May 02, 2017

REimagining Yonge Street

Last summer, I had the chance to bike the entire length of the Toronto portion of Yonge Street to make the case for bike lanes there. The resulting blog post lead to an article in Metro Toronto citing Yonge as the next cycling battleground. With an interim report for REimagining Yonge – which calls for the complete transformation of Yonge Street from Avondale to Bishop Avenues including bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and public realm improvements – coming to the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee on Tuesday, May 9, a progress update is in order.
Yonge Street at Elmwood Avenue (North York Centre)
The report was originally expected to reach the committee in February and city council in March. Unfortunately, Ward 24 councillor David Shiner introduced a motion to defer the project for consideration during the 2018 budget process, which passed city council with a 24-20 vote. Not only did this motion go against the city’s so-called Vision Zero road safety plan to eliminate pedestrian and cycling deaths, but it also put $2 million in federal funding from their Public Transit Infrastructure Fund at risk. To keep the project alive, the councillor whose ward includes the project study area – John Filion of Ward 23 – organized a town hall on April 5, 2017 at the North York Civic Centre.
REimagining Yonge town hall on April 5, 2017
The REimagining Yonge town hall saw between 100 and 150 concerned residents attend that evening. A large piece of paper was put up in front of the former council chamber for participants to write what they want for Yonge Street, while a few Cycle Toronto volunteers collected signatures for their Yonge Loves Bikes pledge which has over 2100 signatures so far. Several other people joined Filion on the panel including the following:
  • Jacquelyn Hayward Gulati (Director, Transportation Infrastructure)
  • Jennifer Keesmaat (Chief Planner)
  • Barbara Gray (General Manager, Transportation Services)
  • Ken Greenberg (Principal, Greenberg Consultants)
  • Michael Koor (West Willowdale Neighbourhood Association)
Gulati provided some technical background of the project, including results from three previous public meetings in May, June, and September 2016. That section of Yonge was due for reconstruction given the street’s current layout is at least 50 years old. While cars reigned supreme at the time, driver mode share declined from 66% in 1990 to 45% in 2015. There have been calls to study bike lanes on Doris Avenue and Beecroft Road as alternates to Yonge Street, which were ruled out early due to the traffic impacts being too significant. Instead, staff now prefer reducing Yonge Street from six traffic lanes to four between Sheppard and Bishop Avenues to accommodate raised cycle tracks. (see diagrams below) From a road congestion standpoint, this would end up being no worse than under the status quo. A couple of surprise elements Gulati brought up include opportunities for new bike share stations and completing the gap in the Finch hydro corridor trail.
SOURCE (both images): City of Toronto
The remaining speakers’ remarks were relatively short. Keesmaat commented on the need to use centres to develop suburban areas with North York being the most developed, Scarborough being a mall, and Etobicoke in the process of transforming their spaghetti junction. Gray may have been a newcomer – having previously worked in Seattle – but she acknowledged how roadways divided cities and the need to be bold. Greenberg noted how North York was ahead of downtown regarding transforming Yonge Street and acknowledged how lucky Toronto was to have two women in charge of transportation and planning. Filion admitted he originally dismissed the idea of transforming Yonge Street. However, he realized his thinking was in the past and acknowledged the bleak nature of Yonge, which lead to difficulties in finding commercial tenants. He drove the point home by saying traffic will be congested regardless of whether you have eight, six, or four lanes! Koor – a long time resident of the area – acknowledged he never walked on Yonge; instead preferring Beecroft.

The initial remarks from the subsequent Q&A session were from opponents; citing congestion, lack of consultation, and preferring bike lanes on Doris and Beecroft instead of Yonge. Eventually, a speaker who supported the project pointed out opponents tend to be more vocal while correctly referring to the strong public support for the project. After that point, the mood shifted with more people speaking in support to help balance opinion.

Motion PW21.9 is an interim report authorizing staff to study additional options (e.g. bike lanes on Doris and Beecroft) and conduct more consultations with the final report due in the fourth quarter of 2017. Supporters are still encouraged to not only e-mail PWIC (pwic@toronto.ca), but also Mayor John Tory (mayor_tory@toronto.ca) and their respective city councillors to support bike lanes on Yonge. Yonge is a key part of building a city-wide Minimum Grid for cyclists and has the potential to link with proposed bike lanes in York Region.

Ride safe!
Rob Z (e-mail)

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