Thursday, August 30, 2012

Still Feeling Yonge

Image copyright Craig White, 2012; from
I had some free time the other day to walk the entirety of Yonge St. that was narrowed to traffic to allow for an expansion of the pedestrian realm during the Celebrate Yonge event. I wrote about this before, but limited myself to talking about some the characteristics of the street. Now that I've seen it in person, I wanted to write a bit about the experience.

My quick review of it is that it was overall a positive experience, but there was definitely a gimmicky feel to the entire thing. Early reviews have been suggesting that the experience has been mostly positive for retailers in the affected section, but much like I talked about before, encouraging pedestrian use is more than setting up some planters and chairs. I've got three bad things to say about the set-up, and three nice things. I'll start with the bad.

The first thing that kind of irked me about the entire set-up was that the expanded pedestrain realm was entirely on the east side of the street. Granted, the Eaton Centre takes up an unhealthy portion of the west side of the street, but I also believe that there should be plans to expand the road closure beyond Dundas St. on the north end.

Secondly, I thought there were some real missed opportunities to make the area more engaging. When the expanded area wasn't carved out for a local pub, the dominant feature was a mishmash of cheap furniture, placed in the cordoned-off section of the road seemingly to fill the space, rather than for any nobler purpose. I suppose I shouldn't take umbrage about the quality of the furniture (at least they didn't bolt it the street), but I felt that the chairs were too few in number to offer seating for a small group of people. Having lived on the Danforth for a few years, I'm reminded of the pub patios that attract friends and strangers to sit outside and discuss everything from the weather to politics; such a thing can't happen if the conditions to spur such vitality are absent.

Finally, I felt that the street patios looked awkward. As the sidewalk remained unmodified, these patios became a weird buffer between the sidewalk and vehicles. I saw a few signs giving awkward directions to go inside the establishment in order to be seated on the nearby patio, and moving hot plates of food and alcohol across a sidewalk (and with a curb for customers and waitresses to trip over) seems like a recipe for disaster. I suppose I should sit in one before making judgement, but being right next to a busy road doesn't sound like it would make a great dining experience. Of course, as the National Post article I linked above states that such patios are actually doing great business, but as I said earlier, I wonder if it's because of how gimmicky the whole event is.

That said, there were a few things I liked about the whole event.

The first was the attention given to the spaces to allow people who weren't customers a chance to enjoy the expanded public realm. There are a handful of art installations (that are apparently rotating in and out) to enjoy, and while I complain about the limited amount of muskoka chairs, the fact that they aren't tied to a particular business makes them feel welcoming even to those just passing through. The cutest thing I saw was a small stand that had a pitcher of water and some glasses, so that people could have a small drink as they were passing through. It was a really neat (and simple!) idea.

Secondly, traffic seemed to be moving just fine. The only awkward moment was when a police cruiser was forced to drive up the lane divider in order to go catch a criminal (or whatever they had sounded the sirens for). The decision to keep two wider lanes also seemed to allow bicycle traffic to move as well as it ever does on Yonge (although a bike lane would still be preferable, that obviously wasn't going to happen as a temporary measure). If anyone was worried that this section of Yonge would turn into a traffic nightmare, they should remember that rational human beings will take other routes (or other forms of transportation) to their destinations when the situation calls for it.

Finally, it gave that whole section of Yonge a sense of cohesion and identity that is often lacking given the mish-mash of different businesses and building types along the road. Not that I'm "branding"'s biggest fan, but sometimes getting people excited about a project is done by giving them something they haven't seen before. I keep referring to the whole thing as somewhat gimmicky, but that's not necessarily a bad thing in the short term (it's really a long-term problem). Nuit Blanche is itself pretty gimmicky, but as a one-night only thing it doesn't have to think long-term. The question now that the experts will attempt to answer is whether closing this experiment has been successful.

Image from Reclaiming Streets for People:
Sidewalk Caf├ęs in Downtown Halifax, Argyle Street
One interesting idea that Toronto should look into borrowing is Halifax's use of "temporary patios" in the summer. The way they work is that a business purchases the use of a section of road, and sets up a wooden sidewalk that diverts traffic, allowing them to set up a patio section directly outside of their business. The advantage is that pedestrian realm gets expanded without dealing with the mental barrier of walking on asphalt, while the business gets all the benefits of a patio without interfering with pedestrians (nor placing diners a mere metre away from moving vehicles).

Of course, such "boardwalks" would have numerous challenges on Yonge. For starters, it's nearly all uphill, compared to streets where you would find these in Halifax. I see this as more of a technical issue however, rather than a deal breaker.

Secondly, what's "lost" on Halifax streets are parking lanes, but there are no parking lanes on Yonge. Again, this is technical; as the current experiment seems to be showing (and I await the future report on whether "Celebrate Yonge" was successful with regards to traffic), the loss of the lane is merely an inconvenience.

The other issue would of course be that even if you have some of the local cafes and restaurants setting up patios, you're going to have gulf of spaces that are still asphalt on the surface. However, a slow expansion of the boardwalk each year could hopefully fill these gaps. More car-friendly people might jump at the idea of putting some parking in. I think such spaces would be perfect for added bicycle parking, as well as buskers, art exhibits, and charity.

Despite these technical issues, I think temporary boardwalks might be just the thing to test whether Yonge is ready for a further expansion of their public realm, hopefully on both sides of the street next time. Hey Toronto! Let's aim to expand up to College St. next year!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Transit: the Money Game

A portion of downtown Toronto TTC service. Copyright the Toronto Transit Commission, 2012.

The TTC, despite its warts (or perhaps, because of its warts) holds a special place in Toronto. A city institution, the sheer coverage of the transit system is pretty amazing from a bird's eye view perspective. With three (and a "RT" half) Subway lines, 11 streetcar lines, and over 150 bus routes, it can push a lot of people around the city.

However, such extensive coverage comes at a steep cost; the TTC's annual operating budget is about $1.5 billion dollars, and the TTC only brings in about two thirds of that in revenue (i.e. box fare and advertisement). The rest comes from the City of Toronto Operating Budget, costing the city approximately $400 million. For reference (and as a nod to my girlfriend's hometown), this is about three times the total operational of the City of Saint John.

Every year, the question about how to pay for the service flares up. Without some sort of subsidy from the province (and there is little indication there will be one anytime in the near future), the city struggles with fulfilling its provincial mandate to provide service, maintaining the existing fleet, and not ticking off taxpayers across the city with a property tax increase. For reference (by my rough calculations, using a handy calculator the Toronto Star put on its website last year), if the City of Toronto had to come up with $400 million for their budget through property taxes, it would result in an increase of over 15% (probably closer to 17.5%). Even the safest NDP ridings in Toronto would probably see their respective left-wing councillors publicly torn in half.

But there is another perspective on it too; I remember we had a guest speaker in one of my planning classes once who was a transit advocate. He made the intriguing point that if we "treated transit like we treat our police and firefighters" we wouldn't be having a transit conversation; we'd be full steam ahead on creating new transit routes and improving our crumbling infrastructure. Alas, public transit brings images of crowded vehicles and delays, whereas police and firefighters conjure images of grief and loss; it's any wonder why transit remains a hard topic to agree on in any city (let alone Toronto).

At the end of the day however, that $400 million has to come from somewhere. There are a number of "solutions" to addressing the budget gap (outside of cutting services), but most of them aren't pretty (and to be clear, there isn't necessarily one clear solution):

1. Raise TTC fares. This has been one of the strategies that the TTC has taken in order to pay for its operation. Fare raises of 10 to 25 cents every couple of years can meet inflation and contribute to infrastructure repair. The downside however, is such fare increases hits TTC riders directly, leaving low-wage, unemployed, or fixed income riders in a lurch. It also discourages ridership, potentially driving people into using their personal vehicles (or not taking trips at all).

2. Implement transit "zones". Many other transit systems do this. Effectively, the problem with a "flat rate" TTC fare is that it punishes "short" riders, and subsidizes "long" (or poorly utilized) riders. Implementing a "zone" (where a rider would pay an additional fee to cross it) would cause riders to pay a fee that more accurately represents the cost of carrying them. However, logistics aside, this could hurt the people who need public transit it the most: the people who live in suburban Toronto. If we view transit as a means to get people from place A to place B, forcing suburban riders (many of whom are from the poorest areas of the city) to pay or use their own vehicles more makes poor sense.

3. Implement a tax to pay for it. The goal here is to penalize vehicle use, and use the revenue gained to pay for transit. The City of Toronto has four ways it could potentially do this. The first is to use their special taxation powers to levy a tax on vehicle ownership. There actually used to be a "vehicle registration tax" of $60 here in Toronto (it brought in about $64 million annually). That was scrapped by the current administration. A second alternative would be a parking tax, where - as the name suggests - people would pay more to park in Toronto (it has been suggested that such a tax would bring in an estimated $90 million). A third option would be some sort of road toll such as a "congestion charge" on some of Toronto's busiest highways (the Don Valley Parkway - DVP - and the Gardiner Expressway). Finally, some sort of additional tax (either on gas or a sales tax) could generate a lot of new revenue. These last three options are suggested to have the potential to bring in at least a billion dollars each.

There are many logistical issues to be concerned about, however. For example if you were to put a toll on the DVP, what would be the alternatives that a driver could take? Pushing the traffic onto another highway may have unintended consequences (such as creating congestion elsewhere), but more importantly, would there be a reliable transit alternative? Certainly, the Yonge subway line is packed as it is. There are also constitutional issues to work around; Toronto has neither the authority to implement a "gas" tax, nor a sales tax. It would require provincial permission for both, dangerous territory for a provincial government with many other big cities (such as Ottawa, Peel, and Hamilton) come looking for money too.

Still, my position is that the provincial government needs to start taking some serious responsibility in funding transit. While any government would be squeamish at increasing sales tax when they're trying to recover from a recession, the costs of not doing so are potentially much, much higher. I won't regale you, the reader, with the annual cost to cities (and the province itself) that is incurred by traffic congestion, nor will I bandy some numbers around about the cost to the environment and human life, nor will I remind you how expensive oil is getting (and therefore the need to reduce the amount society uses).

The bottom line is that if the government is in the business of moving people, it has to pony up the cash to pay for the infrastructure (and critically, the ongoing maintenance, a figure too often lost in transit debates) to move people. Getting people off the road and into buses, trains, and subways requires giving people reasons to use transit: frequent service, quality service, and reliable service. These things cost money, money the province can get. The best thing a provincial government could do is to use the tax space that the Harper government created to start investing in the future of cities. And I mean all cities within their jurisdiction, not just us mugs in Toronto.

Safe, reliable, clean public transit is critical to the future of our cities; the longer we wait, the more expensive it will be to clean up the mess that their absence causes.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Urban Planning, Layton-style

 We've recently passed the anniversary of the death of Jack Layton, former leader of the federal NDP party, so there have been a number of tributes and reminiscences of his work, both in Ottawa and here in Toronto. As some know, Jack was a city councillor here in Toronto before he led the NDP, and the above "plan" was one of his legacies. I'm familiar with it from my time at the City of Toronto, as the planner I primarily worked with -- Denise Graham, now retired -- had worked with Jack, local businesses, and local residents to produce the above document.

I don't use "plan" in quotations out of mockery, I use the quotations because the above has no official status with the city. While there was consultation done, the plan never went further than the visioning stage; it failed to receive funding to get the shovels on the ground. Such is the nature of city politics sometimes. Denise hung onto the "plan" however, and did her best to implement it piecemeal as the area developed.

Carlaw/Dundas is a relic of the working class neighbourhood that existed in the area back when several manufacturers had factories here. To this day, there is a very industrial "look" to many of the buildings in this area, as they've either been turned into artist studios, or have been "re-purposed" to keep the flavour, but with a new use. Consider some of the new condos that have appeared on Boston Avenue to the east, just above Queen Street; they "use" the facade on the Carlaw side to help keep the look and feel of Carlaw intact, while using the redevelopment as an opportunity to put in a new tree-lined sidewalk as per the "plan."

Of course, not everything in the "plan" is working out smoothly; issues with landowners has stunted development near the "rail spur", and while the zoning by-law tried to keep a "live/work" character to the neighbourhood, some of the new development has gotten OMB approval to increase their densities at the expense of the "work". The amount of new construction has frustrated residents as well; when I worked there, there were three new buildings under construction, and another three proposed. This was after the construction of the residences on Boston Ave, and a group of new residences on Colgate Ave. This is an area under change, and without the official graces of city council, a piecemeal solution can't solve all the problems.

I can't say I know Jack well; I met him once back when I went to school at Dalhousie, but I've never been a strong NDP supporter. I can't truthfully spin some tale about how "Jack knew how to bring people together" or whatever have you. I couldn't even tell you what he was like as a city councillor (beyond what Wikipedia says).

I can say that "Neighbourhood Improvement Plans" -- such as the above -- are a great exercise to envision how a neighbourhood can change. The "plan" is no "socialist" fantasy; it borrows from the philosophy of  Jane Jacobs, reusing old buildings for new, while improving the pedestrian environment, creating green space, and allowing for new development when appropriate. I don't know what Jack personally left for the people in the riding he once held, but I know he tried to give the people who lived near the Carlaw/Dundas intersection a vision for how their neighbourhood could change.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tax in the City

Image from Service New Brunswick website

 Stop me if you've heard this one before: Canadian cities, due their Constitution status (or lack thereof) are hampered from effectively addressing the needs of their constituents.

I started thinking about this lately after reading this recent article in Salon that talks about the issues with applying libertarian principles to city planning. Now, certainly such a viewpoint that planning is a worthwhile activity -- despite the cost and infringements to property rights -- would certainly be self-serving for a guy who likes to think of himself as an urban planner. I've also never been to Tampa Bay and could only talk broadly about their tax system. So instead I'm going to talk about the Canadian context, and some of its implications for planning.

Cities get funds in one of three general ways:

  1. Money from the Federal government, or their respective Provincial Government. These are almost always conditional (i.e. "use the money to do x"). An Ontario example would be from last year, when the provincial government offered to hire nurses to work in some of their "health units" around the province. Provincial money, municipal gain.
  2. User fees. These are quite varied, but can range from punitive (e.g. parking tickets), to a public benefit (e.g. transit fare). It can also encompass the small fees that the city charges for services, such as printing a copy of a by-law, and the large fees charged to developers for greenfield development that require new infrastructure to be built. The $3.10 token fare for the TTC for example, is effectively a user fee.
  3. Property taxes. The money that the city charges home and property owners for owning a building within municipal boundaries. These are almost always the top source of revenues for a city.

The problem with all three revenue sources is that they tend to be extremely inflexible.

If the province says "here's 10 million to hire some police officers", great news if the city believes the new bodies on the ground can help stamp out say, a perceived gang problem. But what if the city thinks that 10 million would be better put into firefighters? Well, too bad! 

User fees are great if they can recoup some of the costs of providing a service. Keeping on the TTC example, both you and the city benefit if that $3.10 is worth paying to keep your car parked at home rather than adding another vehicle to rush-hour traffic. But there's rarely any nuance to a user fee; that $3.10 cost might be prohibitively expensive if you're unemployed or living on a fixed income (you'd pay twice there and back, and when money is short, $6.20 can be worth two or more meals).

And property taxes! Certainly, they do a relatively good job of providing funds to keep the roads repaired and the street lights on. But you can't get creative with property taxes. Consider the library at Toronto City Hall. If the city wanted $200,000 to upgrade the library, who should pay? People who use the library? Businesses and residences within 500 metres? All of Toronto? City Council? Taxes traditionally work best when they capture a "problem" (e.g. the wear and tear your car makes on the road) and applies a tax to cover it. But much like the problem with people who live in say, Markham but drive to work in Toronto (and therefore use Toronto's roads, but don't pay taxes to keep them repaired), there isn't necessarily a great way of capturing "users" of a particular services, such as a libraries (a $200,000 upgrade won't be paid for by late fees). And raising property taxes can be like pulling teeth without the novacane from a political viewpoint.

I should mention that the City of Toronto Act has given Toronto some taxation powers that are foreign to other Canadian municipalities, but their introduction has certainly been no less politically charged as property taxes often are, and the number of new revenue options the Act has opened have been actually quite narrow... but that's another post. Still, it's a step in the right direction. While the Car Registration Tax was later appealed, it served the purpose of tackling a problem (car use) and hitting those who were causing the problem (car users).

There are many who will claim that the problem isn't a lack of tax revenue, it's an abundance of wasteful government spending. While hyperbolic, it's true that taxes should never be taken for granted in any form. Government should always be looking to do more for less. But, with inflexible revenue sources, you're simply going to end up with some people paying for stuff they'll never use, and others free-riding on a public benefit despite having the capacity to contribute to it. Short of a constitutional amendment (which will never happen), it's up to provincial leaders to understand the tax dilemmas that many of their cities face cannot be solved with a few conditional grants.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Guess who just realized his blog didn't allow comments?

This guy.


What a Church and Strip Club have in Common

Some buildings require extra special attention while zoning to account for traffic. Take this one for example:

July 2009 image of the Bloor Lansdowne Christian Fellowship. Copyright 2012, Google.

This is a church just west of the Bloor/Lansdowne intersection in Toronto (as if the sign on the building didn't give that away...), and has been here for about 70 years. According to their website, they spend a good deal of their time feeding some of the city's homeless, which is aces in my book. There are three congregations in this building that use it throughout the week; along with the Bloor Landsdowne Christian Fellowship, the Maranatha Fellowship Church Of The Deaf and Igreja do Evangelho Quadrangular de Toronto (Portuguese) have services here too.

Churches are somewhat interesting compared to businesses, in that their "clientele" come nearly all at once, a few times a week. This usually creates a number of logistical problems; a traditional business sees clients dispersed throughout the week (and throughout the day!) rather than in large "clumps" at specific times. For many older churches, this isn't a problem; they'll generally plan their location to have a parking lot that their congregation can use. This church however, has no space for a parking lot. I suspect they rely on the Bloor-Danforth subway to ferry worshipers here on Sundays, and on the nearby Value Village parking lot for whatever car traffic they get (although this would conflict with the store's hours, and there is nothing on the church's website to suggest that people park there). 

Here's another example of a land "use" that is wildly different than a traditional business:

July 2009 image of Club Paradise. Copyright 2012, Google.

This is, if the sign didn't properly indicate, a strip club, not a gym (oh, how I was once young and foolish in Toronto...). This place is also located near the Bloor-Danforth subway. I don't know exactly how long they have been at this location, but it has been several years at least.

Whereas some business are looking at closing once 5pm hits, that's just when this place is opening. Parking is likely a much different matter than a church, in that it is relatively consistent in volume, but likely doesn't compete with other establishments for parking. A club dedicated to naked dancing ladies is not likely to endear itself to a neighbourhood, but at the same time it does bring a bit of night-life to the area, and both a grandmother looking for Jesus and a gentlemen looking for a lap dance are both eyes on the street.

While the website for this establishment is mum, all reviews of this place suggest that yes, this place does serve alcohol, so that's another blow against needing space for parking, when taxis can do the job just fine. Most clubs have issues with noise complaints, but I can attest that I have walked by this place during its hours of operation, and didn't hear a peep of loud music (I have a friend who lives nearby, I swear!). The second floor is residential, so there is likely some excellent sound proofing between club activities and the people who live above.

And for the reveal:

July 2009 image of two PERFECTLY COMPATIBLE *cough* land-uses. Copyright 2012, Google.

Sometimes Toronto, you make me smile.

(Dec 17th Update: I was asked to make a note that these are two different buildings on two different properties. I apologize if the image above makes it seem otherwise!)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Feeling Yonge Again

Photograph by Frank Lennon (1974) and Lucas Oleniuk (2012). Copyright 2012 of the Toronto Star.
Toronto is going to be "narrowing" Yonge Street temporarily to street traffic to create more pedestrian space during its "Celebrate Yonge" festival (well, a small portion of it at least) and I couldn't be happier. The area they've chosen is not particular a large one (by Google's measure, about 850 m) but it's certainly a step forward to re-imaging the area for pedestrians (rather than for cars).

For those unfamiliar with Yonge Street, it is one the longest roads in Ontario (and even once claimed to be the longest in the world!). The Yonge subway line runs nearly the entire length of the street, from Finch to King station, and is hellish to ride on during rush hour commutes; when I was new (and naive) to Toronto, I was trying to go south one day at Yonge/Bloor station. Coming up the stairs, I saw a near empty train parked there, and (unable to see a sign indicating which direction it was going, but thinking I had gone up the right stairs), I rushed on. A couple of minutes later, I was Rosedale station, one stop north.

It was about half an hour before I could cram myself onto a train going south. I probably could have gotten to my destination faster by walking.

With a few exceptions, Yonge south of St. Clair is dominated by mixed-use buildings, occasionally broken up by larger businesses such as Staples, Canadian Tire, and (as mentioned earlier on the blog), the Eaton Centre. Once you hit the "Financial District" around Queen Street, the buildings begin to rapidly increase in height. Small businesses can still be found along this stretch, but office towers begin to dominate (although certainly there are plenty of condos around too). North of Bloor tends to have more high-end stores such as antique and furniture stores, thanks in part to the proximity to the Rosedale neighbourhood (one of the most expensive, if not THE more expensive, neighbourhoods in Toronto). The area south of Bloor however, is the area I want to focus on, particularly as it's the area that's getting some pedestrian-friendly love.

Heading south from "One Bloor", you start to see more restaurants, pizza parlors, and pubs. This area of Yonge has a different feel than the one north of Bloor, more for the university crowd that one would find in other places downtown thanks to Ryerson and the University of Toronto. Stores such as 401 Games and the movie theatre confirm that this is an area for a younger crowd. The presence of the Eaton Centre and (to a lesser degree) College Park also makes this a place where lots of tourists move through as they get their shop-on. The combination makes it a very lively place at nearly all times of the day.

The problem comes from the need to accommodate a full four lanes of traffic; many of the sidewalks are pretty slim, unable to really capture the potential pedestrian traffic.  Conditions improve slightly between College and Gerrard Streets (there's even enough room for a road median), but the median (and slightly larger sidewalks) disappear once you pass Gerrard. I certainly don't want to demonize the effect of cars here; the area is no more unpleasant to walk through than most Toronto streets, but the extra two lanes reduce the intimacy of the two sides. Without the space, there are few places for people to linger, and when they do the results can end up clogging the entire sidewalk. There are few spaces for cafes and pubs to have outdoor patios, and some stores instead rely on people to draw customers in, rather than inviting storefronts that do it naturally. Heck, there's not even room for a bike lane, and if there is a road that desperately needs a bike lane, it's Yonge Street.

Most damningly, of what value are cars to the businesses who reside here? The proximity to the subway likely benefits these businesses far more than the road does, able to ship thousands of people a day into this area of the city whom don't need to worry about finding a place to park their car (there is no room for parking on Yonge after all).

I don't know if reducing the number of lanes will "revitalize" the area; in my opinion, the area already has quite a bit of vitality. Certainly, there are a number of "local undesirable land-uses" in the area (I would imagine the numerous tattoo shops, pay-day loan places, and adult bookstores are a bit of an eyesore; I think Zanzibar gets a free pass because of that awesome sign), but there are also a lot of smaller ethnic restaurants and specialty stores (such as the aforementioned 401 Games, but let's not forget about the Hairy Tarantula location either) that make the area interesting in a way that might not be possible if the area was "too" successful.

Opening up the area, even temporarily, will be a good test to see how pedestrians use the extra space. Certainly there will be traffic implications, ones that the crowded Yonge Subway may be unable to compensate for. On the other hand, the experiment with putting pedestrians first has (mostly) been a success at Yonge/Dundas; giving the crowds more reasons to move north and south could be a nice shot in the arm for both businesses and pedestrians.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Yonge and Dundas: A Tale of Two Sidewalks

2008 photo of the Yonge Dundas intersection, by Sam Javanrouh and Matthew Blackett.

The Eaton Center has been in the news a lot lately, thanks to a shooting inside its food court earlier in the summer. Most recently, there was a horrifying tale of one person urinating on another (who was sleeping) outside. I could link some articles about them, but certainly I've linked enough to the Toronto Star recently. Regardless, there has been some recent discussion as to whether the mall is to blame; I think it's a bit bigger than just the Eaton Centre.

The general feeling of the Yonge/Dundas corner is that it's both incredibly successful, yet incredibly troubled. I think that identifying the intersection as dangerous (thanks to said shooting and urinator; I also know of one of my Ryerson professors getting mugged nearby) is unfair however. These incidents are really anomalies in the grand scheme of things (the shooting wasn't even outside, for example). When you look at the intersection as a whole, there is a lot to like about the area:

  • It's very pedestrian friendly. You can see the "scramble" crosswalk above, which does a great job of pushing the enormous amount of pedestrians through it. Both the Dundas streetcar and the YUS Subway meet here, making it very accessible by public transit.
  • There are lots of great amenities nearby. Whether you have a negative opinion of the Eaton Centre or not, there is still a movie theatre, several nearby shopping draws (Shopper's Drug Mart, Future Shop, Canadian Tire), a decent sitting area, several coffee places and eateries, and of course, the Ryerson campus.
  • There's always a lot of interesting activity occuring near the intersection. During the day, you can find buskers (including Batman), and at night there are drummers and break dancers who stake out some territory near the corners.

There are some downsides to the area however:

  • Yonge Dundas Square does not fit in well with the sidewalk. The area is not "public" property in the traditional sense; it is under management by a board of directors whose goal is to make the square profitable (or at least, revenue neutral). What this means for buskers, is that they are charged a higher fee to use the space (about $170/year versus about $34 for general city property), pushing them onto the other corners, particularly across the street near the Sears entrance to the Eaton Centre. This can make that side very crowded during the day, while the sidewalk across the street stands empty, save for the loud (sometimes obnoxious) performances in the square. It's not always fun to walk through!
  • Speaking of the Eaton Centre, it exists near the corner, but is isolated from the public realm. If (instead of Sears) there were some smaller shops bordering the street (such as what you typically see on Yonge Street) you'd have more eyes on the sidewalk, making it a safer area overall.
  • Constant proselytizing from various religious groups. Okay, the "Believe in the Lord!" guy is pretty charming (in a somewhat creepy sort of way), but you can't walk past the west side without being asked/shouted at by three different people for three different religions. This is potentially a result of being shut out from the Square side, but it makes the area a bit intimidating to move through at times. Worse yet, there appears to be a bit of an escalating arms race, with more proselytizers turning to microphones and portable amplifiers to get their message heard above the rest.

The solutions are generally practical (albeit not necessarily cheap):

  1. Reclaim the sidewalk bordering Yonge Dundas square truly to the public. Allow buskers to use the space for the smaller fee (or better yet, get rid of the fee entirely). This will (hopefully) spread out the proselytizers, preventing them from clumping up and lessening the need for electronic assistance.
  2. Move some uses inside the Eaton Centre onto the curb. The Sears there already has both a Starbucks and a sports shop inside (for Blue Jays); these are two uses that could be potentially "moved" such that they interact with the public realm. There is a H&M on the Dundas side that would be more difficult to work with, but perhaps an inviting entrance at street level could work. As a benefit, with more uses on the street, you would have more eyes to deter crime.

Obviously, these solutions aren't necessarily simple, but I think they would do a lot to make the intersection (with its already positive attributes) better. You're not going to stop crime entirely, but by making the intersection more friendly, you can potentially reduce it.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Playing in the Middle of the Street

2010 Photo of Kensington Market, Copyright 2012 by emilydickinsonridesabmx

The new "car-free" zone around the Kensington Market here in Toronto is drawing mixed reviews. Ignoring the idiots in the comments who think that this is some plan by Councillor Adam Vaughan to drive out business to make more condos, the actual idea behind removing cars from the equation is to see if the environment can be more attractive to pedestrians (and as a note, they've always had a few days a year that are car-free; this is basically an expansion).

Downtown Toronto flirts with "car-free" areas fairly often due to all the festivals, parades, and events that occur in any particular year. My favorite is Nuit Blanche, where you can literally walk down the middle of Yonge Street (one of the busiest streets in Toronto!). As a pedestrian, there is an extremely liberating feeling about walking on a road. It feels like you're breaking some sort of rule!

Ryerson (name drop!) has itself sectioned off a small area of roads in the heart of their campus year-round. It was eye-opening the first time I saw it, although admittedly the effect quickly wore off once winter came. During the summer there are several tables set up for students to sit and grab some shade, which helps transform the very look of the streets (very important!). During the winter, I (and as I observed, others) always had the urge to stick to the sidewalks, even with the knowledge that cars were unable to travel on these bare streets. You just didn't feel welcome on them.

This is (perhaps), the biggest problem against closing off streets like this; you need more than planters barring the way to make an area "pedestrian friendly". It's like looking at an optical illusion; no matter how much you rationalize what you're seeing, a part of your brain is always screaming at you that "you shouldn't be here! This space is for cars!" And your brain is kind of right, because roads aren't designed for pedestrians.

I'm not ragging on the idea per se; there is certainly a sense of novelty to closing off a street for pedestrian use (and full disclosure: I've never been to Kensington Market when they've closed off some of the roads). What I want to convey is that changing how people "use" something often requires a visual component to make them feel comfortable in the space. On the low end, it could be taking a cue from Ryerson (who undoubtedly took a cue from somewhere else) and put something on the road that is meant to be used by pedestrians (such as tables and chairs). On the high end, changing the colour/texture of the ground surface to differentiate it from your typical city pavement can be just the trick, even if (six other days of the week) cars travel on the surface too.

Perhaps even more importantly however, you need reasons for people to be walking there. Intimate storefronts, big sidewalks, and convenient public transit are all factors that can invite people into a neighbourhood. And yes, they can't be competing for space with cars; you get into walk-ability trouble once you have more than two lanes of traffic.

The good news for Kensington Market is that is possesses a lot of great aspects that make it a fun place to visit, such as vendors whose goods spill onto the sidewalk (which are wide enough in many places to stop and chat at without disrupting traffic), great places to eat and a variety of specialty stores, and minimal disruption from traffic thanks to there only being one lane + parking. There's a lot to like about the market already, and I think that is why they're expanding their "car-free Sundays" to the rest of the summer.

The jury's still out at this point whether it's a net positive for the neighbourhood, but it's a noble experiment that many neighbourhoods in Toronto should try out. I would love to see something similar in the St. Lawrence Market area!

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Biking (maps) Made Simple

I wanted to give a shout-out to Halton Region for their new cycling maps. Municipalities having bike maps are nothing new, but the thing I really want to compliment is the overall simplicity about Halton Region's.

First, they understand the limitations of their region. No one is going to use their bike to travel from Oakville to Halton Hills, but they might use it to travel around the more residential areas of the city. Take a look at this map of southern Oakville:

Those curvy, winding roads are indicative of residential areas. While certainly this doesn't cut through all of Oakville, it circles enough of the area that a good chunk of their residential area is near the "red" bicycle-friendly areas; given that they will have generally less traffic, they'll be fairly easy to bike on/through. It's also continuous, and hits a number of parks along the harbour. It even tells you how difficult the entire trek is!

Secondly, I want to point out is how simple and clean this map is. For comparison, here is a picture of the downtown Toronto cycling map:

Not going to lie to you: this kind of map intimidates the heck out of me. I know that Toronto isn't the most bike friendly city in the world, but it's certainly bikeable. Yes, as the map above shows there are connection issues between bike lanes/paths, but more disagreeable is how this map shows too much information and too little simultaneously.