which has allowed the rails to deteriorate. Slow speeds are acceptable by a no-frills short line freight operator, determined to minimize maintenance costs, but not so for passenger rail. VIA trains are consistently late because of the condition of track, especially between Stratford and London. Purchasing the track, installing welded rail, and improving grade crossings will substantially improve reliability and speeds on this corridor.Incremental improvements, such as grade separations, improved signalling, and new passing tracks, would permit frequent, reliable, and faster rail service.
  • A new train fleet. Via Rail’s coaches are nearing the end of their useful lives; among the rolling stock used on the Toronto-Kitchener-London service are HEP-I and HEP-II coaches built in the 1950s and refurbished several times since. GO Transit’s commuter coaches are acceptable for shorter trips, but are uncomfortable for long-distance travel. With the completion of the “Missing Link” and the acquisition of the Kitchener-London rails, it would be possible to electrify the entire corridor. Electric trains benefit from faster acceleration times, especially electric multiple units.

Some of these improvements can be started within the next year, before the 2018 provincial election. If the province wants to show that it’s serious about providing effective rail service to Kitchener and London, there’s no need for another high-speed rail study. Simply continue the work on the “Missing Link,” plan for GO RER to continue west of Bramalea GO, improve the existing rail infrastructure, and acquire the optimal fleet for medium-distance rail services. Once that is complete, planning for even higher speeds, possibly with a new purpose-built alignment, should begin.

Canadians have been teased with high-speed rail proposals that never get anywhere, meanwhile existing rail infrastructure is neglected and intercity services are cut. It’s time to get moving with a sensible plan that can start right now.