complete streets

Toronto's failed shared space experiments exclude the vulnerable

Some influential Toronto planners and politicians have been dabbling in "shared space" and "cultural corridors" for the last few years. They like to talk about "destinations" rather than "through-traffic". These are innocuous terms but the results are far from harmless and might end up infecting our approach to "Complete Streets".

When planners and politicians in Toronto talk about "destinations" and "cultural corridors", this is the kind of mistake that results:

Bikes were purposefully excluded from Bloor Street at Yorkville during the major, BIA-funded remake of the street. In 2008 former Councillor Kyle Rae told City Council that he didn't think bike lanes were appropriate for Bloor Street at Yorkville because that area is a "destination" with lots of retail. That looks a lot like four lanes of "through traffic" to me.

Or this mistake:

John Street with some planters to keep out the cyclists and cars. (Planners had infamously produced a cyclist count that made it appear cycling numbers were negligible. Meanwhile cycling activists did a separate bike count with numbers up to 50% at peak commuter times.)

Note to planners: it's not "shared space" if cyclists are forced to dismount. A person walking a bike is just a pedestrian.

Former Councillor Vaughan claimed in an email to me that the delineated space was required for pedestrians:

Its part of a pilot project to implement the john st corridor. The pedestrian flow is spilling into the street further down the street. Chock-a-block side walk induce safety issues. We are trying to find a balance and determine the right lanes widths for different modes.

It's hard to align this claim that pedestrians are spilling off the sidewalk with a plan that allows the BIA to then block the pedestrian space with tables. Tables that seem to be an extension of the restaurants next to them.

Just how do tables help pedestrian flow?

Coordinated with the redevelopment of Union Station, the planners in charge of the Front Street EA marginalized vulnerable cyclists as well by dismissing bike lanes. Planner Harold Madi made it clear to the National Post that bike lanes wouldn't be part of the plan: “this isn’t about through-traffic; it’s about a destination." Yet here too "destination" seems to be more an excuse to ignore bike lanes than to be a way to stop through-traffic. (Madi is now in charge of Toronto's Complete Streets guidelines. More on that below).

This is how the planners imagine Front Street will function. The cyclist ends up riding the meridian because taxis are weaving in and out of the taxi bay. I'm surprised how realistic the artist was in how chaotic an environment it will actually be. Vulnerable-feeling cyclists won't bother to take this route.

Blinders to traffic

Toronto is weird and likes to do things in its own messed-up way. But the results of shared space have been little better elsewhere. The Shared Space movement aims to bring about harmony between road users by seeking "to minimise demarcations between vehicle traffic and pedestrians, often by removing features such as curbs, road surface markings, traffic signs, and regulations."

Even other celebrated examples such as in Poynton, UK, designed by the preeminent shared use pioneer Ben Hamilton-Baillie have improved a demarcated pedestrian space but has utterly failed to deal with the heavy traffic volume and forces cyclists to intermingle with large trucks and fumes.

Blogger Mark Treasure, who documented his attempts at cycling in Poynton, notes:

The biggest (unresolved) problem - and one which is perhaps unfair to tie together with the redesign, since no redesign can deal with this problem – is the extraordinary volume of motor traffic passing through the town.

With all the extra space given over to sidewalks, cyclists, if they wish to follow the rules, are forced to wait in the fumes of backed-up traffic (Photo: Treasure).

That empty sidewalk is very inviting and feels a lot safer than the road (Photo: Treasure).

I will more forcefully argue that the planners could have dealt with the heavy traffic by more clearly demarcating space for cyclists and pedestrians and by putting restrictions on motor vehicles. This is the successful approach taken by cities such as Groningen, Netherlands where cyclists can make direct, fast trips between points in town and motor vehicles are forced to take slower, indirect routes. This helped to make Groningen number one in terms of cycling mode share in the world.

Photo: The Urban Country

Yet it doesn't appear that this is being considered by shared space advocates. Instead they cling to naive notions that these spaces will somehow work by throwing all the road users into an anarchic stew that will result in some sort of utopia that springs sui generis without any fussy, burdensome government interference. This isn't even a caricature. Shared space proponent, Martin Cassini, in his comment on the Poynton post betrays a philosophical approach borrowed heavily from a naive libertarian viewpoint:

Yes, shared space is a form of anarchy – peaceful anarchy – showing the great advantages of self-regulation over state control, and no, it instils a sense that might is wrong.

The greatest sin of Cassini's and other shared space proponents is—in my mind—that they prefer to plan based on a vague utopian agenda rather than choose tried and true real-world examples from such places as Denmark and Netherlands.

Ignoring the vulnerable

A shared street does "not serve the vulnerable. Rather, it prioritises the powerful". Even in the Netherlands there are a handful of shared space experiments. In footage taken by blogger David Hembrow, Hembrow points out how the vulnerable--the elderly, mothers, children--end up intimidated by the heavy car traffic (in 2008 and 2014, ending up just giving up their right of way in return for a greater sense of security.

The elderly often end up walking their bikes because they're too intimidated to take their right of way across car traffic. The Fietsberaad experts noticed the same issue in their investigation of the shared space intersection of De Kaden in Drachten, NL:

"[p]art of the cyclists does not dare demand the right of way. They dismount and wait for the right of way to be clearly given. Then they walk or ride to the other side. A problem may be that halfway across cyclists are met by cars from the other direction having to be kind enough to yield informally. Due to low speeds and the defensive behaviour of these cyclists this crossing strategy need not be unsafe by itself, but it most certainly is not convenient."

Photo: Fietsberaad

A majority of the cyclists, Fietsberaad noted, end up using the pedestrian crosswalk for understandable reasons: "[c]yclists probably prefer this to the chaos in the middle of the square (with cars queueing from three different directions). In addition they are given (or demand) the right of way on the pedestrian crossing, although formally they are not entitled to this."

Complete Streets should not ignore these concerns of "Subjective Safety" if they truly want to encourage more people to abandon the car for their daily trips.

"Incomplete Streets"?

Coincidentally or not, the new Directory of Urban Design for the City of Toronto, Harold Madi, was a major planner in each of the failed "shared space" projects (including the still under-construction Front Street) and is a big supporter of shared space. Madi is now well placed to influence the new Complete Streets guidelines.

Madi, I've got a message for you: a "shared" street is not "complete" street if it ignores the safety and vulnerability of our young, elderly and disabled who ride bicycles on our choked, busy streets. If you need to know how to plan for true complete streets, just imagine your own mother (or grandmother or child) cycling on these routes. Then build them so your mother will happily choose cycle on these streets. If you have to "convince" her that it's actually safer than she feels, you've failed. (Plus you end up being just a Vehicular Cyclist dogmatist of a different flavour).

Update: Duncan H pointed out this post by Mark Treasure where he invents the brilliantly pithy term, "placefaking". This is exactly what I'm talking about:

in the UK we seem to developed a curious alternative strategy that, as in the title of this post, I’m going to dub ‘placefaking’. It involves dressing up streets that have continue to have a serious movement function as a ‘place’, and attempting to persuade us that these roads and streets are now ‘places’, despite the fact that they continue to carry significant volumes of motor traffic.

Public works chair pushing Complete Streets policy, integrating walking, cycling, trees, urban design

A mockup of Danforth

Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong has gotten the ball rolling on an official Complete Streets policy for Toronto, by recommending that a policy be developed that integrates a variety of by-laws and strategies such as the Walking Strategy, Bike Plan, Urban Design Guidelines, Toronto Street Trees Guide and current best practices for urban street design guidelines. The recommendation will go to the public works committee next week, then staff will report back with their guidelines. If the report from staff is accepted by City Council we'll see a more coherent policy for livable streets for all road users, and one step closer to more comprehensive improvements. Image of redesigned Danforth from TCAT.

"Complete streets" is a relatively new term that quite simply describes streets that have been designed with all users in mind; the motorists, street car and bus riders, cyclists, pedestrians and those with disabilities. A complete street is therefore, one where a variety of policies, bylaws and infrastructure have come together to make the public right-of-way fully multi-modal wherever possible. While it may not be possible to accommodate every type of user on every street, the goal should be to build a city where every user group has a well-functioning network so that people can travel easily and safely.

It's interesting and exciting to see this come forward. There are a bunch of actors behind the scenes working on a Complete Streets policy for Toronto, including the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation, the new Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat, and the new Transportation Services Manager Stephen Buckley. But advocates and bureaucrats need political champions as well and this is where the chair of the public works committee comes in.

As we're all well aware, this is the same Minnan-Wong who pushed the removal of bike lanes on Jarvis. The Jarvis bike lanes removal was a calculated move and so is this complete streets policy proposal. This will surely help him to regain a bit of downtown political capital. Jarvis may have pleased some of the Rosedale driving crowd but it generated a lot of negative press for Minnan-Wong. There are people who are more interested in punishing someone for past misdeeds, but it may be more interesting and useful to see where this goes. Besides, unless Minnan-Wong runs for mayor, it would be hard to punish him. He is pretty safe in his North York ward. Positions on promoting active transportation don't always break according to party line. While Minnan-Wong was rightfully pilloried over Jarvis, when he does something right to move the ball forward on safer, more livable streets he should be congratulated.

I can't help but wonder what a Complete Streets policy would recommend for Jarvis?

Forgiving streets: shouldn't "forgiving" for all users be the overriding principle?

Grist in the mill

Winter gets me thinking about how our streets are unforgiving. While riding on streets covered with fresh snow I sometimes imagine what would happen if I make a small mistake. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind slipping on snow. And Toronto winter streets are often clear of snow. When there is snow or ice, little slips sometimes happen but I just keep going. There's a difference in feelings of comfort, however, between slips on quiet side streets and slips on main arterial streets where we are typically forced into a narrow space between parked and moving cars. On arterial roads it feels like I'm grist in the mill, being ground into flour. Here we are an annoyance to drivers, but provide a valuable service of "friction" to calm traffic down. This seems to be our lot as Toronto cyclists.

Forgiving highways

The concept of "forgiving roads" first arose amongst traffic engineers as a way to design roads to forgive mistakes made by drivers. The reason our highways have wide shoulders and grassy areas with few obstacles, for example, is to allow wide enough clear zones to bring vehicles to controlled stops if they leave the road. If for someone were to accidentally drive off the road they would have lots of room to slow down. It was only natural for traffic engineers to start applying the forgiving highway principles to all rights-of-way. During the 1966 National Highway Safety hearings, national road safety expert Kenneth Stonex, who began his career at General Motors sought to apply the highway principles to urban streets. In this way North American urban environments began to be reshaped entirely for the automobile.

“What we must do is to operate the 90% or more of our surface streets just as we do our freeways… [converting] the surface highway and street network to freeway road and roadside conditions,” Stonex testified. It sounded logical at the time… and a great political solution, because the responsibility for fixing the problem once again fell on government, not the individual. We dove deep into the Forgiving Highway philosophy and still have not come up for air.

Why should forgiving roads only apply to auto drivers?

While highways have been designed so that drivers can maintain a high speed in relative safety, urban streets that are forgiving in this sense completely ignore the safety of everyone who isn't in a car. An urban street that accounted for people walking and cycling would require much different parameters. There is no way a pedestrian or a cyclist can compete with the speed of drivers. And yet urban streets are too complex to match highway driving. There are too many intersections with decisions to make to allow drivers to reach highway speeds. We are left in an awkward position where drivers complain of urban streets of being too congested and slow but engineers still have a predilection towards enabling drivers' ability to go fast. Drivers can still reach speeds - during the non-congested times of day - that are clearly unsafe. Cyclists are still forced to bike in the narrow space between parked cars and streetcar tracks, which only gets narrower and more dangerous in winter. Pedestrians are forced to scurry across crosswalks in the hope that drivers see them. That's not useful for anyone. The streets, instead, should be forgiving enough so that the most vulnerable person is able to safely use it, with a very low risk of death. Too much to ask?

The dark age of cycling advocacy is over

Cycling advocacy, however, has only recently begun to become more vocal in asking for an alternative to roads that prioritize high speed motor traffic. Cycling advocacy went through its own "dark age" when it was dominated by a ultra-libertarian and elitist ideology called "vehicular cycling" which put all the onus on cyclists to keep up with motor vehicles around them. All unfit, slow, young, old cyclists be damned. Harold Munn, who invented the term, defined vehicular cycling as "The task is to convince [cyclists] to operate their bicycles as they do their automobiles."

"Say what you will about vehicular cycling, but nobody is going to argue that it’s “forgiving," writes Bill Lindeke, in an excellent article on very same topic of forgiving streets for all. Lindeke read Bruce Epperson's interesting history of the vehicular cycling ideology (at least interesting for a bike nerd). Vehicular cycling was born in the United States in the 70s and 80s when the idea of creating bikeways had a stillbirth, leaving just university town Davis, California with a network of bikeways. The advocates and planners in Davis, Epperson describes as being a "third stream of egalitarians", alongside the vehicular cyclists and a middle stream of pragmatists.

Epperson writes that in Davis, the planners and advocates emphasized the vulnerable:

The third-streamers openly advocated policies that specifically targeted the weakest and most vulnerable bicyclists and involuntary users who rode strictly out of need, not choice. Together, these comprised cycling’s lowest common denominator, and for the third stream planners, they formed the yardstick by which to measure success or failure. If high-end recreational cyclists couldn’t live with their solutions, well, there were lots of other sports in the world they could turn to.

Lindeke asks the key questions that North American cities are only now beginning to ask:

Do you design bike lanes with the assumption that all the cyclists will be fast, efficient, well-trained, and “educated” about how to ride in traffic? Or do you design bike lanes for people who will move slowly, dawdle, and are perhaps younger or older or riding in groups? Do you design lanes for people who occasionally fall down?

Cycling advocacy in North America has made a sharp turn away from elitism of vehicular cycling and has started demanding cities designed for the vulnerable, the dawdlers, the old, the young. And some cities like New York, Portland, Chicago have heard the call. Toronto?

Toronto unique in having an urban vision of "destinations" and narrow roads that marginalizes cycling

Toronto is "unique", not just for its "war on the car" mayor (who may be losing his job this morning), but also because it seems to be obsessed with it's own version of "complete streets" and creating "destinations" that seems to have excluded cycling from a number of important routes, including John Street, Bloor Street (at Yorkville), Union Station. This came to the attention of the international blog Copenhagenize this morning as they point to evidence in City's planning process, politics and urban-aware media that seems to have largely marginalized cycling as a means of getting around.

Even the original environmental assessment for Jarvis Street turned down bike lanes. It was with the help of then Councillor Kyle Rae that bike lanes were reconsidered and installed. But even Rae, didn't think that bike lanes were necessary for Yorkville, because it was meant to be a "destination". Destination was also the word bandied about by the planners for John and Union Station. To cycling, destination should be a code word that means we'll get ZERO bike infrastructure.

Copenhagenize explains it in its usual incendiary, yet insightful, way:

Toronto's "uniqueness" over the past few years due to its Mayor is well-defined and well-documented. The current political leadership is a running joke.

It is important to highlight that the City's singular focus on pedestrian traffic is also unique. I can't think of another city similar to Toronto in size that completely and utterly ignores the potential of bicycle traffic. For improving public health, for reducing congestion, for.... christ... do I even have to write this? And it is not just the Mayor, but also city hall, journalists and random hipster/urbanist magazines.

Pedestrians are always - or should be - at the top of the traffic hierarchy. Duh. But it's astounding that the anti-cycling sentiment in such a large city in the western world here in 2012 runs so deep.

This is not a good kind of "unique". I fear that even if Toronto discards its Mayor, the battle to modernise itself is light years behind that of other, more visionary cities.

Cycle tracks are about complete streets: help calm traffic and create streets that include everyone


On first view cycle tracks (separated bike lanes) seem to be just about cyclists, but in New York and elsewhere it's been found to provide great benefits to pedestrians and to street life. They help create islands of refuge for pedestrians crossing wide roads; they provide a barrier between pedestrians and car traffic and they get all ages, young and old onto bikes and other mobility devices (like wheelchairs).

For Toronto, the proposal to build cycle tracks downtown would help provide this well-rounded benefit. From NOW:

“Many cities are implementing this type of separated infrastructure, and they’re seeing really great result in terms of safety for all road users,” says Andrea Garcia, director of advocacy and operations at TCU. “It creates these low-stress bikeways that encourage folks who are on the fence about cycling to pick up a bike and start using it. It’s not the first time [separated bike lanes] have been proposed, but it’s the first time they’ve really been championed in this way.”

Making streets for walkers, cyclists, young and old: Complete Streets Forum 2011

The Complete Streets Forum 2011 will be taking place this Thursday at Hart House, University of Toronto. Organized by the Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation, the Complete Streets Forum will have representatives and speakers from many different cities.

the theme for this year's Complete Streets Forum is “Building Alliances”. The Forum brings together a diverse group of professionals, policy-makers, researchers, advocates, and thought-leaders from across the GTHA and beyond. It will be of particular interest to those in the transportation, public health, urban planning/design, public policy, and non-profit sectors.

It will feature speakers such as Mia Birk of Alta Planning + Design, who contributed greatly towards the current awesome cycling infrastructure in Portland, Oregon (in her former job as staff person at the City of Portland); Eleanor McMahon, Founder of Share the Road Cycling Coalition, and Michel Labrecque, a former city councillor and radio/television commentator, who was involved in the creation of Maison des cyclistes, the Tour de l’Île de Montréal and La Route verte (4000 km of bikeways – the longest cycling route in the Americas) as President of Vélo Québec. Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong will also speak briefly about what the city is doing and his initiative for the separated bike lane network.

Getting to complete / shared streets is not that hard

My idea of what a Toronto street should look like. Nice and slow. Everyone still gets to where they want but with no stress. We've got everyone sharing the same space and keeping an eye out for each other: pedestrians, streetcars, horse and buggy, cars, cyclists. See folks it's not that hard to have complete streets (or this is more like "shared space"). (Thanks to Tino for link).

Complete Streets Forum this Friday - it's about mobility for all

The Complete Streets Forum is taking place this Friday. It's not too late to sign up. Even the Mayor is going to be there!

What are complete streets?
From Wikipedia (as of April 21, 2010):

In urban planning and highway engineering, complete streets are roadways designed and operated to enable safe, attractive, and comfortable access and travel for all users. Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and public transport users of all ages and abilities are able to safely and comfortably move along and across a complete street. Proponents claim that Complete Streets also create a sense of place and improve social interaction, while generally improving property adjacent land values.

Here's the media release of the forum:

(Toronto, Apr 20, 2010) -- Transportation stakeholders from across Canada will meet on Friday, April 23 at the inaugural Complete Streets Forum to discuss how to improve city streets in Toronto and other municipalities across Ontario to take into consideration all users including pedestrians, cyclists, public transit users and motorists.

Date: April 23, 2010
Time: 9:00 am - 5:00 pm
Location: Fairmont Royal York Hotel, Ballroom, C floor

Complete Streets Forum is organized by the Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation (TCAT), a project of the Clean Air Partnership, in partnership with Transportation Options and the City of Toronto with the generous support of our sponsors.

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