Previously on this site, I expressed my skepticism about Durham Region’s commitment to improving transit service. But in the five years since, the region east of Toronto has done exactly that by creating a route grid along major corridors, fusing together a network from four separate municipal systems.
While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has seen transit ridership plummet across the province, followed by service cuts to match the reduced demand, Durham is doing two interesting things: firstly, it is adding additional service on its main corridors, and it is replacing twenty-five low ridership routes with on-demand transit.
In my latest article for TVO.org, I take a closer look at Durham Region Transit’s response to shifting ridership during a pandemic and the benefits and pitfalls of microtransit as a potential solution.
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 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.
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.
In January 2016, a bridge over the Nipigon River failed. Located roughly 100 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, it formed part of the Trans-Canada Highway. The only east-west link between Western and Eastern Canada was severed, with the only detour through the United States.
Climate change, road safety, and access to remote First Nations communities are some of the unique challenges facing Northern Ontario, where highways are especially important. Though highways fall under provincial jurisdiction, the federal government has a role in funding infrastructure and economic development.
VIA RDC train about to depart Sudbury for White River
Last month, I embarked on a journey from Toronto to Thunder Bay, a distance of over 1,300 kilometres. My journey took me nearly three days as I opted to travel by bus and rail, rather than by car or by air. Though I had to take three separate trips to accomplish it (an Ontario Northland bus, a VIA Rail RDC train, and a Kasper Transportation mini-bus), it was a very interesting trip.
Unloading a canoe from the RDC on the Spanish River, northwest of Sudbury
Once I arrived in Thunder Bay, I rented a car. Though I know Northeastern Ontario quite well, I had yet to visit Northwestern Ontario (a brief stop in Sioux Lookout on VIA’s Canadian notwithstanding). There are several beautiful provincial parks within a short drive of Thunder Bay, and the city itself has a few interesting sights. Highway 17 along the Lake Superior shoreline is probably Ontario’s most scenic drive.
Travelling without a car has its challenges, especially as the traveler is at the mercy of sudden schedule changes, traffic delays, and other hiccups, but it is still possible to get across Northern Ontario even after Greyhound’s withdrawal from Western Canada and Northern Ontario last year.
Queen Elizabeth Way looking east towards Dixie Road in Mississauga
Eighty years ago, the Queen Elizabeth Way was officially dedicated by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (for whom it was named). The QEW, which connected Toronto with Hamilton and Niagara Falls, was not only Canada’s first superhighway, it was also the longest divided highway in North America. When it opened on June 7, 1939, it featured such innovations as continuous lighting, extensive landscaping, and Canada’s first cloverleaf interchange.
But the QEW was not built to modern freeway standards. Despite boasting interchanges and traffic circles, it also had many signalized intersections, private driveways, as well as two lift bridges. As traffic increased after the Second World War, the QEW became known as a notorious “death trap.” Luckily, safety innovations developed by Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation and its predecessors have since made Ontario’s highways among the safest on the continent. Interestingly, the QEW is also indirectly responsible for the creation of one of North America’s most successful commuter rail systems.
While there’s GO train service between Toronto, Guelph, and Kitchener, it’s inadequate for the regions’s transportation demands
Earlier this year, I took a ride on Wroute, a new service connecting Guelph, Kitchener, and Burlington that has some characteristics of a bus service, a taxi company, and ride-hailing app. With a fleet of Tesla Model X electric SUVs, Wroute tries fill a gap left by GO Transit and other intercity transportation operators in the Guelph-Kitchener/Waterloo-Hamilton Triangle. It’s an interesting concept, but it is not enough to move commuters quickly, reliably, frequently and, most important, affordably.
I spoke with two Kitchener residents — James Bow, author and webmaster of Transit Toronto, and Brian Doucet, Canada Research Chair in cities planning at the University of Waterloo — to find out what the region really needs.
Shoppers World Brampton, 2016, before the Target store was replaced by smaller stores, including Giant Tiger
Recently, I wrote about the history of Ontario’s downtown malls. Most of these shopping centres, built in the 1970s and 1980s in the downtown cores across the province, failed by the end of the 1990s. The collapse of the Eaton’s department store chain and competition from larger, suburban malls and new big-box retailers drove customers away from Ontario’s downtowns. Only in Toronto and Ottawa, with large downtown office employment, residential development, and good urban transit, did these major shopping malls thrive.
But that does not mean that all suburban shopping centres are doing well, especially after the loss of Target in 2015 and Sears Canada in 2017. For TVO, I wrote more about how smaller regional malls in Ontario are re-positioning themselves.
The Brampton house that I grew up in was a ten minute walk from Shoppers World, which, in the 1980s, had a full line department store, Simpson’s, as well as Marks and Spencer, K-Mart (where I had my first paying gig, delivering shopping carts back to the store abandoned in nearby parks), a Pascal hardware store, and two supermarkets, Food City and A&P. Larger, more popular malls like Mississauga’s Square One and Bramalea City Centre were one bus ride away, but Shoppers World held its own, even if it was second tier. By the 1990s, though, it was clear that the mall was in decline: national retailers were leaving and there was a noticeable lack of investment in the property.
When RioCan REIT purchased Shoppers World in the late 1990s, it made some improvements and attracted big-box retailers like Canadian Tire, Staples, and Winners. Zellers took over the K-Mart store, which was expanded. But The Bay (which replaced Simpson’s) was closed down and the store later demolished. I had left Brampton in 2006, but I was still sad to see my one-time local mall decline. Now RioCan has talked about downsizing the mall, and redeveloping part of the property. Competition from larger, stronger shopping malls, newer retail power centres, the mismanagement of several retail firms, and internet shopping have all taken their toll. Shoppers World isn’t a dead mall, but like many smaller malls, it will be adapting to changing times.
In the TVO article, I take a look at a few other malls, like London’s Westmount Mall, in similar circumstances.
Shoppers World, 2018. Despite many store vacancies, it’s still a community hub.
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.
For TVO this week, I discuss Brampton Transit’s impressive ridership growth. In the last five years, Brampton Transit has bucked the trend of stagnant ridership numbers encountered elsewhere in the Greater Toronto Area and North America in general. I argue that Brampton’s success in improving transit ridership comes from sustained investment over many years, the move to a grid-based route structure, and the introduction of Züm, a basic network of semi-frequent, limited-stop bus routes, many of which extend outside of Brampton’s boundaries.
I grew up in Brampton, and I have collected maps since kindergarten; my collection includes several old Brampton Transit maps. These maps help to illustrate the progress made since the 1980s, when the level of service provided was quite basic.
Brampton Transit began operations in 1976 after the old Town of Brampton’s local bus service was amalgamated with the dial-a-bus service operated in Bramalea. (Brampton amalgamated with most of Chinguacousy Township in 1974, including Bramalea.) In 1980, Brampton Transit operated 14 routes, serving a community of just under 150,000 people. Buses operated no later than 9:00 or 10:00 PM, Mondays through Saturdays, and many routes operated with long, meandering loops. Apart from GO Transit, there were no connections to nearby communities.
By 1988, service was offered on Steeles Avenue to Humberline Drive in Etobicoke, where connections could be made to TTC buses on the 96 Wilson and 73 Royal York buses, but didn’t continue east to Humber College. Brampton Transit Route 14 Torbram served Westwood Mall in Mississauga, and connections to Mississauga Transit could be made at Shoppers World. But still, service levels were poor — you were lucky to get a bus every 30 minutes outside of rush hours. Permanent Sunday service wouldn’t come for another ten years. Notable are the four lettered bus routes — A, B, C, and D — that made direct connections to the four weekday GO train round trips to and from Toronto.
Brampton Transit’s maps of the era are also historically notable because of their advertising: only one of the Burger King locations shown on the 1988 map still exists. Other restaurants advertised — the Old Beef Market, O’Henry’s, and Queen’s Pizzeria — are no longer in business.
Brampton Transit Maps published in the 1990s and early 2000s were printed on newsprint, and used only a two-colour scheme: blue for regular routes, and orange for rush-hour routes. Service to new subdivisions was often provided by way of long one-way loops, which is an inexpensive way of serving new areas, but are inconvenient and slow for potential riders.
Notable in the 2001 map below is Route 77, launched in the 1990s as a joint Brampton Transit/Vaughan Transit route between Bramalea City Centre and Finch Station along Highway 7. Route 77 was a very slow way to get to the subway from Brampton, but it operated until Züm began service in 2010. In 2001, bus service on 11 Steeles was finally extended to Humber College’s main campus.
2005 marked an important turning point for Brampton Transit, as it introduced a grid-based route system on major arterials. Route 14 Torbram, for example, no longer served Bramalea City Centre, but continued north, providing a core north-south route; many other routes were straightened, including Route 2 Main north of Downtown. Changes since May 2005 saw service frequencies improved, more local routes added, and improved connections.