Categories
Intercity Rail Ontario Transit

Mapping Ontario’s transit connections

T:GO inter-community transit van at Woodstock VIA Rail station, September 2020

Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, several new inter-community transit services launched in Ontario during the last few months.

Last August, T:GO began service on four routes radiating from Tillsonburg, where there was already an in-town circulator service. Mondays through Fridays, twenty-seater vans operate between Tillsonburg, Norwich, Woodstock, Ingersoll, and other communities, offering connections to Woodstock Transit, the hospital, and the VIA Rail Station.

In September, the City of Owen Sound, Grey County, Middlesex County, the town of Strathroy-Caradoc, and Prince Edward County all launched their own services, connecting rural communities and small towns to larger centres such as London, Guelph, and Belleville. In addition, Simcoe County expanded its Linx bus service to serve Alliston and Beeton, and other services, suspended during the early days of the pandemic, resumed operations. Also this year, Niagara and Durham Regions expanded their rural on-demand transit services.

GOST minibus at Owen Sound Transit Terminal

All these new services help to fill the gaps left behind by private coach companies; these have become especially vital as Greyhound Canada suspended all operations in Ontario and Quebec this year (after abandoning Western Canada in 2018), and Coach Canada (operating as Megabus) cut service on some of its routes.

While these new intercommunity routes help to serve local needs, there is a wide variety of service provided in rural and small town Ontario. But without provincial coordination, it is nearly impossible to keep track of them all, never mind plan a trip.

So I went ahead and mapped them all the best I could. Clicking on each route brings up a pop-up window containing further information, including a link to each agency’s website, where available.

Link to interactive map

Categories
Infrastructure Ontario Roads

Highway 401 revisited

Earlier in September, I paid a visit to Woodstock, Ontario, to check out one of several new intermunicipal transit services that launched across the province this year. While in Woodstock, I paid a visit to the Highway 401 interchange at Highway 59.

In 1968-1969, London, Ontario artist Jack Chambers painted 401 Towards London No. 1, which depicts a tranquil scene from the Highway 59 overpass, looking west. The highway, just two lanes in each direction, bends slightly to the southwest as it heads towards London and Windsor. On either side, autumn trees, farm fields, and gentle hills stretch out. The only buildings visible are farm silos, and two truck terminals on the north side of the highway. Only a few vehicles on Highway 401 are visible in the scene.

Chambers became well known for photorealism in his work. The scene in 401 Towards London No. 1 is slightly askew, as if this was a Kodachrome snapshot.

Jack Chambers, 401 Towards London No. 1. Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario.
A larger version can be found here.

Highway 401 was only fully completed between Windsor and the Quebec border in 1968, the year the painting was started, though the section between Woodstock and London was completed in 1957, bypassing an especially congested section of Highway 2. Like many interchanges built by the province in the 1950s and early 1960s, the junction of Highways 59 and 401 was an eight-ramp cloverleaf.

A contemporary view towards London

By the 1990s, Highway 401 was widened to six lanes. The cloverleaf interchange, like most others in Ontario, was removed and replaced by a simpler interchange. (As traffic levels increased, the danger of vehicles entering and exiting the highway with little space to merge became apparent.)

Woodstock’s sprawl caught up to the highway, with new warehouses, motels, subdivisions, and a hospital joining the original freight terminals. Though the distant trees and hills are the same as those in Chambers’ painting, the gentle curve in the distance remains the easiest way to match the two views, fifty years apart. Highway 59 itself was downloaded by the province in 1997. To the south, the old highway is Oxford County Road 59. To the north, it is simply Norwich Street.

Breezewood, Ontario: former Highway 59 looking north towards central Woodstock, where chain hotels, restaurants, and gas stations line the road

As I climbed over guardrails and navigated sidewalk-less embankments and road shoulders to capture the contemporary image of Jack Chambers’ painting, I was surprised by two things. The first were fully AODA-compliant crossing treatments at the highway ramps, despite there being no safe and marked way to get to those crosswalks.

I had to climb over the guardrail to get to this crosswalk at the westbound ramps to Highway 401

I was even more surprised to see an engraved version of the Jack Chambers painting embedded in the guardrail. When the Ministry of Transportation Ontario (MTO) rebuilt the overpass in 2017-2018, it thoughtfully included this nod to a local artist.

Plaque embedded in the guardrail at the Highway 59 overpass in Woodstock

Unfortunately, given the isolation of the plaque, few will actually see it, even if thousands pass by it daily. Larger signs mark the overpass as the Constable Jack Ross Memorial Bridge, in honour of a Ontario Provincial Police officer.

But it will always be the Jack Chambers bridge to me.

A larger sign right above the Jack Chambers plaque commemorates a different Jack

Though 401 Towards London No. 1 has long been one of my favourite Canadian paintings, it is not typically on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I would love to see this work put on permanent display, either at the AGO, or at another gallery that will appreciate the ode to Ontario’s mother road.

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
History Infrastructure Maps Ontario Roads

One hundred years of Ontario’s provincial highways

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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.

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 Ontario Travels

The long way to Pembroke

IMG_4409-001Layover at Barry’s Bay

A few weeks ago, I went for another long-distance bus trip. I started my journey in Downtown Toronto, and continued on to Peterborough and Pembroke, before arriving in Ottawa late in the evening.  Apart from the Toronto-Peterborough leg aboard a packed, delayed bus, this was the most pleasant of all my long-distance bus trips.

Greyhound’s Peterborough-Pembroke route only operates a few days a week, on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It is one of the last rural bus routes operated by Greyhound Canada as most remaining routes operate on highways between large urban centres. The bus follows Highways 28, 62, and 60, stopping at small towns such as Bancroft, Maynooth and Barry’s Bay. North of Lakefield, the route passes through the Canadian Shield, with its lakes, rocks, and trees.

As I traveled on last Friday in September, the fall colours were almost at their peak in the Haliburton Highlands, making this an especially scenic ride. There was an informal fifteen-minute stop in Barry’s Bay, enough time to get a decent coffee and a snack.

IMG_4404-001The view from Highway 28 near Bancroft, September 27

At Bancroft, we passed by the old Central Ontario Railway Station. Passenger service ended in the 1950s, while the tracks were torn up in the 1980s. The station was preserved and is now a local museum. In front, a dozen citizens took part in a local climate strike that took place across Canada, part of the Global Week for Future. It was nice to see residents take part, even in small town Ontario.

IMG_4406-001.JPGClimate strikers in Bancroft. The former railway station stands behind

At Pembroke, I had several hours before the Ontario Northland bus departed for Ottawa. While Pembroke’s downtown core could use some TLC, it has great bones and a great collection of heritage buildings, including a late Victorian post office, its late Art Moderne replacement, the historic Renfrew County courthouse, solid commercial blocks, and a fascinating library.

IMG_4455-001Downtown Pembroke

IMG_4478-001.JPGIMG_4420-002.JPGPembroke’s post offices. The 1888 building, designed by Thomas Fuller, is now City Hall. The 1950s replacement, on the left, still houses Canada Post. 

Pembroke’s public library is especially unique, as it looks like it could have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Built in 1914, it was designed by Francis Conroy Sullivan, a Canadian-born architect who studied under Wright in Chicago before establishing his firm in Ottawa. Expansions and renovations have remained faithful to the Prairie Style architecture.

IMG_4475-001Entrance to the Pembroke Public Library

IMG_4472-001.JPGLibrary interior

Though Pembroke was served by three different railways — the Canadian Pacific transcontinental mainline, a branch of the Canada Atlantic that operated between Montreal and Parry Sound, and the Canadian Northern — all tracks were removed by 2013, when Canadian National ripped up the Beachburg Subdivision. None of the station buildings survive, but the abandoned rights-of-way are still intact. At the west end of town, a long trestle now carries a snowmobile trail where the CN mainline once crossed the Indian River.

IMG_4437-002Former CN trestle, Pembroke

The removal of the CN and CP routes through the Ottawa Valley were especially unfortunate, as all through freight and passenger traffic across Canada must now pass through Greater Toronto. This was the result of cost-cutting and the loss of local rail customers, such as lumber and pulp industries. The Commonwealth Plywood plant in Pembroke still stands as a reminder of the industrial past of the Upper Ottawa Valley.

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Abandoned Commonwealth Plywood plant

The last passenger train, VIA’s Canadian, called at Pembroke in 1990. But there are two daily bus trips in each direction between Ottawa and North Bay/Sudbury, one operated by Greyhound, the other by Ontario Northland. From Pembroke, I was able to take a Northland bus that left at 9:00 PM, arriving in Ottawa by 11:00 PM. This gave me plenty of time for dinner after a long walk around town.

My trip to Pembroke made for a pleasant detour, giving me a chance to see another part of Ontario.

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
Ontario Politics

Where, exactly, is Northern Ontario?

29496350986_0f43c86857_k.jpgThe French River at Highway 69, where Northern Ontario truly begins

Last week, the leaders of the three major provincial parties (Liberals, Progressive Conservatives, and the New Democrats) met in Parry Sound, at a debate dedicated to issues specific to Northern Ontario. It was the second of three debates scheduled ahead of the June 7, 2018 general election.

But is Parry Sound, a town that’s only a two hour’s drive north of Toronto (when free of weekend Cottage Country traffic) really a part of Northern Ontario? That depends on who you ask. Even government agencies disagree. In my opinion, though, Parry Sound isn’t in Northern Ontario, even though the district it’s located in shares some characteristics of this vast part of the province.

Despite living my entire life in the Greater Toronto Area, I have an affinity for Northern Ontario, particularly the northeastern part of the province. My father’s hometown is Timmins, one of my siblings lives in Sudbury, and I have visited both cities many times. I made a trip up to Sault Ste. Marie to ride the Algoma Central Railway passenger train between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst and back before it was cancelled, and I still lament the loss of the Northlander, Ontario Northland Railway’s passenger train between Toronto and Cochrane that was terminated in 2012. I even made it all the way to Moosonee, on the James Bay coast.

The northern part of this province covers a huge area — over 800,000 square kilometres, larger than France, Belgium, and the Netherlands combined — but has a population of just over 750,000. It is even crossed by a time zone boundary. Despite my connection to the region, I still have to yet to make a proper visit to Thunder Bay and Northwestern Ontario.

The North includes many First Nations communities accessible only by plane or ice road. Other communities, with names like Dryden, Kapuskasing, Iroquois Falls, and Kirkland Lake, were established to serve mines or pulp mills — resulting in a very different economic landscape than the agricultural and industrial south. In recent decades, many of those mines and mills have closed, eliminating many towns’ only major employer.

In a province dominated by the urban centres in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, Ottawa, and London, it’s too easy to ignore the North.

So how do people actually define Northern Ontario?

Traditionally, Northern Ontario begins at the French River, Lake Nipissing, and at the Mattawa River. North Bay, which calls itself the “Gateway to the North” sits right on this line. For administrative purposes, this includes the entirety of Sudbury and Nipissing Districts, which extend south of the French and Mattawa Rivers, and includes most of Algonquin Park. It also includes Manitoulin Island, which can only be reached year-round from the north, through Sudbury District.

The Canadian Shield, the defining landscape of most of Northern Ontario, starts further south. Driving north from Toronto on Highways 400 or 11, the shield starts about where Simcoe County ends and Muskoka District starts. But the Canadian Shield also encompasses large sections of the City of Kawartha Lakes and Peterborough, Hastings, Frontenac, and Lanark Counties and the entirety of Haliburton County.

NOntario.jpgThe various definitions of Northern Ontario, including the county, regional and district boundaries. 

But the provincial and federal governments both have special economic development funding programs whose boundaries take a more liberal definition of Northern Ontario. FedNor, the Government of Canada’s economic development agency, includes Parry Sound and Muskoka Districts. The Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation, a provincial agency, includes Parry Sound District, but not Muskoka District.

Whether Parry Sound and Muskoka are considered part of Northern Ontario is very much a political question. In 2004, the newly elected Liberal government chose to remove Muskoka from the areas eligible for provincial grants meant for northern communities — Muskoka being a reliable Progressive Conservative seat, and the riding of the previous PC premier, Ernie Eves.

Parry Sound District, while not, in my view, part of Northern Ontario, at least shares some similar characteristics with neighbouring Sudbury and Nipissing Districts. It includes many isolated communities, and apart from the Town of Parry Sound itself, it has a very sparse population. Muskoka, on the other hand, is more urbanized with three larger towns, and is much more popular for recreation, particularly during the summer. Muskoka also has a regional government — the District Municipality — while much of Parry Sound District’s land is unorganized — meaning lands without any municipal government.

And if one considers Muskoka to be part of Northern Ontario, why not also include Haliburton County, which also has a sparse population and is relatively isolated from the urbanized south? A line needs to be drawn somewhere, and there is no valid reason why Muskoka should ever be considered a part of Northern Ontario. There might be a case for Parry Sound District, but definitely not cottage country.

Categories
Brampton Development Infrastructure Ontario Urban Planning

A tale of two university campuses

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Site of Brampton’s new Ryerson/Sheridan campus

Last week, the provincial government announced two new post-secondary educational campuses in Toronto’s fast-growing western suburbs, due to open in 2022. Wilfrid Laurier University will be partnering with Conestoga College on a new facility in Milton. Brampton will be getting a new Ryerson University campus in partnership with Sheridan College. Both new campuses, each receiving $90 million in provincial capital funding, will be focused on undergraduate STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) programs. Both will host up to 2,000 students once the new facilities are fully operational.

Despite the many commonalities between the new Milton and Brampton facilities, the announced campus locations could not be any more different. Milton’s Laurier/Conestoga campus (which I previously wrote about as an example of the problems of greenfield institutions) will be located on a new greenfield site on the southwestern outskirts of the town’s built-up area, while Brampton’s Ryerson/Sheridan campus will be located in that city’s downtown core, on a site currently used for commuter parking. But since GO Transit’s free commuter parking has to go somewhere, Metrolinx has been buying up and demolishing houses and offices on a nearby downtown block.

I compared the two new campuses for TVO

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.