Union Station's Front Street reveals a total lack of knowledge of traffic dynamics

The new Front Street design is based on vague planning ideas about "shared space" as if some fancy brick on its own would solve traffic problems between drivers, taxis, pedestrians and cyclists. At least as pedestrians we got some solid bollards, revealing that the City didn't really believe in the magic. Meanwhile as cyclists we get nothing but a few sharrows and a narrow strip between moving cars and the door zone of cabs. Photo: Cycle Toronto

How is this any different from all the other downtown streets that are urban hells for cyclists? Anyone who rides on Queen is very acquainted with the feeling of fear being squeezed from the left and worrying about the day when their number is called and a door suddenly swings open in front of them.

It's even worse that the "shared space" fairy dust is being advanced by the "progressive" planners. They're doing it with a distinct sparsity of data and in contradiction of other jurisdictions that have put specific limits on where shared streets makes sense and where they don't make sense.

Toronto's Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, has been enthusiastic about the space, and seems unconcerned about the implications for cycling:

Toronto's first 'shared' space - a mid-block 'welcome mat' for all in front of #UnionStation #TOpoli pic.twitter.com/rohBSqUBZI HT @haroldmadi

Some welcome mat. More like the door got slammed in cyclists face (the City even ignored recommendations from Metrolinx that better cycling infrastructure be considered).

Harold Madi, by the way, is the guy who led this design as well as the controversial changes on John Street. This is how they imagined this urban utopia in the EA:

Remarkably different from what we see now that it's finally reality.

We need rules for shared space!

The best example of sensible restrictions on shared space are just south of the border in New York City where their Street Design Manual spells it out clearly:

Consider on narrower streets (at most two moving lanes), or outer roadways of boulevard–type streets, with little or no through–traffic, and which are not major vehicular or bicyclist through–routes or designated truck routes.

Front Street, and even John Street for that matter, do not meet these criteria! There is lots of through-traffic and it is a major vehicular route. At least with John we still have the opportunity to take different measures for traffic calming and diversion (such as making sure only local traffic will use the street by diverting cars from going through the entire street). But Front Street is supposed to be a through street and is therefore is a completely unsuitable candidate for shared street.

That is, if we use New York's guidelines. We've got nothing else to go on.

City Hall die-in is a start: Zero Deaths campaigners have to be in it for the long haul

Three people who were cycling have died so far this year, and twenty-one who were walking. This morning over 150 cyclists staged a die-in in front of City Hall. Their demands: adopt a zero tolerance on road fatalities, increase the cycling budget from around $8 to $20 million (to put it in line with Montreal's) and build a minimum grid of protected bike lanes and bicycle boulevards. (Photo credit: Martin Reis)

The people cycling were Adam Excell, Toronto architect Roger du Toit and Peter (Zhi Yong) Kang. It'll take a lot more work to compile the list of everyone who was killed while walking.

See more here, here and here.

Right now Toronto has no plan to reduce road fatalities. Then very few North American cities acknowledge this. NYC just adopted Vision Zero but it's going to be a very long exercise fraught with setbacks and controversy. Compared to NYC, Toronto is actually safer but that doesn't mean we should become complacent. Try telling any of the more than twenty families whose loved ones died this year that those deaths were acceptable losses. No family is exempt; no person is 100% safe from dying on our roads.

Cycling campaigners have fought for safer roads for decades with a scattering of success. In order to change the complacency in government a sustained, long-term campaign is necessary. Only then do we have a chance that our mayors will care just as much about human life as they do about drivers shaving off seconds on their commute. The shift didn't happen by accident in NYC, it took a lot of work by organizations like Transportation Alternatives.

John Street could be good for pedestrians and cyclists

Ian bikes down John Street regularly. He recently captured the chaos that is John because of the road space given over to patios and muskoka chairs.

John Street has become uncomfortable and less safe for cyclists. But instead of fighting against improvements for pedestrians, we need to focus on how we can reduce the motorized traffic by making it harder for cars to use John as a direct route.

My attempt at capturing the mess.

The problem is the cars NOT the people

Some people misunderstand the issue here. The issue at heart is not about making John Street more pedestrian-friendly. Myself and others who have a problem with the City's actions thus far is not to try to preserve the car-centric John Street of yore.

Nor do I believe that the City has rid itself of any responsibility to cyclists on John by moving the traffic light on Queen at Soho/Peter. It was the absolute minimum that the City could have done but still not enough to entice most cyclists from taking John.

The problem at heart is that the City is being half-assed about John Street. There is NO plan to reduce car traffic on John Street.

So the pilot project has installed some planters to create a hard barrier between people sitting in chairs and the cars and cyclists. For the short term this has created a squeeze of cars and cyclists who are now forced to fill in the little gaps left by the cars and trucks. There was no effort to try to divert cars and trucks away from John so the traffic is as heavy as ever. It's torture for cyclists and hardly friendly to pedestrians.

But even the final design which City staff are working on right now has no plans to deal with car traffic. With all the talk about "cultural corridor" and "pedestrian priority route" there is nothing about diverting car traffic. Instead it talks about fuzzy things like gently sloping curbs, new paving materials and new trees. But for anyone who ever visits Kensington Market you'll know that this is hardly enough to create a "pedestrian priority route" even though Kensington has a much greater pedestrian traffic than John. Kensington is as choked as ever with cars and trucks.

So instead I'm on the same page as Jared Kolb of Cycle Toronto who is calling for the City to create true Bicycle Boulevards and not the half-assed cycling routes. A key feature of bicycle boulevards that's relevant here is motorized traffic diversion.

An example of a traffic diversion with cycling bypass on Health St E and Inglewood Dr in Toronto.

From Wikipedia:

Bicycle boulevards discourage cut-through motor-vehicle traffic but allow local motor-vehicle traffic. They are designed to give priority to bicyclists as through-going traffic. They are intended to improve bicyclist comfort and/or safety.

On a "cultural corridor" and "pedestrian priority route" like John Street, wouldn't it be in the interests of people—whether they are pedestrians, merchants or cyclists—to discourage cut-through motorized traffic? I believe we can all win if the City just woke up to this option.

Better to block a cyclist than a car driver

Last week City staff removed the cycle track curb in front of 24 Wellesley. Yesterday we already started seeing this:

Twitter: liz goddard

I had raised suspicion about Councillor Wong-Tam's call for a review of cycle tracks and dealing with Wheel-Trans, emergency vehicles and that it would start poking holes into the protected bike lanes all over the network. It turned out that the review was completely unnecessary since Cycling staff are quite willing to remove a cycle track curb in front of 24 Wellesley without full public consultation.

It's clearly important that Wheel-Trans and EMS be able to access the building. EMS can always jump any curb but Wheel-Trans needs a place to load/offload wheelchairs so they needed someplace flat. Stopping in the car lane on Wellesley was an option—a typical Wheel-Trans stop lasts 7 minutes. Another option is one of the three laneways around 24 Wellesley, though staff seemed to only have considered one of the laneways and determined it was too narrow. Yet another option was to raise the cycle track bed much like is done at bus stops on Sherbourne, but staff stated there was a problem with drainage.

So it seems that given the choice between blocking the car lane versus blocking the protected bike lane, access for a car driver wins out over access and safety for a cyclist.

At least we know where the City's priorities lie

Jacquelyn Hayward Gulati, the new Cycling Unit manager, states that the "adjacent vehicle lane will be narrowed so cyclists can ride around a Wheel-Trans vehicle without entering traffic."

It's a substandard solution since cyclists have still lost the curb separating them from motorized traffic. Gulati claims that “the site-specific access concern really impacted the people who lived in that building, while the impact on cyclists is very minor." We don't have any idea of what Gulati is comparing here: is it access for residents versus safety and comfort of cyclists? I would hope the City staff would try a bit harder so they don't have to trade these off.

Residents of 24 Wellesley were lobbying politicians and staff to remove the cycle track:

Councillor Wong-Tam claims she didn't know about the removal, but surely she must have received complaints from residents and have heard from staff. Perhaps she knew all about the issue but didn't know cycling staff were going to go ahead with the removal before public consultation in the summer.

Regardless, this is a bad precedence for safe cycling infrastructure in Toronto. I'm sure we'll hear about more calls by businesses, residents to remove cycle tracks. It takes years of public consultation to get safe cycling infrastructure but mere weeks of no public consultation to rip them out.

Does Toronto deserve its silver ranking as a Bicycle Friendly Community?

A few days ago I posted this photo on Twitter after coming across the sign last weekend in the Rouge Valley in Scarborough.

The organization who gave this silver award to Toronto, Share the Road, defended their program. The majority of the people responded, however, were not convinced. The average person in Toronto would probably be surprised that Toronto got a silver rating as a Bicycle Friendly Community.

The average person will probably think of sports medals of gold, silver, bronze and all those who didn't podium. A silver, in many minds, is just one step away from being awesome; best in the world. Most Torontonians, however, will never bike in most parts of Toronto, because cycling is perceived as dangerous. This is not surprising even the almost complete lack of cycling infrastructure in most parts of the city. So the silver award is very incongruous to the facts on the ground.

The fact, remains that it's very easy to travel between most destinations in Toronto and not see any cycling infrastructure. Even downtown the majority of our arterial roads have little to no bike lanes. And even the ones that have bike lanes are discontinuous. A bike lane that ends is not much more useful than nothing at all, and sometimes it hurts since it raises the expectations of safety for the cyclist and then just leaves them for the wolves.

The Share the Road program is derived from the League of American Bicyclists' program which operates nation-wide in the US. While the LAB program openly publishes its ranking criteria, Share the Road says theirs is "proprietary" so we don't really know how they rank.

NOT Share the Road's. Theirs is mostly a mystery.

If we go by LAB's criteria it would highly unlikely that Toronto could meet a silver rating. It falls behind in modeshare (less than 2%); number of bike staff per 70,000 residents, and the ratio of bicycle network to roads. (Though I suspect that in the latter category they probably allow for roads where all it takes is slapping up a sign that says "Bike Route".) But we'll never know for sure since Share the Road neither publishes their criteria and grading, nor published a report card of how Toronto has met or not met the criteria. Meanwhile LAB publishes report cards for many American cities, such as this one for Seattle, which breaks down Seattle's ranking into each category and also describes what the city can do to reach Platinum level. Looks like Seattle needs to do a lot.

I'm not a fan of LAB's ranking system either, but compared to LAB, Share the Road's program looks amateurish and looks more like just giving out gold stars to everyone who wants them. #goldstarsforeveryone Perhaps that's not true, but Share the Road has its work cut out to convince me otherwise.

Yonge Street can easily accommodate protected bike lanes if we want

Previously on this blog I had panned a redesign of Yonge Street by young landscape architect Richard Valenzona, but which was given the prestigious NXT City Prize by a panel of judges which includes our Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmat.

As Schrödinger's Cat had pointed out, Valenzona's design was suspiciously similar to the Exhibition Place, London design which looks now like this:

Not exactly pedestrian and cyclist friendly. Pedestrians are still afraid of crossing the roadway and cyclists have no space of their own.

But to stray from just being negative I'd like to describe an alternative vision, which would balance the needs of cyclists with those of pedestrians and drivers. I believe there is enough space to protect cyclists while also providing more space to pedestrians.

My design is approximate since the roadway width varies along Yonge's extent. But if we follow Valenzona's cue that we can reduce car lanes by half that would mean we could dedicate about one car lane to a bidirectional protected bike lane and the other to expanding the sidewalks.

Since we're putting in a bidirectional bike lane we should probably also make the other lanes one way for cars, which makes intersections safer for everyone. Urbanists, don't get your underwear in a knot about one-way roads. Netherlands, one of the world's safest country for transportation is full of them; so is NYC. If done in combination of reducing speeds and lane widths and providing bike lanes and wider sidewalks it is a safe and friendly solution.

Maybe I'll enter my design into next year's NXT City Prize. But first I have to choose some nice looking brick if I want a chance of winning.

Constant vigilance: no need for protected bike lanes if police stakeout every bike lane in the city 24/7

The paint on the Simcoe "cycle tracks" has dried but city staff are holding off on adding barriers (what makes a cycle track a cycle track) because Transportation Services believes enforcement and signage will do the job. They firmly hope that this will be enough to "stop to illegal bike lane parking once and for all" (and ignore other good reasons for barriers).

But reality crashed the party.

Dan Egan, Manager of the Cycling Unit, telling a driver that the fine is $150 for stopping in the bike lane.

East side of Simcoe, south of King: in front of St Andrews Church. I see a sign telling drivers that stopping is verboten. But where's Dan to explain the finer details?

Car blocking the southbound Simcoe traffic lane right next to available parking. Seriously, they could have just parked right next to it and it would have been totally legal. But with no physical separation I can understand why the driver is confused.

Transportation Services would rather not have to deal with bollards: they wear out, get banged up and have to be replaced. And they make it necessary to use smaller snow plows to keep the bike lane clear. They'd rather not put in the extra work to keep cyclists safer. So they want to run an experiment (and be the only city in the world with cycle tracks protected with nothing but paint):

“We’ll be taking a good accounting of what level of enforcement it takes, what resources, what time, and what number of tickets are given out. We’ve always had anecdotal evidence, but we’ve never had anything scientific.”

Nothing scientific? What about the last twenty five years of bike lanes? Is that not enough to convince you that enforcement doesn't work? Every year the cops would conduct a ticket blitz in the spring. Didn't make one iota of difference in driver behaviour.

“There’s some people who think we don’t always need to put physical separation, that a higher fine and better markings and enforcement will do the job,” Egan said. “We may gradually add other separation devices, but we want to see how this works first.”

"Some people"? Were they born yesterday? It would either take diverting cops from other areas or hiring more cops; cops dedicated to bike lane enforcement. About as likely as Rob Ford going cold turkey.

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.

Syndicate content
pennyfarthing ok frye