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About me

A farewell to 2017

IMG_0129-001At the top of the Franey Trail, Cape Breton National Park

For me, 2017 was a great year. In June, I wrote about my life up to that point, looking back at some of the challenges I faced over the years, my ability to overcome them, and my accomplishments. I wrote that shortly before I got married to an amazing life partner, and together, we look forward to many great things.

Elisa and I honeymooned out East, touring the Cabot Trail, Prince Edward Island, and Halifax before taking the train back home. We also visited Point Pelee for the first time, and made trips to Detroit, Chicago, and across Ontario, to places like Southampton, Sudbury, and Collingwood.

I met a few new friends in 2017, and I also got to know some great people even better. Along with our own wedding, Elisa and I got to help celebrate three others this year.

In Brockville, exploring the newly re-opened historic railway tunnel, I spent a few hours catching up with a high school friend who moved from Brampton to a town in Eastern Ontario. That was one of this year’s nice simple highlights. Day trips with friends and groups walks with others were another thing that made this year good. But also in 2017, I lost contact with a few people I knew, including another of my best friends from high school. I regret not keeping in closer contact; social media has its limitations.

At my full time job, I stood up in front of an audience at an industry event, presenting the work that I did on an interesting interactive map that I developed. This year was one of  the most challenging years I had at work, but also one of the most fulfilling.

2017 also marks the tenth year since I started writing on urban issues and transportation for fun. Spacing is one of my favourite publications, and it has been an honour to write for them on occasion. My first blog post described some of the places where Toronto’s old streetcars were sent to once they were retired by the TTC; my latest contribution, a full-page spread in the Fall 2017 issue of the print magazine, highlighted all the major transit projects across Canada planned or in progress. This year, I also wrote for Torontoist and TVO, and of course, in my own blog.

IMG_1524.jpgNation on the move: my latest article in Spacing

In 2018, I look forward to many things: a trip to see family and new places in Europe, catching up with friends, having some more writing opportunities, new challenges at work, and a municipal election, where three new wards will help deliver some new faces to Toronto City Council. Maybe, too, there will be a strong mayoral candidate worth supporting.

My top six posts of 2017

These six articles might not be the most read, but they are among my favourite posts in 2017. They all deal with some of my favourite subjects: urban planning, transit, and local history.

  • Ontario’s land use scandal: Another greenfield hospital for Niagara: A commentary on poor land use planning decisions (which I have discussed previously on this blog) which puts major health and educational institutions far from where people live, on sites difficult to serve by transit.
  • Hallam Street and the Harbord Streetcar: The history of Hallam Street in west end Toronto and the Harbord Streetcar, which was one Toronto’s most interesting carlines until it was abandoned in 1966.
  • How intercity bus service is failing Ontarians: my first article for TVO, I examine how the intercity bus network in Ontario declined since the 1980s, and how many communities in the province have since become disconnected.
  • A need for high speed rail reality: an article I posted to Spacing, as I express my skepticism for the province’s proposal for a high speed rail line between Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, and London, with a possible extension to Windsor. It’s an interesting contrast to the neglect paid to rural bus services.
  • Toronto’s Zero Vision and the folly of Seniors Safety Zones: Putting up a few new signs as part of a reluctant response to an unacceptable level of road violence isn’t  Vision Zero, it’s Zero Vision. As a pedestrian advocate and co-founder of Walk Toronto, I believe that the city does a lousy job of protecting its residents from injury and death on its roads.
  • Rosedale NIMBYs Push Back Against Four-Storey Condo: There are few things more fun than writing about entitled, unreasonable NIMBYs.
Categories
Politics Toronto Transit

A new low for the Scarborough Subway champion

Note: a version of this article has been cross-posted to Spacing Toronto

For 2016’s annual Torontoist Heroes and Villains feature, I nominated Toronto Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre) as villain of the year. (“Pedestrian blaming” won that dubious honour.) But I remain proud of my choice. As I wrote back in December:

De Baeremaeker’s record of environmentalism has been overshadowed by an increasingly antagonistic tone, pitting supposedly downtrodden Scarborough against the rest of the city in his one-track quest to build a one-stop subway extension to his ward. In his myopic support of the subway, De Baeremaeker is opportunistic and vindictive, takes the low road, insults critics who engage in good faith debates, and in the process does a disservice to the community he represents.

Councillor De Baeremaeker hasn’t changed his tone.

Yesterday, May 10, the City of Toronto held a public consultation at Scarborough Civic Centre on the next phase of planning for that one-stop, 6.2-kilometre subway extension, which is estimated to cost $3.35 billion, and open no earlier than 2026.

I wish I was able to attend last night’s meeting, as disgruntled Scarborough residents questioned the merits of that transit plan. And Councillor De Baeremaeker shamelessly blamed “downtown councillors” for the shortcomings of that one-stop subway. For a councillor who is rightly proud of his past environmental advocacy, it was surely a low point.

Toronto Star reporter Jennifer Pagliaro, an excellent local journalist, covered the meeting. 

City Scarborough MapCity of Toronto map from February 2016 illustrating current plans for the Scarborough Subway and connecting transit.

At the public consultation, TTC and City planning staff answered queries from members of the public, many questioning the utility of the single-stop subway. There are no additional funds to rough in future stations, such as at McCowan Road and Lawrence Avenue, where the line would intersect the busy 54 Lawrence East bus and serve Scarborough General Hospital. As building future stations later would require an extended shut-down of the line, the one-stop subway extension will likely be forever a one-stop subway.

(The eastern extension of the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT from Kennedy Station to University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus is also part of the new plan for Scarborough, but the LRT component is unfunded.)

Shameless as ever, Councillor De Baeremaeker resorted to strawman arguments, talking up a “suburban/urban divide”:

[De Baeremaeker] blamed “downtown councillors,” who represent the most densely populated wards in the city, for not wanting to fund more frequent transit stops like their residents enjoy.

Yes, it is true that all councillors representing central Toronto opposed the subway extension, but so did several suburban politicians, most notably Councillor Paul Ainslie (Ward 43 – Scarborough East). Yet not one of those councillors wanted less transit for Scarborough. Instead, they backed a seven-stop LRT replacement for the ageing Scarborough rapid transit line, including an extension to Centennial College and Sheppard Avenue in Malvern. That less-expensive line was fully funded by the provincial government, which would have permitted scarce funds to be spent on other transit projects across Toronto.

Meanwhile Mayor John Tory was most interested in pushing SmartTrack, a fantasy rail project that got pared down as parts of the line were found to be impossible to build, and costs increased. The eastern end of SmartTrack conflicted with the Scarborough Subway extension. The three-stop subway plan was cut to a single stop at Scarborough Centre, to keep costs down and to not cannibalize SmartTrack.

Yet Tory and De Baeremaeker are allies on the subway extension; Tory named him one of his Deputy Mayors to champion the line. But Tory’s push for his own project put him at odds with De Baeremaeker’s focus on the subway extension, any subway extension, to his ward.

It is also worth noting that until 2012, De Baeremaeker supported Transit City, the transit plan championed by David Miller that would have delivered three new light rail lines to Scarborough.

I am not surprised by De Baeremaeker’s shameless politics. But his performance last night was especially crass and dishonest. Backed into a corner, faced with angry local residents, he lashed out at imaginary villains. But subway backers largely have themselves to blame; despite winning every recent vote on the subway plan, they have only one stop to show for it.

Categories
Toronto Transit Urban Planning

Ridership has tripled on UP Express, but we can do even better

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When UP Express — Toronto’s rail link to Toronto Pearson International Airport – -launched on June 6, 2015, the one-way fare between Union Station and Pearson Airport was set at $27.50, or $19.00 with a Presto card. At the time, Metrolinx, the provincial agency charged with planning and integrating transportation services in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area and the parent agency of GO Transit, expected that ridership would hit 5,000 passengers a day in a year. But after its launch, ridership sunk instead. 

By January 2016, only an average of 1,967 passengers a day rode UP Express, so Metrolinx cleaned house and lowered the fares. The one-way cash fare was reduced from $27.50 to $12, and from $19 to $9 with a Presto card, and fares between Union and Bloor and Weston stations were reduced to match the GO Transit fares for the same trips. Since the new fare structure was introduced, UP Express ridership has more than tripled. By June 2016, the daily average ridership increased to 7,657.

Despite the ridership growth, and the utility of the rail service for local residents near Bloor and Weston Stations, there’s still more that can be done to make the most of the $456 million spent to build the line.

The airport region is a major employment centre, yet is difficult to serve by public transit. Fare integration between UP Express, GO Transit, MiWay and Brampton Transit could be an important a first step in creating a full regional rail network, a concept that Mayor John Tory pitched as “SmartTrack.”

Airport LinksTransit connections at Pearson Airport. UP Express, if it offered fare integration with the TTC, MiWay and Brampton Transit, would be an invaluable part of the Toronto area’s transit network

UP Express’s ridership increase is a good news story. But there’s so much more utility that can be leveraged.

I discuss the UP Express ridership trends further in Torontoist

Categories
Toronto Uncategorized

Why the Gardiner Expressway remains a barrier to the waterfront

29295828846_d05ad61318_kThe Gardiner Expressway isn’t so much a barrier to the waterfront because it’s a looming, elevated eyesore: the railway viaduct isn’t pretty to look at either. It’s a barrier to the waterfront because the roadways around the Gardiner: the on ramps, dual left turn lanes, channelized right turns, and the ground-level Lake Shore Boulevard below it, are hostile to pedestrians. Pedestrians are expected to  yield to cars and trucks at many points; there are many missing crosswalks, and where pedestrians can cross, they must wait for long waits to do so as traffic light cycles prioritize through vehicles.

In the 1950s, when the Gardiner was planned, the waterfront was a mess of railway spur lines, warehouses, and grain silos. Downtown was several blocks north, on the other side of passenger rail yards and Union Station. So it was not the type of place — nor the era — where creating pedrestrian-friendly enviroments was deemed important.  But since then, the rail yards were redeveloped, the waterfront got new parks, cultural spaces, residents, and shops. The Gardiner Expressway hasn’t kept up.

At Spadina and Lake Shore, it took me 8 1/2 minutes to legally cross at Spadina and Lake Shore (and I’m a healthy, younger, able-bodied adult without parcels or a rolling a stroller). As pedestrians are banned from crossing east-west on the north side of the intersection, and north-south on the west side, I had to return to the corner of Spadina and Bremner/Fort York and walk on the other side. And even that was an unnecessary ordeal.

The local councillor, Joe Cressy (Ward 20) is on it, and is working on solutions for next year. The Bentway Park will be a good addition as well (even if I haven’t warmed to the name.) But it’s a shame that as a city has grown around this area, the Gardiner remains so difficult to get around on foot.

Read more in my latest article in Torontoist

 

Categories
Toronto

The controversial Judson Street zoning change

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Earlier this year, Etobicoke Councillor Justin Di Ciano (Ward 5) pushed for a zoning change to several industrial properties on Judson Street, adjacent to GO Transit’s Willowbrook Yards. Local residents had enough with a concrete batching operation and Dunpar Homes applied to build a townhouse development on the site.

City staff recommended against the rezoning, which would allow townhouses to go up on land previously zoned as industrial. Metrolinx, GO Transit’s parent organization, also spoke out against the re-zoning, warning that it could impact its expansion plans, including GO RER/SmartTrack. But Councillor Di Ciano, Mayor John Tory, and most of the mayor’s allies voted against those concerns and supported the redevelopment.

Now Metrolinx is appealing the council decision to the Ontario Municipal Board, and the City will be forced to hire external expert advice, as it went against its staff recommendations.

You can read the Torontoist post here, where I explain the situation in more detail.

 

Categories
Politics Toronto Transit

The Truth About SmartTrack

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This article originally appeared on June 27, 2016 in Torontoist

In 2014, then-mayoral candidate John Tory ran on a campaign of sound fiscal management, returning decorum to City Hall, and a curious new transit plan called SmartTrack, which promised “London-style” rapid transit from Mississauga to Markham. During the election campaign Tory claimed that the new rail service—53 kilometres long, costing $8 billion—would provide needed transit relief in just seven years, all on a TTC fare.

During campaign speeches, Tory called the plan “bold.” He also promised to build the Rob Ford-backed subway extension to Scarborough Centre, rather than return to the cheaper, funded light rail alternative that candidates Olivia Chow and David Soknacki were backing.

Of course, Tory won the election, and many Torontonians were looking forward to an era of competent governance, if not visionary leadership. But two years in, the costs of the Scarborough subway keep mounting, even if the number of stations kept shrinking (from three stations to one stop), and the scope of John Tory’s “bold” SmartTrack plan kept getting watered down.

With the recent provincial and municipal transit announcements on new GO Station locations, it’s now official: SmartTrack is nothing more than a brand name for transit projects that were already in the works. And the City of Toronto is stuck with some of the construction costs that would have been borne by the province.

Mayor Tory and the provincial government held two separate transit announcements this week: one in Liberty Village, the other at the former Unilever lands that First Gulf is looking to redevelop as a major office and commercial centre. While Tory has been bullish about promoting First Gulf’s development, the East Gardiner replacement, SmartTrack Station, and even a Relief Line subway stop—projects he championed—will all serve this particular property.

Those announcements coincide with a Metrolinx report [PDF] that recommends 12 new GO Transit stations: Breslau, St. Clair, and Liberty Village on the Kitchener Line; Innisfil, Mulock, Kirby, Davenport-Bloor, and Spadina on the Barrie Line; East Harbour (Unilever), Gerrard, Lawrence East, and Finch East on the Lakeshore East and Stouffville lines. Stations at Mount Dennis, Downsview Park, and Caledonia were already approved and will connect to the subway and Crosstown LRT. Seven of those stations—from Mount Dennis to Unionville—are along the SmartTrack corridor. Spadina Station, part of Tory’s SmartTrack map, will only be served by Barrie corridor trains.

From the start, SmartTrack was a fantasy built on assumptions; the line was an idea conceived by a little-known organization called Strategic Regional Research Alliance. SRRA authored a report, “The Business Case for the Regional Rail Line,” discussing the potential of a 2009 concept for connecting suburban office parks with Downtown Toronto with rapid transit. That report became the basis for SmartTrack.

Meanwhile, Metrolinx—the provincial transportation authority for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area—was involved in studying plans for converting much of its existing GO Transit rail network from a commuter rail system to an electrified, regional rail network known as Regional Express Rail. RER and SmartTrack (as well as VIA Rail and UP Express trains) would be sharing the same corridors.

Since the election, the truth about SmartTrack has become clear. Previous plans for SmartTrack were simplistic, with maps created using out-of-date Google Maps imagery that ignored the fact that lands owned by the City of Toronto along Eglinton Avenue in Etobicoke—reserved for an unbuilt freeway—were largely sold off and redeveloped. There were serious engineering and financial complications of building the connection between the existing GO line at Mount Dennis and the Eglinton spur. The plan to use tax increment financing (TIFs) to build SmartTrack remains dubious. The Eglinton spur was removed, replaced by the revival of the approved yet unfunded western section of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT. Tory surrounded himself with experts, including a prominent University of Toronto transportation professor who gave the plan an “A+.” Critics who pointed out these flaws were ignored or insulted. There are few excuses that Tory can make for this failure.

With the latest announcements, it is clear that SmartTrack has become nothing more than a moniker for an existing GO Transit RER. Rush-hour train frequencies will likely be every eight to 10 minutes; off peak, trains will arrive every 15 minutes (the TTC subway never operates at less than six-minute frequencies). We do not know what fares will be charged on GO RER/SmartTrack as Metrolinx continues to study regional fare integration. And it is very unlikely that we will be seeing frequent, electric trains offering relief by 2021.

As the Globe and Mail‘s Marcus Gee points out, the City will now be expected to pick up much of the construction tab—similar to how the municipal government is stuck with cost overruns on the Scarborough subway extension after it rejected a provincially funded seven-stop light rail line to replace the ageing RT line.

At best, SmartTrack represents the City of Toronto’s buy-in to GO RER, a worthwhile project to provide better rail service to suburban Toronto and the 905. There’s room to negotiate at least some fare integration between GO and the TTC. But at worst, SmartTrack is a failure to deliver on a key election promise, as flawed as it is. But in order for the Mayor to save face, the SmartTrack brand will likely never go away.

Categories
Election Maps Politics Toronto

Mapping Toronto’s proposed new ward boundaries

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Toronto is way overdue for ward boundary reform. Finally, in time for the 2018 election, Toronto will have reshaped ward boundaries — and probably three new wards. This will give quickly-growing Downtown Toronto and North York Centre more representation at City Council.

Consultants retained by the City of Toronto have been tasked with reviewing the size and shape of Toronto’s wards, and providing a recommendation for new ward boundaries. Back in August 2015, an options report was released with five distinct options. After further consultation, the final report was released yesterday, May 16.

The final report’s recommendation is similar to the “Minimal Change” option in last August’s options report, but there have been some minor tweaks to the ward boundaries. If the recommendations are approved by City Council, there will be 47 wards, up from 44. Each new ward will have an average population of 61,000, with a range between 51,800 and 72,000 (+/- 15%). These new wards are designed to last for four election cycles, and will be re-drawn again in time for the 2034 election.

The report will be considered by the Executive Committee on May 24, 2016, which will vote on a recommendation to take to City Council on June 7, 2016. If there are no further hiccups, this gives just over two years for aspiring council candidates and city staff to prepare for the next election, which will be held on Monday, October 22, 2018.

The recommendation brought forward is a compromise that improves representation in high-growth areas, while minimizing the loss of council representation elsewhere. It increases the number of councillors, but by a minimal amount. (Had Toronto maintained the practice of having two wards per provincial/federal riding, there would be 50 councillors.) Happily, proposals to cut the number of representatives at City Council were not a very popular idea. In terms of staffing and associated costs, each councillor costs approximately $290,000; it would therefore cost about $870,000 to add three new wards, which in my opinion, is a bargain.

While Downtown Toronto will gain three new seats, and North York gaining one, one seat is lost in Toronto’s west end, in current wards 14, 17, 18. This probably squeezes out Cesar Palacio, a rather poor city councillor who remains in office despite strong competition in the last few elections. Otherwise, despite ward boundary shifts across most of the city, every incumbent councillor should easily find a home that’s mostly made up of their current turf.

I created the CartoDB interactive map, linked below, for Torontoist; my full article is available there.

I mapped the results of the 2014 election for every ward in the city — that was the primary reason why I started this blog in November 2014. That previous work should be helpful for predicting the results of the 2018 election with the new boundaries.

 

Categories
Toronto Transit Urban Planning

The TTC’s disappearing parking lots: why this isn’t a bad thing

IMG_6376New office development at the TTC York Mills Station parking lot

I’ve written several times on my blog about GO Transit’s problems with free parking. The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) also operates many parking lots — 11,000 parking spots located at 13 of its 69 subway and RT stations — but has declared many of its lots surplus to its needs. Right now, the City of Toronto’s real estate arm, Build Toronto, is in the process of selling or leasing TTC lots for residential and commercial redevelopment. The TTC, unlike GO Transit, charges for parking at all lots, and it isn’t in a hurry to build more. For the TTC, redeveloping parking lots raise money (which, in the TTC’s case, goes to the city) while they generate additional ridership.

There’s a difference between TTC subway stations and GO Transit stations, to be sure. The TTC relies mostly on buses and streetcars, as well as walk-up traffic, to feed its rail system, while GO Transit relies mostly on suburban commuters driving to its stations. They are different models. But in urban areas like Downtown Brampton, I believe GO Transit should be much more innovative than deciding to rip down a city block to build yet another “free” surface parking lot.

GO Transit should rethink their model, encouraging more walk-up and local transit connections as it transforms into a regional rail system. Redeveloping some of its lots is a good way to go; commuter parking garages can easily be integrated into new urban uses and make their stations more attractive places to walk and cycle.

I have more to say about the TTC’s parking lot crunch over at Torontoist.

Categories
Maps Transit Urban Planning Walking

Mapping Major League Baseball’s stadiums by walkablity, transit access

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What major league ballpark is the easiest to get to by public transit? Which stadium has the highest walk score? And where does the phrase “take me out to the ball game” absolutely require getting in a car and fighting traffic to do so?

Over at Torontoist, I explore these questions in more detail. I created a map of all thirty major league stadiums (and the 2017 home of the Atlanta Braves). About half the stadiums are located in downtown areas or urban neighbourhoods, close to transit stations, bars, restaurants, and shopping; the other half are generally surrounded by parking lots.

SkyDome isn’t a great ballpark, especially when the dome is closed, but in these rankings, it does really well.

Categories
Toronto Transit

Tunnel Vision: A History of Toronto’s Subway

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If you haven’t yet had a chance to go, you should be sure to visit the Market Gallery at St. Lawrence Market. The current exhibition, called Tunnel Vision: The Story of Toronto’s Subway, is a fascinating collection of maps, photographs, memorabilia, and drawings illustrating over a century of subway plans and operations in Toronto. Dominating the gallery, which was the City of Toronto Council Chambers in the 19th century, is the front of an H-4 subway car; visitors are encouraged to take selfies with it.

While Canada’s first subway opened in 1954, there were serious subway proposals that date back to 1910. Interestingly, many of these early subway maps feature a line that looks very similar to the (Downtown) Relief Line.

I wrote more about this exhibition, which continues until June 11, 2016, in Torontoist