urban planning

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.

Local designer helps us visualize what protected intersection can look like in Toronto context

I've spoken about protected intersections before. They're really common in the Netherlands and some other parts of Europe. The concept is catching on in the United States (tested on a street in Minneapolis but no permanent installations yet as far as I can tell).

Iain Campbell, Cycle Toronto volunteer and designer, has created a way for us to visualize how a protected intersection would work where Richmond and Peter streets intersect.

Peter and Richmond would be a perfect test case (Cycle Toronto agrees). The intersection is much wider than it needs to be and it allows cars to make turns at high speed. Since there are plans for bike lanes on Peter and protected bike lanes on Richmond the two can be configured to improve the ways motor vehicles and bicycles will intersect.

Protected intersections provide an alternative to the "disappearing bike lane" approach of most North American intersection planning:

In North America, planners figure the best option is to let the cyclists and drivers "intermingle". The big downside is that a cyclist is only as safe as the least safe portion of their trip. Most injuries and collisions happen at intersections. The forced intermingling at intersections is challenging and stressful situation for cyclists. And I daresay it is also less safe given that the Netherlands has worked steadily in removing these types of intersections. A disappearing bike lane creates uncertainty for all road users: motor vehicles don’t know whether to wait for cyclists to pass on the right, or proceed, potentially cutting off cyclists.

Nick Falbo of Alta Planning, borrowed the concept from the Netherlands and is promoting the "Protected Intersection" as a safer alternative. The protected intersection slows drivers down because of the tighter turning radii. When the driver does cross the cycle track they are better able to look straight ahead to see if a cyclist is there (as opposed to straining to look over one's right shoulder around a blind spot). The cyclists are more visible. And it provides a clearer cue to who has the right of way, just as pedestrians have the right of way in the crosswalk.

I hope City planners will take the opportunity of the pilot project on Richmond and Adelaide to try out this really innovative idea; an idea that already has widespread positive data in other countries. Here's our chance to lead in at least one thing in North America.

New Liberty Street but the same old crappy car-centric traffic engineering

Ugh. Toronto is building new roads, but despite all the talk about making the city more pedestrian and cycling friendly, cyclists and pedestrians are still second-class citizens.

We usually focus on old streets and making them more bike friendly by slapping on some paint where expedient, or physical barriers if we really care. It's rare that an old city like Toronto builds new roads, but as it fills in its former industrial lands with condos, a handful of new roads are being designed and built. In the Cherry Street extension in the Don Lands. In each case—even though the City is serving tens of thousands of people who would prefer to travel by transit, foot or bike—it seems that the City refuses to get out of a car-centric frame of mind. In the Don Lands, for example, the City built an extension to Cherry Street that could have easily included proper physical separation, but they pretended that we still lived in the 90s and defaulted to paint. And in Liberty Village, it's even worse, there's no cycling infrastructure at all.

Over a decade ago as Liberty Village was first being filled in with condos, the City took a decidedly suburban, car-centric approach for such a population dense neighbourhood. This has resulted in a neighbourhood that is effectively trapped by railway lines and heavy car traffic. It's now quite uncomfortable to walk or bike into and out of Liberty Village. The main east-west street, East Liberty street has no bike lanes and is always jammed full of cars.

Toronto is undergoing an environmental assessment for New Liberty Street which will be just to the south of East Liberty. But even here, their old-school traffic engineering prioritized on-street parking over safe cycling. The City's proposed plan is to build a multi-use path that vanishes 300m from Strachan Ave. Multi-use paths are already a compromise, since they force two different travel modes that want to go at much different speeds to intermingle. And then to add insult to injury, the planners decided that at the intersection that it'll be all given over to cars.

Connectivity is crucial.

So states Antony Hilliard, ward captain of Cycle Toronto Ward group 19, who along with other Cycle Toronto ward groups and the Liberty Village Residents Association have been pressuring City staff and councillors to change an awful plan. Antony recently gave me a report they sent to the City detailing the problem and their suggested solutions:

Figure 1 shows how the New Liberty study area could connect to the:

  • Existing Strachan Ave. overpass painted bicycle lanes
  • Existing Martin Goodman waterfront trail, at bottom-right
  • Pilot Richmond-Adelaide cycle tracks
  • Planned phase II of the West Toronto Railpath to Wellington
  • Planned Fort York walking/cycling bridge

Cycling infrastructure in Liberty Village should provide safe, family-friendly links between:

  • Liberty Village Employment areas
  • Exhibition GO Station
  • Downtown employment / residential areas
  • Liberty Village Residential areas (including Garrison Point)
  • Nearby schools

It's not like this is just a cycling minority calling for proper cycling infrastructure here. The City's consultation in 2011, “New Street should have bike lanes”. And at the next consultation meeting, “Enhance pedestrian / bike access to GO station” was also strongly agreed, the 2nd highest after “heritage buildings”.

The groups have suggested changes to New Liberty Street so that cyclists can safely connect to Strachan and thus get out of the urban prison that is Liberty Village.

Instead of the proposed design for New Liberty St., shown as ALIGNMENT OPTION C(ia) drawing 8860WF23-13 as shown in Figure 2, the groups are presenting their alternative in Figure 3 below.

Some of the detailed problems with the City's plan, as detailed by the groups:

  1. Motor vehicle lanes widen to 4.1m and the multi-use path vanishes at the private road. Without connectivity, the multi-use path is useless to children / parents / seniors.
  2. New Liberty doesn't connect for northbound Strachan or eastbound Ordnance cycling traffic, and north-south parking garage access streets nor East Liberty St. have no bicycle accommodation.
  3. Two 5.5% grades are introduced at the private road. Such slopes are difficult for children / seniors to climb, especially without any safe right-of-way to balance in.
  4. The highway off ramp-like New Liberty / Strachan intersection introduces three bicycle-car turning conflicts, has poor sight lines.
  5. The turning radii for car lanes at the New Liberty / Strachan and East Liberty / Strachan intersection encourage fast car turns through conflicts. Normalizing at 11m radius is sufficient.

The bicycle mode share for Ward 19 is an incredible 12% considering the generally poor parking-door zone streets and the lack of bike lanes. Downtown is already completely car congested. An effort to eke out a fractional greater car capacity into and out of Liberty Village is myopic and a waste of time. A properly physically separated bicycle infrastructure would much more efficiently increase the transportation capacity.

Considering that the City is working on a Complete Streets plan, this makes this project seem like it's the last gasp of outdated, wrong-headed engineering. Or at least I hope it is.

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.

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.

Finally bollards on Adelaide as cycling trips soar

I got wind from the Twitter yesterday that contractors were going to start installing bollards on Adelaide last night so I made a quick detour this morning. As predicted it appeared that most of the bollards have now been installed between Bathurst and Spadina (video)

I was blown away by the shear numbers of people already biking along it. And the bollards seemed to be doing their job quite well: discouraging errant car blocking and providing some comfort to cyclists. It's nice to do a happy story now and then.

As I was taking a video of me getting lapped by cyclists rushing off to work, I saw cycling planner Lukasz Pawlowski chatting next to someone from the iconic Rotblott's Discount Warehouse. I stopped to talk to Lukasz and look in awe at the waves of cyclists passing us.

A few weeks ago, Lukasz mentioned, the Cycling Unit had done a count on Adelaide that pegged the daily number of bike trips at about 1700. And looked like it has increased even more since then. In their 2010 count at Spadina and Adelaide that number was 640. That's a roughly 300% percent increase for a bike lane pilot that only goes to Simcoe for now and up until today didn't have any protection.

Compare that to roughly 4000 daily trips for Harbord in both directions (number from Lukasz). Lukasz said he was aware there was a lot of latent demand along this corridor but was still surprised to see just how many people and how quickly people took up the route.

In my informal counts I've seen how cycling numbers were higher on Queen than on Bloor Street. As much as I'd also like to have bike lanes on Bloor, we've often glossed over the importance of bike lanes along Queen or King, perhaps because of the difficulty of installing them. But providing a continuous east-west route that incorporates Richmond and Adelaide is a huge release valve.

I encourage Jared of Cycle Toronto to take the mayoral candidates out for a ride along Adelaide and Richmond during rush hour so they can grasp just how important these protected bike lanes are to a downtown network.

An accidental protected bike lane on John Street

Max snapped this photo one morning a few weeks ago at John and Queen, looking north. I was completely flabbergasted at first. As many of my readers might now, there was a long extended fight with Councillor Vaughan and a bunch of planners who were trying to plan cyclists out of the picture and create a pedestrian arcade (but with cars) out of John Street. This seemed like a complete 180 where cyclists were actually given their own space instead of treated like pariahs.

But, no, it was not to be. Instead this is a pilot project until October to carve out a much larger pedestrian zone with a row of planters. Instead of being a protected bike lane much like I've seen in Vancouver, it's a "pedestrian" zone that seems most of the time to have few pedestrians (perhaps a bit heavier next to the restaurants which had overtaken much of the public space for their patios).

Cyclists don't know what to do with the space. Some people are still using it as a bike lane while other cyclists choose to squeeze next to a multi-block long line of cars (photo by Michal). This is what I saw:

While the whole John Street Cultural Corridor project is currently unfunded, the EA was completed and left out cyclists. Or, to be more accurate, they assumed cyclists would just nicely mix in with car traffic like we're forced to everywhere else.

But compared to the EA, this row of planters is even worse for cyclists. At least in the EA the plan was to have a "flexible boulevard" and a "non-barrier" curb to blur the line between the pedestrian space and the road. People on bikes would have more options in going around traffic jams of cars. In the EA they said:

A continuous non-barrier curb on both sides of the street to enable a seamless transition into a pedestrian-only space for events; for vehicles to mount the flexible boulevard for deliveries or drop-offs; and, to accommodate additional vehicular and cycling maneuvering on either side of the road in emergencies.

Or like this real-world example at the Prince's Gate at the Ex:

But instead, this design seems to have imposed purgatory for anyone on a bike.

What are the lessons here?

One, we can't just expect bikes to disappear, no matter how much we're in love with "pedestrianizing" the John Street Corridor. Did you expect the cyclists to nicely wait behind the truck? Good luck with trying to re-engineer human nature.

Two, by doing things half-ass, by trying to increase the pedestrian space while letting cars still rule the streets, we are making the space worse. Planners should have made it much more inconvenient for drivers to choose John Street as a through-street. John could be made for local vehicles only, much like a bicycle boulevard, which would greatly reduce the traffic while still allowing cars to exist there.

With new mega-condo projects cycling is still just an afterthought

Antony Hilliard, on behalf of the Ward 19 Cycle Toronto group, attended the public consultation meeting for the large condo project happening at Strachan and Ordance, Garrison Point; just across the street from the other mini-city we like to call Liberty "Village". Again the City is willing to cram people into a small space and have failed to provide any coherent plan for how people will move around, except by car. There is so much opportunity here, noted Hilliard, for excellent cycling connections to the Waterfront, West Toronto Railpath, Richmond/Adelaide protected bike lanes. But it can all be easily squandered.

And it looks like the traffic planners are doing just that by not insisting that the developers treat cycling as a real transportation mode and not just a recreation activity. In the image above we see the Fort York bridge which will provide cycling and pedestrian access across the railway tracks. But the only access to the condos seems to be a sidewalk. So are the developers and traffic engineers expecting cyclists to just ride on the sidewalk?

No, actually they don't expect cyclists at all.

Since I attended the last public consultation for this development I know that the developers and the City are aware of this issue (having raised it with them), but it looks like the City isn't making any further demands and the developers decided to ignore the issue.

The developer will still be installing 1300 car parking spaces for the 1700 new units, "following Liberty Village minimums". And the crappy painted bike lanes on Strachan will continue to be unimproved in every way.

The Ward 19 group had made a number of recommendations to the City planners a few years ago on how to improve the Strachan bike lanes. So far the only thing the City is slowly moving on is putting in a bike light at the base of Strachan at Lakeshore. There's been no recognition from staff that on a street like Strachan most people think it's crazy to bike with just a painted line separating them from a speeding dump truck.

A painted bike lane is no longer good enough. Most cities have moved on.

This is really maddening given that this area that is already holding thousands of people will be holding yet thousands more; all with next-to-nothing for safe, protected cycling infrastructure (let alone good access to transit).

If we can't get the new projects right, how do you think we'll make progress on retrofitting our old streets?

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