Categories
Infrastructure Roads Transit Walking

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.

Categories
History Transit

Suburban Toronto’s transit past and future on north Yonge Street

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Stop 17 shelter in Thornhill

On Yonge Street in Thornhill, a small green hut sits beside the busy roadway at the entrance to Cricklewood Park. On the side of the small building, a wood sign says “Stop 17.” Hundreds of buses and thousands of cars pass by this hut daily, yet few may know about the transit history it represents.

Stop 17 was a stop on the Toronto & York Radial Railway line that extended north from a terminal at Toronto’s city limits at Yonge Street and Glen Echo Avenue (now the location of a Loblaws supermarket) all the way to Sutton, via Richmond Hill and Newmarket. Electric radial service to Thornhill and Richmond Hill began in 1897. By 1908, radial service reached Lake Simcoe.

Stop 17 was one of two stops in Thornhill, located at the present-day intersection of Yonge Street and Royal Orchard Boulevard. The TTC, the eventual owner of most of Toronto’s radial lines, closed the Lake Simcoe route in 1930. Soon afterwards, the wooden shelter was moved to a nearby golf club, where it served as a snack bar and rain shelter. (The radial line was resurrected in late 1930 as a suburban streetcar service to Richmond Hill until 1948.)

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Yonge Street looking south in Thornhill, September 1931. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1568, Item 441.

In November 2000, the Stop 17 shelter was moved back to Yonge Street and restored. It stands as a historical building in Thornhill, and as a monument to early suburban transit in Greater Toronto. Only a few other structures exist from the radial railway era including the Newmarket Radial Arch, the footings of a Toronto Suburban Railway trestle over the Humber River, and a radial power station in Guelph.

There was another Stop 17, on the Scarboro Radial Line between Toronto and West Hill.  By coincidence, it is also memorialized in the name of a variety store (Stop 17 Variety), which also sports a mural depicting a T&Y radial car stopped in front of the Scarborough High School (now R.H. King Academy).

Stop 17 VarietyStop 17 Variety on Kingston Road at St. Clair Avenue in Scarborough

Nearby the Stop 17 shelter in Thornhill, I noticed several markings in the sidewalk. After a closer look, I noticed that they were survey markers, indicating a location where holes were drilled for preliminary core samples for the planned Yonge North Subway Extension from Finch Station to Richmond Hill.

One day, the subway will be extended north into York Region, a sensible project given the ridership potential, especially as Yonge Street sees urban intensification through Thornhill and Richmond Hill. The City of Toronto has been resistant to the extension, as the Yonge Subway is already operating over capacity, with a relief subway required to handle the loads.

The politics of subway building aside, it is fascinating to find the history and future of Toronto’s suburban transit in such close proximity.

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Sidewalk markings on Yonge Street

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“TTC YSE” marker

Categories
Brampton Development Politics Transit Urban Planning

What’s next for Downtown Brampton?

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Boarded up houses on Elizabeth Street, Downtown Brampton

Earlier this year, the provincial government announced the location of Ryerson University’s Brampton campus, a partnership with Sheridan College, to be built on the GO Station parking lot in Downtown Brampton. Meanwhile, Metrolinx quietly purchased several houses and office buildings south of the station for new GO Transit surface parking, replacing the spots that Ryerson will build upon.

The merits of a satellite university campus are open to debate – some smaller satellite campuses have struggled to attract students and faculty and distinguish themselves. Brampton’s the planned campus site was, by far, the best one for both the City of Brampton and Ryerson University.

But today, the Progressive Conservative provincial government, elected in June, cancelled three planned suburban post-secondary education campuses — the York University/Seneca College campus in Markham, the Wilfrid Laurier University/Conestoga College campus in Milton, and the Ryerson University/Sheridan College campus in Brampton.

This announcement came only one day after the October 22 municipal elections. While Toronto elected a smaller 25-ward council and returned John Tory to the mayor’s office, the voters Brampton elected former Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown as mayor, narrowly defeating incumbent Linda Jeffrey. Brown had just moved to Brampton after his campaign for the elected Peel Region Chair was cancelled at the same time Brown’s successor as PC leader, Premier Doug Ford, imposed the new 25 ward structure on Toronto. We can only speculate if the animosity between Brown and Ford was a factor in this announcement. It’s more likely that the decision to cancel the three campuses was already made, with the announcement timed to take place after the municipal elections. In any case, mayor-elect Brown’s job has already become more interesting.

Brampton’s satellite campus, which had a 2022 opening date, would have hosted 2,000 undergraduate students. Though this is tiny compared to Ryerson’ downtown campus, which 36,000 undergraduate students currently enrolled, it was the best possible site, adjacent to the GO station, several Brampton Transit routes, the Rose Theatre, and local shops and restaurants and recreation facilities. The school would have made use of the the planned Centre for Innovation, a proposed new central library to the corner of George and Nelson Streets.

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Map of the Ryerson University campus site, the Centre for Innovation, and other downtown buildings. From the City of Brampton website.

The York University/Seneca College campus in Markham was also strategically located, on a site adjacent to Unionville GO Station, in the mixed-use Downtown Markham development. In contrast, the Milton site was in a greenfield far from transit links. It’s fair to say that I’m not too disappointed on Milton’s behalf.

With Brampton’s campus dead, for now, there’s still the land on the south side of the station. Three homes are already knocked down, while two office buildings and several houses are boarded up, awaiting demolition.

Will Downtown Brampton see nothing more than additional GO Transit surface parking now that the campus is cancelled? Or will a new opportunity come along?

BramptonParkingLotThe existing GO Transit lot at Brampton Station, where the Ryerson University/Sheridan College campus was planned

Categories
Urban Planning

We came for the cow, but we had no reason to linger in Cathedraltown

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Last weekend, a few of us visited Cathedraltown, a newer subdivision near Highway 404 and Elgin Mills Road in northern Markham. We came to see ‘Brookview Tony Charity,’ a new chrome sculpture of a prize-winning dairy cow that was once the pride of a hobby farm that was on the site before it was developed. The metallic bovine made the news as local residents opposed the sculpture, located in an otherwise empty and unremarkable Cathedraltown parkette.

One homeowner objected as the cow, raised on stilts and wearing a prize garland, faced the nearby cathedral, likening it to the golden calf from The Ten Commandments: “I come from a Christian background and this is actually one of the worst things you can do, is to raise a calf; it’s facing the cathedral.”

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Ironically, the NIMBY rage only drew attention to the statue; later that week, it became a local tourist attraction. On Saturday, my wife, a good friend, and I went up to Markham to have a look at it ourselves.


Cathedraltown

Markham, on Toronto’s northern boundary, isn’t simply a cookie-cutter 905 suburb. The city of over 325,000 people is known for its high-technology sector, Pacific Mall and many other Chinese-Canadian shopping districts, and several heritage districts. The historic settlements of Unionville and Markham are well-preserved and vital, with interesting shops and restaurants. North of the old village of Markham, Markham Heritage Estates is a surreal subdivision dedicated to preserving old houses that would otherwise be demolished; it looks a little bit like a Tim Burton movie set.

In recent years, Markham has tried to urbanize some of its suburban landscape. Highway 7 is lined with midrise condominium towers and office buildings. Cornell, on Markham’s eastern edge, was Canada’s first “new urbanist” subdivision, intended to promote a less car-dependent lifestyle with higher densities, local retail and mixed use development, and street-focused parks. The new Downtown Markham development, a work in progress, is a mix of office, higher-density residential, retail, and institutional development near GO Transit’s Stouffville corridor and a new VIVA bus rapid transit line.

And then there’s Cathedraltown. Like Cornell, it’s a “new urbanist” development; it even has a main street lined with storefront. But it doesn’t quite work, at least not yet.

IMG_1251-001A mostly empty Cathedral High Street

Cathedraltown was the idea of Stephen Roman, who made a fortune in mining and had a a farm on Woodbine Avenue in Markham to build upon. The new community, on a family owned hobby farm, would have a spectacular new Slovak-Catholic cathedral as its centrepiece, with houses, parks, and stores surrounding the landmark. Stephen Roman’s daughter, Helen Roman Barber, took over the development in 1988.  The church — which remains incomplete — was opened for a while, but the building was the subject of a dispute between the development company and religious leadership and was closed from 2006 through 2016.

Meanwhile, the residential community was slowly built around the Cathedral in the last ten years.

 

IMG_1242-001A “no trespassing” sign still stands outside the recently re-opened Cathedral of the Transfiguration

Like other “new urbanist” developments, the garages and service areas are found not on the residential streets themselves, but in back alleys. Parkettes and playgrounds face the street, rather than behind houses. Dwellings are built close together, for higher densities than traditional suburban tract housing. There are townhouses, as well as semi-detached and fully detached homes, as well as some low-rise condominium apartments.

There’s a Main Street, which is called Cathedral High Street. It is lined with storefronts, but many are empty. Those that are occupied host dental offices, real estate agents, an insurance broker, beauty and nail salons, and after-school tutoring companies. Only one store, a nail salon, was visibly open on our visit on a Saturday afternoon.

A few thousand more residents might help. Building the retail along Woodbine Avenue itself, which gets far more traffic, might have also helped support sustainable retail. Nearby, however, is a pedestrian-unfriendly plaza on Major Mackenzie Drive that’s fully leased, anchored by banks, a Canadian Tire, a Shoppers Drug Mart, Starbucks, and Boston Pizza.

IMG_1253-001Storefronts on Cathedral High Street…

IMG_5598.JPGWhile a nearby auto-centric plaza is busy

Despite its new urbanist ideals, Cathedraltown is as auto-dependent as any other suburb. Only two bus routes serve the centre of the development: York Region Transit bus routes 24 and 80. Route 24, which goes to the TTC Don Mills Subway Station, operates every 51 minutes on Saturdays, and only until about 6:30 at night (Sunday service is similar; weekday service is slightly better). Route 80, which goes west to Yonge Street, operates every 45 minutes on weekends, until about 8:00 or 9:00 PM. Getting to GO Transit trains requires a car or a YRT bus ride involving a transfer between two infrequent routes.

IMG_1254-001Empty streetscape on a sunny Saturday afternoon

Without transit, and without places to walk to (apart from a church, a few parks, and an elementary school), the ideals of new urbanism aren’t matched by reality. Unless things change drastically, it will still be a place where residents will get in their cars to go anywhere. Better transit could be a start, but so would adding more people, and jobs.

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Maybe one day, this community will be completed