The ongoing pandemic, to quote the prime minister, “really sucks.” Ontario has been subjected to various levels of lockdowns and restrictions for nearly eight months now as COVID-19 case counts continue to be high. Restaurants, bars, cinemas, and gyms are currently closed in Toronto, as are most other indoor venues. Many of us are — if we’re lucky — working from home, but shut off from meaningful socializing from family, friends, colleagues, and allies. Many are left unemployed with few job openings out there. Those still working in factories, warehouses, public institutions, kitchens, and stores face increased pressures without many of their supports.
That leaves only a few outlets for selfcare: the support of immediate family, outdoor exercise, and passive entertainment such as streaming shows and movies online. Though I am working on several interesting projects here at home, I can attest that Zoom calls, Facebook chats, and occasional phone-calls are no substitute for in-person social interaction. Regular walks have been essential to my mental health, which has suffered during the pandemic. With so much construction in my neighbourhood, there has been one nearby oasis: the conservatory at Allan Gardens.
Sadly, that’s no longer an option, and I found that out the hard way. Though it is a minor complaint given the much larger failure to control the virus here in Ontario and properly communicate important public health information and advice, it’s just a microcosm of the mixed messaging from all levels of government that we have been enduring since February.
Over the past few years, I have been involved with the YongeTOmorrow project on behalf of Walk Toronto. It has been a very interesting and worthwhile experience being part of a stakeholder advisory group. Allied organizations working towards a more exciting and sustainable Yonge Street include Cycle Toronto, 8 80 Cities, and the David Suzuki Foundation.
Though the selected concept is not perfect, the proposed changes will provide significant improvements to Yonge Street between Queen and College Streets. These include wider sidewalks, patio space, bike facilities, and a pedestrianized zone between Dundas Square and Edward Street, allowing for better circulation, more flexibility for special events, and a more pleasant street.
With more high-rise development on the way (including the redevelopment of the Chelsea Hotel on Gerrard Street), it is only right that more space be given to residents, students, employees, and visitors. Compromises in the plan allow for access to parking garages, permit taxi and other vehicle drop-offs and pick-ups, as well as business deliveries.
Though the front of Union Station looks slightly better, and the bottlenecks have been lessened by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this is not a satisfactory solution, especially for Toronto’s busiest and most important transportation hub.
The Jersey barriers were hastily plopped down on Front Street after the April 23, 2018 van attack, where one man steered a rented cargo van onto busy sidewalks in North York, killing 10 and injuring 16 more before he was apprehended by police. As an iconic and crowded pedestrian area, it was felt that special protection was necessary. At the time, the assumption was that the van attack was an act of terrorism, requiring such drastic measures. (It was soon found the motives were not terrorist related.)
In 2018, city councillor John Campbell likened the front of Union Station to “a war zone” while a city spokesperson said that a broader security plan was “in the works,” including for protecting the station has been in the works for some time, including interim measures that would fit into the streetscape.
In March 2019, nearly a year after Jersey barriers were added, the Toronto Star’s Jack Lakey dismissed complaints about their awkwardness and appearance, calling them “effective in stopping a driver bent on another deadly attack.” However, Lakey noted that another city spokesperson said that “city is finalizing the design of permanent vehicle barriers around Union Station”, that would “be smaller, more aesthetically pleasing and easier to navigate for pedestrians.” Those barriers would be installed later in 2019.
It is now August 2020, and the concrete barriers are still there, creating a mess for anyone using a wheeled mobility device, or for anyone in a hurry.
The only thing that has changed are new artistic vinyl stickers covering the bare concrete, with messages saying that “artwork is donated by TD [Bank].”
Perhaps TD was embarrassed by the Jersey barriers (after all, it has its headquarters just up Bay Street). Or perhaps the city decided that something needed to happen here., after two years of unfilled promises.
While examining the barriers, I noticed construction signage wedged within the gaps, creating a trip hazard. I also saw the original metal bollards installed when Front Street was rebuilt for a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape in 2014-2015.
Though the inconvenience caused by the lingering “temporary” concrete barriers has been lessened as there are fewer pedestrians entering and leaving Union Station right now, it also makes it a good time to finally make the necessary renovations by installing permanent sturdy bollards.
Kingston Road is one of Toronto’s oldest and most important thoroughfares. Sections of the road were first laid out by Asa Danforth in 1799, though a straighter, more direct route was established by the early 1800s. By the 1830s, it was a busy stagecoach route, connecting Toronto with Cobourg, Belleville, and Kingston.
As Toronto grew into a major city, Kingston Road was an obvious route for a radial railway line serving Scarborough Township; by 1906, radial cars extended as far east as West Hill, near Morningside Avenue. The radial line’s stops were numbered from the beginning of the line, first at Queen Street and Kingston Road, then at Kingston and Victoria Park Avenue after the TTC took over city operations.
Stop 0 was at the city limits at Victoria Park (with connections to TTC streetcars). Stop 14 was Halfway House at Midland Avenue. Stop 26 was the Scarborough Post Office, near today’s Scarborough Golf Club Road, and Stop 35 was the end of the line, at West Hill.
With increasing automobile ownership and new intercity bus lines in the 1920s, Kingston Road was busier than ever, becoming part of the new provincial highway system, but ridership on the radials declined, especially after the TTC extended city streetcars east to Birchmount Avenue in 1928, leaving behind a mostly-rural service. Radial service was cut back to Stop 26 in 1931, and completely replaced by buses in 1936 (the 86 Scarborough bus route is the modern legacy).
Despite the switch to buses, the stop numbers carried on for many years, listed in TTC timetables through the 1950s. Locals would often refer to stop numbers instead of street intersections. Stop 17, at Kingston Road and St. Clair Avenue East, is one example that has lingered on. A mural on the side of Stop 17 variety depicts a green radial car in front of the Scarborough High School), with a cow blocking the way of a truck looking to pass.
Scarborough High School, on the opposite corner of the variety store, was built in 1922, expanded several times, and later renamed R. H. King Academy. The original building was torn down in 1976, but the entrance way, depicted in the mural, was retained.
Nearby, towards Brimley Road, several older motels date from the motoring era, when Highway 2 was the main route into the city. Though Highway 401 drew some of the traffic away in the 1950s, it wasn’t until the completion of the Don Valley Parkway (which provided a direct route downtown) and the rise of chain hotels saw a decline in independent motels along Kingston Road and Lake Shore Boulevard. Some have been repurposed as shelters, while others, like the Hav-A-Nap, diversified by offering paid parking for nearby Bluffers Park.
On Sunday, June 7, Olivia and Julia Sarracini were crossing Calvington Drive at Keele Street. It was 12:15 in the morning. The walk sign turned on, and the two sisters, aged 17 and 19, entered the crosswalk, walking north. Behind them, the driver of a black SUV waited for southbound traffic to clear the intersection before turning left, directly into the two young women, who were already halfway across the intersection.
Julia suffered leg injuries and was sent to hospital. Olivia, who was just finishing Grade 12, was pronounced dead at the scene. The driver of the SUV did not stop, but fled westbound on Calvington Drive.
The driver was definitely at fault for striking the two women, who were walking with the right of way and all due care necessary. But it remains quite possible that if the motorist remained at the scene that night might only be facing minor Highway Traffic Act charges. (Without a vulnerable road users’ law, justice for pedestrians and cyclists injured or killed on Ontario’s streets is terribly inadequate.) Yet road design and a poor transportation network in Toronto’s inner suburbs played a significant role here.
This section of Keele Street provides a link between Highway 401 and Humber River Regional Hospital to the south, and Finch Avenue, York University, and several industrial areas to the north. Downsview Park is just to the north of Calvington Avenue, and along with the large parkspace, new residential development is well underway, with more planned.
The area around Keele and Calvington was developed in the 1950s and 1960s, though visages of the old village of Downsview can be found close by, towards Wilson Avenue to the south. Between Wilson and Sheppard, Keele Street is five lanes wide, with a centre left-turn lane. Traffic is heavy throughout the day and evening, with many trucks headed to and from industrial lands and nearby construction sites. Even in heavy traffic, motorists regularly exceed the 50 km/h speed limit.
Pedestrians are provided only with narrow sidewalks, close to the road. These sidewalks are not separated from strip plaza parking spaces. Despite a major hospital, nearby elementary and secondary schools, a library, Downsview Park, and urban intensification taking place in the area, there are no cycling facilities. Cyclists, therefore, usually take the sidewalk. While cyclists avoid heavy traffic on Keele’s narrow lanes, they infringe on the little bit of space given to pedestrians.
Calvington runs west from Keele, with a strip plaza and gas station on the east side of the intersection. Though most traffic off Calvington turns south, pedestrians are prohibited from crossing at the north side, lest they slow down left-turning motorists off of Calvington. Furthermore, an advance left turn signal gives priority to northbound motorists turning on to Calvington from Keele, though the advance signal is only triggered by a queue of several left-turning vehicles.
Though neither the advance signal nor the crossing restriction were factors in the collision on June 7, they are just further reminders of who the streetscape was designed for.
The trouble with that motion is that it too narrow. There are dozens of similar intersections in Toronto’s post-war suburbs. The intersection already has an advance green traffic signal. I would suggest that a review of the whole district is necessary in the the context of new and upcoming urban development, poor access to Downsview Park from the south and west, and inadequate and unsafe active transportation infrastructure. Nearby Highway 401 and the GO Transit Barrie Line both create significant barriers to pedestrians and cyclists in the area.
Olivia Sarracini was killed and Julia Sarracini was injured by a dangerous and callous driver who did not have the humanity to stay and offer assistance and take responsibility. This tragedy shouldn’t warrant a narrow safety review. Without changing the built environment, tragedies like these will continue.
Toronto took its time recognizing the need for pedestrian space during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It wasn’t until late April that the mayor and the medical officer of health considered limited curb lane closures to accommodate crowded sidewalks in front of supermarkets, drug stores, and other essential businesses.
But those curb lane closures — called CurbTO — later expanded to ActiveTO, which includes hundreds of kilometres of “Quiet Streets” for pedestrians and cyclusts and regular weekend road closures on Lake Shore Boulevard and Bayview Avenue. By June, CurbTO and ActiveTO were joined by CafeTO — which would expedite restaurant patio licences and even allow temporary patio space in parking lanes — as well as CampTO and SwimTO, programs to safely open up public pools and day camps for the summer.
Most significantly, new cycle tracks and bike were approved by a wide margin at Council in May, including the entire stretch of Bloor-Danforth between Runnymede Road and Dawes Road.
Through the weekend road closures are closed off with metal barriers and enforced by police, the Quiet Streets are protected only by pylons and temporary signage. On Shaughnessy Boulevard, one of the first Quiet Street implementations, pylons were removed by angry motorists. Elsewhere, residents rearranged pylons to block half the street, doing more to discourage through traffic.
In Kensington Market, pylons were moved by drivers onto the sidewalk, creating additional barriers to pedestrians, especially those with disabilities.
Clearly, pylons are not enough.
While I was in Brampton recently, I noticed a more effective approach. On Scott Street, just east of the city’s downtown core, a narrow bridge was closed to motor traffic in order to provide a quiet and safe crossing of Etobicoke Creek to connect two sections of the Etobicoke Creek Trail. Instead of moveable pylons, rigid plastic bollards were bolted to the roadway, with a compliant “road closed” sign posted in the middle.
Signage approaching the closed bridge was also also quite clear.
I also noted that bolted bollards were also used to mark the interim bike lanes on Vodden Street and Howden Boulevard at every intersection, precluding their use by through traffic. On that early weekday afternoon, only one vehicle was illegally parked in the lane along the entire four-kilometre route. Not one pylon was out of place either.
While Brampton was one of the first cities in Ontario to implement improved active transportation infrastructure during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has done little else since. However, Brampton has an ambitious new active transportation master plan to fix many gaps in its cycling infrastructure and expand its paths system; hopefully it will able to accelerate parts of its plan as Toronto is now doing.
But what Brampton did right was putting in effective barriers and signage to protect its temporary walking and cycling routes. This is something Toronto could learn from.
In a distant corner of Woodbine Centre’s parking lot, dozens of late model cars and trucks sit with their licence plates removed. These are all rental cars, left idle due to the collapse of demand during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Friday, Hertz — the United States’ second-largest car rental company — filed for bankruptcy. Hertz’s brands include Dollar and Thrifty.
Woodbine Centre, a once-vibrant mall in northwest Toronto is a short drive from Toronto-Pearson International Airport, making it an ideal place to store the suddenly surplus fleets. Though in the 1980s and 1990s, Woodbine boasted cinemas, two-full line department stores, Zellers, and dozens of national chain stores, it has lost most of its cachet, with both Sears and Zellers gone, and Hudson’s Bay barely hanging on. Its parking lot was typically half-empty in recent years.
Though the demand for rental cars, especially at the airport, have dried up, many neighbourhood car rental branches remain open, offering attractive rates for daily and weekly rentals. I have taken advantage of the low prices right now (often as cheap as $25 a day on a multi-day rental) to run errands, go for short drives, conduct some field research for future articles and projects, and visit nearby provincial parks and regional forests for physically-distant nature hikes. I am also able to help family members by delivering groceries and medications. With the surplus of available cars, upgrades from the intermediate or standard car booking can be expected. (I was given a Mercedes-Benz E-class a few weeks ago, though I had booked a standard sedan.)
Though we live downtown, my partner and I prefer to shop at a Chinese grocery store in Scarborough, which is calmer, better organized, and better stocked than our local stores (flour, rice, and meat are plentiful). Having a car makes it easy to carry a large load, reducing the number of grocery trips required.
Across the street from Woodbine Centre, in another parking lot, there is another sign of the times: an overflow lot for Humber College has been transformed into a drive-through COVID-19 assessment centre. At 12:30 on Monday, May 25, the centre, which is normally open daily from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM, was already full, and not accepting any more patients who were looking to be tested.
While Premier Doug Ford urged anyone worried about having COVID-19 or being in contact with anyone with it last Sunday, it’s not surprising to see the huge demand. While the change in eligibility is good news, it is troubling that actually getting tested may take so long.
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.
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.
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.
On Saturday April 11, during the Easter long weekend, the City of Toronto announced that a team of over 350 police officers and bylaw enforcement officers would shift from an education-based campaign of verbal and written warnings to people congregating and using closed amenities in parks to a zero-tolerance ticketing campaign. Tickets for violating orders — intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 — include a fine of up $1,000.
In the press release, the city listed twenty parks specifically targeted for enforcement. Though most are located in the old City of Toronto and along Lake Ontario, there are several others located in Toronto’s inner suburbs.
The list of parks include several along Toronto’s waterfront, including Humber Bay Park, Woodbine Beach, and Bluffers Park. It also includes several small downtown parks adjacent to recent high rise residential development, including Corktown Common, College Park, and Allan Gardens. Large suburban parks known for family gatherings and picnics, such as Earl Bales, G. Ross Lord, and Sunnybrook Parks are also on the list.
These parks are illustrated in the map below.
Though many of us are at home, working remotely or waiting for schools and workplaces to reopen, those employed in essential industries and services do not have a choice. For the rest of us not required to self-isolate, an occasional walk or bicycle ride is good for our mental and physical well-being. It may be necessary to pick up food and prescriptions.
For those of us without yards and quiet residential neighbourhoods, going outside means either navigating narrow and occasionally crowded sidewalks, or going to nearby small and busy parks, especially those without access to a car. In my experience so far, the vast majority of people are respecting the calls for physical distancing.
Closing parking lots and amenities such as playgrounds and picnic facilities makes sense. Where possible, we shouldn’t be straying far from home while physically distancing, and we should be keeping close to those we’re living with. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people live in apartments in Mimico and Humber Bay Shores; they shouldn’t be crowded out of their own backyard by others seeking a stroll along the waterfront.
But downtown and in the Yonge-Eglinton area, quiet open spaces close to home may be hard to come by. Sidewalks are narrow, construction barriers such as scaffolding make physical distancing especially difficult, and along Eglinton Avenue, Crosstown LRT construction has made getting around on foot especially challenging, with pedestrians often restricted to narrow passages.
These help to explain the problems at College Park, Eglinton Park, and Allan Gardens. Furthermore, Allan Gardens is close to several shelters and social services such as Seaton House, and has long been a place for marginalized residents to socialize and linger.
This was the argument made by two associate professors of epidemiology at Ryerson University, who sent an open letter to Mayor John Tory and the city’s medical officer of health, Eileen de Villa, arguing for more road space for pedestrians and cyclists.
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.
Empty 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.