Designing nice streets is easy when we pretend cars do not exist

Young urban planner Richard Valenzona just won the $5000 NXT City Prize for his project YONGE-REDUX A New Vision of Yonge Street. Valenzona's entry pleased the judges by showing how he'd expand Yonge's "pedestrian access and transforming the street’s visual appearance". This is how he imagined it:

Toronto's chief planner, Jennifer Keesmat, thought it was a great idea. "This is an idea that would actually work in this location in part because it's an area where there are vastly more pedestrians than cars," said Keesmat.

I say it sucks.

I don't want to pick on Valenzona, who I'm sure is a smart, young man with a bright future in planning and picked some pleasing elements for his design here. No, my problem is that Valenzona's design is representative of a growing planning movement that could be considered quasi-"shared space".

Valenzona's design, which the judges were so pleased with, exists in a fairy land where downtown car traffic has virtually disappeared. So I took the liberty of fixing Valenzona's design by putting the cars back in:

Instead of that idyllic picture of pedestrians meandering on wide sidewalks and cyclists weaving to and fro on empty streets, the finished product will look more like another recent "shared space" mess in Poynton, England that did nothing to reduce car traffic and told cyclists to go screw themselves.

This is Poynton now:

I assume there's nice brick under all those cars.

Valenzona also received another $10,000 to continue working on his design. "Over the next year, Richard will work closely with Distl and a team of industry mentors to implement his vision and improve one of Toronto’s most famous public ultimately transforming it into a globally recognized street spaces."

You can add as much fancy brick as you like but you can't make traffic disappear. And if your solution for cyclists is to force them to sit behind heavy traffic and breath in heavy fumes, in ride in front of angry drivers forced to travel at bike speed, then your solution is actually worse than what we have right now on Yonge.

With no space for cyclists, and faced with the only option of sitting in car traffic, cyclists will probably do what this man ends up doing in Poynton: take to the expansive space set aside for pedestrians.

Will Yonge be yet another project like John Street or Front Street where designers decide to ignore all the concerns of cyclists? Is this what Toronto will interpret as a "complete street"? I guess we'll find out.

A new traffic light for cyclists at Lakeshore and Strachan

It only took twenty years from when Nancy Smith Lea first asked then-councillor Joe Pantalone to make the Lakeshore/Strachan intersection safer for cyclists, but finally, thanks to the advocacy work of Cycle Toronto's Ward 19 group, we've got a traffic light for northbound cyclists; liberating cyclists from taking the crosswalks in two stages.

This blog post is more about the power of strategic advocacy than about just one traffic light, so I'll be digging into the history of the advocacy around this one, simple improvement to the Lakeshore/Strachan intersection.

Smith Lea, local citizen, director of Toronto Centre for Active Transportation, and fastidious recordkeeper, recounted to me how she had notes about "conversation I had with [Councillor Joe Pantalone] from 1996 where he told me that a new road (Remembrance Drive) had just been approved to provide direct access to Ontario Place and once that was finished they were going to "clean up" the Strachan/Martin Goodman intersection for peds/cyclists. "

Well, that never happened. So ten years later (!), in 2006, Smith Lea sent another email to Pantalone who replied:

Hi Nancy
Thank you for writing to me. I understand and sympathize with the frustration that you are feeling with regards to bike lanes on Strachan Avenue and in the City.

Firstly, as part of the Princes' Gates area revitalization, which I led, the area to the east of the Gates was transformed from a "no go" area for pedestrians and bicyclists to an attractive place for both. Furthermore, again as part of this approval, a detailed plan to have dedicated bike lanes all the way to King St West (from Lakeshore) was also approved and I am told by Dan Egan that it will be in place before the end of 2006.

Despite, the above mentioned improvements, the Lakeshore/Strachan Ave/Marting Goodman Trail intersections were not part of this plan and need addressing. The good news is that the Toronto Waterfront Corporation (TWRC) has just completed the rejuvenation of the Trail from Marylin Bell Park going west AND the next section to be done is the section between Ontario Place and Exhibition Place. I am hopeful that TWRC will address the Strachan/Lakeshore intersection so that it will work better for cyclists and pedestrians (by copy of this e mail I am making aware the TWRC'S K Jenkins and Dan Egan, of the points you raise and with which I agree).

For such a low-risk project—one that we can safely assume would elicit zero public outcry and burn zero political capital but at the same time is such a key improvement—it's amazing that nobody at the City made it a priority in twenty years! It would have been such an easy win.

In the end what it took was an advocacy group, Cycle Toronto's Ward 19 advocacy group, and a bike-friendly councillor, Mike Layton to shepherd the proposal through the public works committee and City Council. Only then was it made a priority for transportation planners and made reality.

Three years ago, the Ward 19 group (at the time, I was the ward captain of this great bunch of volunteers) wrote a succinct report on Strachan, detailing six items that we thought should be fixed immediately. Of those six, two have now been addressed—a new traffic light at Strachan and East Liberty and the northbound light at Lakeshore—and one will be addressed when the Railpath phase two is installed: a four-way stop at Douro/Wellington. (The other three involve a southbound light at Queen, and improvements to the bike lanes on Strachan).

The lesson for all of us, I believe, is that the ingredients for getting small improvements to cycling will often require:

  1. A politician willing to propose and shepherd the project.
  2. A succinct and understandable proposal that the politician can easily craft into a motion.
  3. Local support from neighbourhood groups who aren't necessarily cyclists.
  4. An advocacy group that is willing to doggedly keep at.
  5. And an increase in population and cyclists putting pressure on the existing substandard infrastructure.

Nancy Smith Lea was definitely determined and, even had the friendly ears of the councillor, but the project failed to have any traction—in my opinion—because neither the councillor nor transportation planners made it a priority. Councillor Pantalone had "hope" that it would be addressed but ultimately didn't shepherd it and left it up to staff to make it a priority (or not). Thus resulting in nothing happening for years and years.

A toast to the determination of Nancy and the other cycling advocates over the years. Cycle Toronto and its ward groups have now picked up the torch and has become better at rallying and organizing for cycling improvements small and large.