Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

The Road Ahead: Learning from Toronto

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Elyse Parker, Director Public Realm Section, Transportation Services, City of Toronto

November 26, 2009 at UBC Robson Square. Last of the SFU City Program “Changing Gears” series

This post was updated on  May 3, 2010 to include this link to the SFU video of this event

The idea of creating better streets is tied into both dealing with climate change and creating a more livable city. Toronto is Canada’s largest city and sixth largest government, has 2.6m residents and is a result of the 1998 amalgamation: half of that population was born outside of Canada.

On May 25, the City examined a change to Jarvis Street. The area has been “intensifying” and the engineers were examining alternatives to the reversible centre lane. The best alternate was to eliminate the fifth lane entirely and add bike lanes and sidewalk width. The removal of the fifth lane would add 2 minutes to vehicle travel time. The debate lasted seven and a half hours. However, this approach is preferred to that adopted by New York City. That means that change happens slowly, but that is because it is democratic and intensely political. In NYC the process is one driven by executive action.

Clean and Beautiful City

Mayor David Miller introduced a five point action plan -

  • sweep it
  • design it
  • grow it
  • build it
  • celebrate it

Much of the city was showing a lack of continuous maintenance. The new approach required the planners to sit down with solid waste management which in itself was an innovation. The objective was to re-establish civic pride. “No one could save us but ourselves”. The city has a complex management structure, which meant that in many places it was not clear who had responsibility for a given public space. The idea was to  “find a home for orphaned spaces”.

Neighborhood beautification – The first example was the Bathurst Wilson mural. The wall was a sound barrier for Highway #401, which was painted after the famous Seurat picture of a beach. This is a process started to create places, bottom up, with change through small actions: doing not talking, but that will happen in all 44 wards of the city.

The next project was at Senlac and Burnett (unfortunately not on the City web site so far as I can see)  a neglected intersection where what instigated change was the support of city. It was succesful due to the speed of action which she described as  “urban acupuncture”

What Makes a City Great? – Mayor David Millar’s vision for the City (the link is to a pdf file) commits the city to spend $100,ooo per ward on improvements to the public realm.

Take BAC 13

St Clair W TTC Station was a major project (which a web search shows was not free of controversy)  which was made possible by a “convergence of owners”. Her presentation relied on images which are not on line.

She then spoke about “boulevard transformation” essentially inserting small strips of green along Sword Street between the roadway and the sidewalk. She that this simple act of replacing bare dirt with grass had  significant community impact. The work was done by the city but the community had to accept responsibility for maintaining the boulevard. The picture she showed was just of grass but she said that other types of planting would have been equally acceptable.

She argued that actions such as this are a real tool for community development. She then cited the Jameson Ave photo project – an outdoor gallery of photographs on tree planter boxes which features local residents

The Rexdale Drainage Swale, on the other hand, replaced the usual grass median with an open planted ditch designed to slow water run off and through increased permeability recharge local ground water. She remarked that the engineers who design and maintain such places are some of the lost “hard nosed” of the city employees, but they seem to have been won over to a more green approach to storm drainage.

One of the main sources of action came from the need for a new street furniture contract. The city choose to seek a new, co-ordinated contract  as set out in the  Vibrant Streets guidelines. This is an advertising based system which will see 25,640 pieces of street furniture installed over 20 years at a cost of $1bn. This is the largest harmonised system in the world. The Public Realm Section was created as the formal unit to take responsibility for the revenue stream from this program. It is dedicated to be spent on beautiful streets, pedestrian projects and  street furniture (bus shelters, waste bins, newspaper boxes, benches etc).

Toronto is a member of the c40 Group which was created from the observation that national governments are falling short on the necessary action to deal with climate change while cities are getting results.  One of its first initiatives was to set up a Sustainable Transportation Plan.  Dr. David McKewen, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, recently released a report stating that traffic related air pollution contributes to about 440 premature deaths and 1,700 hospitalizations per year in Toronto. This clearly demonstrates the health benefits of moving to a more sustainable transportation system.   The Toronto Walking Strategy will, among other initiatives eliminate ten right turns on red (its most controversial proposal). She said that this is not just a feel good campaign. We know that getting people to walk more, and safely, is one of the few things we know will reduce the incidence of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

She talked about the  guiding principles (which can be downloaded as a pdf from the previous link) and showed a map of the incidence of diabetes in the city which is strongly correlated to the outer parts of the city which are auto oriented. The way to tackle this she said  was through the  Transit City Priority Neighbourhoods. The plan is to greatly expand the reach of good quality transit by switching to surface light rail rather than the cities earlier approaches based on subways and ALRT (which had stalled due to high costs). There is she said a “walkability challenge” of the outer parts of the city. The first priority is keeping children safe: giving priority to car traffic means road death is principal cause of child mortality. The most vulnerable people are the elderly and the young.

Young and Dundas “Barnes Dance”

How clear was my running trail

the first in a pilot project that sees the city clearing snow on a priority basis from Coxwell to Lower Sherbourne in the east end and the Humber River to Bathurst in the west, each a stretch of just over five kilometres.

It sounds like a small thing – a trail length of 11 kilometres compared with the thousands of kilometres of roads the city clears every snowfall. But the decision to clear the Goodman may indicate that the city bureaucracy is growing to
understand the needs of cyclists and pedestrians. And initial reports show the newly cleared trail is having a transformative effect on the lives of the winter athletes.

Jane’s walks – “An annual extravaganza of urban love” . Kensington Market is closed to cars on last Sunday of the month in Summer. Toronto Islands are car free year round, and the two downtown universities (Ryerson and UofT) are looking at street closures.

The city organisation has split the cycling and pedestrian areas and the emphasis for cycles is for bikeways that are continuous and connected. They intend to concentrate on infrastructure and will introduce bixi bikes next spring. They have also built a “bike station“, will provide secure bike parking at all TTC stations and have erected 16,000 post and ring bike parking devices

Selected Q&A

(I have only recorded questions that got a substantive answer. Where she said she would get back to questioners, the question has not been recorded below)

The first question referred to a Spacing Magazine article which contrasted the  elected vs executive  approaches in Toronto and New York.
She replied that beautiful streets are non-partisan, but the tension has been about active transportation. The suburban  councillors are dubious about such approaches in their wards compared to the downtown councillors.

“I would love to just do it!”

2    “What is going to happen to car dependent suburbs?”

One of the strategies is the transit city plan, and the tower renewal programme which redensifies neighbourhoods and adds more shopping uses. But it is an uphill battle

3    Street furniture – what is the city’s ability to control where those things go?

Lot of concern to us and city council. The “Vibrant Streets” document issued at the time of the request for proposals was very specific about this issue  and how much advertising can be on the furniture. It is not allowed on bins or benches. We work with the street furniture company on location and we meet with the city councillor and the adjacent land owner(s). The city has the absolute right of refusal on ads.

4   What about temporary public spaces? Can they have a transformative impact on community?

Kensington Market is exactly that. But we do have to get more sophisticated how we do these things

5   You mentioned the breakdown of the silos in your department. Is that happening elsewhere?

Toronto is moving towards an integrated service delivery model.  We are at the tip of the iceberg. We have the resources to implement these things. I am one of 13 director champions for the 13 neighborhoods. We add another layer of thought for social services in the priority neighborhoods.

6 The need for more public toilets -

Toilets are part of the street furniture program. In addition a local by law requires that stores over a certain size must provide a public washroom -

7  Are newspaper boxes a blight or a source of revenue? We have heard about the need for more  freedom of expression and the papers are  “pushing back” on multi publication racks (mpr)

We don’t have any mprs up yet. We are aggressive on licensing and management.  We are now seen as a way of saving costs. We won’t have them everywhere and we will monitor and enforce licences. As well we will provide the boxes and maintain them.

8  The City of Vancouver has tried to integrate programs. On priority neighborhoods, who gets them and how it is prioritised?

The ability to redevelop streets especially  old heritage streets only comes with new development. The determination is based on statistics and excludes  downtown simply because that area has better access to social services. There are 44 wards and our job is to serve everyone – keep detailed lists and always try to balance – dollar value is not always an indicator of effectiveness of performance. The source of funds is only from development charges on neighborhood streets. The only capital fund is on arterial roads.

9   TIF?

Capital financing is not the biggest problem – new programs for BIAs – Bloor St – may happen on major street but not for neighborhoods

10.  Does the introduction of a bike lane improve streets?

Not aware of that

11. Wayfinding?

Currently none – but eager to develop one

12   Healthy walk proposal?

An academic idea not yet implemented.

13   Swales and storm water management

The funding makes the difference: we can add on to the base funding to make innovation possible e.g. the first truly green parking lot

14  What is the relationship with the parks department? For instance, Cloud Park has degenerated as has the linear park along Front St in the distillery district.

We are aware of that are we are trying to get better maintenance. We need to connect people with the street and we have been impressed by recent work in New York.

15   Community Consultation

We will not put any dollars into projects if they are not willing to maintain the project but this is a “gentle persons agreement” which may not be enforceable, but the city councillor usually has an interest.

UPDATE Saturday November 28, 2009

In a nice piece of synchronicity, when I turned on the radio this morning, Stuart McClean was reading his story of Emil, the homeless man, who created a garden in “One of the planter boxes on Bloor Street where the city put a small tree and sometimes water”. The story also appears in one of his anthologies of stories from the Vinyl Cafe. Recommended.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 27, 2009 at 12:52 pm

7 Responses

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  1. i’d love to see the proposed plans for Jarvis Street, and then how they differ from whatever NYC might be doing on some street somewhere.

    Peter Smith

    November 27, 2009 at 8:48 pm

  2. I took me about a minute to find http://www.toronto.ca/involved/projects/jarvis/index.htm using a Google search

    The big difference is that Toronto is examining permanent changes. Much of the New York changes were introduced quickly using paint and barrels, and only later converted to concrete changes based on that experience.

    Stephen Rees

    November 28, 2009 at 10:19 am

  3. [...] Sun] Vancouver snow-clearing rules might get tougher [CBC] City plan moves ahead [Burnaby Now] The Road Ahead: Learning from Toronto [Stephen Rees's Blog] CANADA Hume: City’s new architecture frees Toronto the Timid [The [...]

    re:place Magazine

    November 28, 2009 at 11:26 am

  4. Great news from Toronto, my favorite city in Canada if it wasn’t for the winters..

    Closer to our local problems, anyone had a chance to read about Prendergast parting shot? see http://www.bclocalnews.com/tri_city_maple_ridge/tricitynews/news/70647482.html

    Red frog

    November 28, 2009 at 1:54 pm

  5. Greetings from Toronto

    I find our council to be deeply flawed. A suburban councilor has an equal vote to a motion that affects downtown, than the councilor who actually represents downtown.

    Seems backwards to me. Next thing, we will have a representative from Newfoundland voting on issues which affect downtown.

    lukev

    November 29, 2009 at 3:54 pm

  6. Our Toronto city council is not really flawed. The problem is we have too many incumbent councillors who do not bring any news ideas. Miller was the first mayor in quite who actually brought progresive ideas to the table. I am scared that our next Mayor will be George Smitherman, A liberal or worse former Progressive leader John Tory.

    Justin Bernard

    November 30, 2009 at 9:57 am

  7. lukev,
    I am sure that Toronto is like most other towns. What happens in the suburbs affects downtown and vice versa. Hence the need for a suburban councilor to be part of the solution. Even if a special problem is downtown specific, suburban people have the right to voice their opinion as they also use downtown services, stores, entertainment venues etc. etc.
    Problems with transit, roads, housing, utilities, crimes, garbage and pollution etc. etc. don’t magically stop at the artificial border between downtown and the suburbs.

    Red frog

    November 30, 2009 at 6:40 pm


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