Getting out of gridlock: The scramble to save the scramble & other adventures in TO transportation
How has the pedestrian scramble at Yonge and Dundas so managed to raise the passion and ire of Torontonians?
That's a question National Post
columnist Chris Selley put to attendees at Feet & Wheels, Yonge Street
's panel on transportation, held on Jan. 19 at the ING Direct Café
. In a city where transportation issues have become so polarized, Selley figures it's symbolism more than facts that inflames supporters and critics of the scramble. Since 2008, the corner's traffic light cycle has included one stage requiring cars and bikes in all directions to stop while pedestrians cross any which way they want. Selley says the benefits to pedestrians are relatively small; the scramble is more about who owns the streets. Along with the Jarvis bike lanes, installed in 2010 and now scheduled to be removed at a cost of $272,000, the scramble has become an icon in Toronto's supposed transportation wars: the war on cars, the war on bikes, the war on pedestrians and, from a budgetary perspective, the war on the TTC.
"I don't think this is the natural disposition of Torontonians. I think we're pretty laid back," said Selley. But, at the same time, "I don't think I know anybody in Toronto who's really satisfied with the state of transportation infrastructure."
In a discussion moderated by Peter MacLeod of MASS LBP
, Selley was joined by Nancy Smith Lea, director of the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation
(TCAT), and Chris Hardwicke, an associate at Sweeny Sterling Finlayson & Co. Architects
, in trying to figure out ways of getting Torontonians out of their symbolic war-zone bunkers.
"We really need to depoliticize these things [like bike lanes and innovative transportation solutions] to get them done as a matter of course," said Smith Lea. For her, it's not as much about symbolism as visibility especially for cyclists and pedestrians. When 100,000 people a day use the underground PATH
system, we have a tendency to underestimate the number of non-car-driving people downtown. "It's easy to not notice how many people are getting around by walking and cycling."
Toronto's downtown streets, many built before the era of the car, are now faced with the task of juggling many modes of transportation in cramped spaces. Smith Lea suggested that an approach that embraces complete streets
is one way to move ahead. It would require planners and transportation agencies to take all users—from cars to motorcyclists to people with disabilities—into account when making transportation decisions. Citing College Street, St. George Street and the new plan for Queens Quay
as examples of complete streets, Smith Lea says the city will need to restructure procedures to ensure this thoughtful approach to planning becomes the norm.
While complete streets often rely on the separation of different modes of transportation, Hardwicke suggested a more anarchic approach that's been successfully in some European cities. By using subtle cues rather than legal cues and textures rather than lines—that is, few signs and few barriers between different modes of transportation—the shared streets approach throws all modes into the same mix, forcing a kind of conversation among users. "Movement is negotiated in the moment," says Hardwicke. "You need to talk to people with your eyes and sympathize with them." With this approach, it's not the modes of transportation that should be considered, but the speed of traffic. Fewer barriers and signs would slow things down, as the streetscape's design dictates how intensely people should be paying attention.
Selley, skeptical of designating existing streets as pedestrian-only, suggested that new ideas might be best tried in new developments, like the Don Lands. But Smith Lea pointed out the many European cities we now consider pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly were, back in the 1960s, overrun with cars. Our existing infrastructure is more flexible than we think. "It's not just a matter of 'This is what cities are like in North America.' Once it's been done, everything thinks that's the way it's always been."
MacLeod called on attendees to suggest ways Toronto could relieve some of its transportation tension. Ideas included closing down streets to traffic for community activities, including sports; downtown relief lines as part of the subway system; implementing the existing bike plan; increased strategic use of one-way streets, perhaps during rush hours; allowing residents of quieter streets to implement shared streets that erase the boundaries between sidewalk and street; and congestion charges.
Pressed by MacLeod to disclose their level of optimism, all three panelists said they were more hopeful than not. Even if our policy makers don't step up to the plate, demographic changes might offer their own solutions. With more and more people living downtown, these new residents are going to want more options that don't include driving. As well, young people now seem more interested
in owning an up-to-date cell phone than a car.
"If you look at for progress, it's there," said Selley. "It doesn't look fast. Canadians are an incremental people."