Mimico, one of Toronto’s outer streetcar suburbs
As Toronto begins detailed planning and consultations for Transit City, it is also looking to revitalize urban and suburban arterials. It may herald a new era of streetcar-orientated development.
Streetcar-oriented development really isn’t a new phenomenon, though it has re-asserted itself in several US and European cities where modern light rail and even heritage and modern streetcar systems have foster this kind of built form . Horse-drawn streetcars, with low fares and frequent service first allowed people to move to “suburbs” outside the city centre. Electric streetcars, introduced to Toronto in 1891, increased the speed and range of public transport and resulted in once-distant places to quickly become bedroom communities for the city, such as North Toronto, the Beach or Mimico, or even become industrial centres in their own right, such as New Toronto. These “suburbs” were still compact, dependant on the streetcar service as their lifeline, with stores and apartments in two and three storey buildings lining the routes.
Toronto’s growth followed this basic pattern of development until the car-centric community of Don Mills was built in the early 1950s with its own shopping mall and curvilinear streets. Single-use zoning, either through insular subdivisions of detached houses or massive high-rise rental towers, dominated the new, car-centric suburbs of the 1960s through the 1990s.
Urban Structure Map, Map 2 from Toronto’s Official Plan. Brown strips indicate Avenues
Transit City, in conjunction with the Official Plan, aims to take Toronto back to the future in transit and urban form. The new lines are particularly suited to the Avenues plan (shown above), which aims to bring mid-rise development to suburban arterials, while preserving existing neighbourhoods. The subways have been very effective for promoting high-density development, particularly along Bloor Street as far west as Etobicoke and as far east as Victoria Park.
We have seen subway-orientated development, particularly on the Yonge Line up to North York Centre. From Bloor Street northward, clusters of highrises surround many of the subway stations — the massive rental and new condo towers at Yonge and Eglinton and Yonge and Sheppard would not have been likely had it not been for the subway (some of Washington DC’s inner suburbs like Arlington are other good examples of subways fostering high density development). Yet places like North York Centre, served by two subways and full of condos and office towers built haphazardly in the last twenty-five years, can have an inhuman scale and feel.
On the other hand, streetcar-oriented development is typically made up of mid-rise buildings surrounded by established residential neighbourhoods. The Avenues and Centres seek to protect established neighbourhoods, directing growth to designated areas, bringing more people closer to arterial roads and nodes, where access to shops, services and better transit will be made available.
The Avenues stretch across most of the existing streetcar lines, such as Queen, College, Gerrard East and Lake Shore Blvd through South Etobicoke. Outside of the existing “streetcar suburbs” the Avenues stretch along many suburban arterials, such as Sheppard, Eglinton, Wilson and Kingston Road. Redevelopment would be slow, but deliberate, to bring buildings to the street, provide a more comfortable and social environment for pedestrians, and help reach Toronto’s goal of accommodating 1 million more residents within its boundaries.
What Avenues-type development might look like. This example is Port Credit in Mississauga
Transit City, for the most part, reflects the aims of the Official Plan. Four of the Transit City routes (Eglinton-Crosstown, Scarborough-Malvern, Sheppard East and Waterfront West) have at least half their routes on corridors designated for streetcar-oriented development, Eglinton with 75% of the route so designated). Unfortunately, though, other streets ripe for intensification and busy transit corridors, such as Wilson (one of the first Avenue studies completed), Lawrence East and Kingston Road south-west of Eglinton, have been overlooked by Transit City.
Finally, through its close association with Toronto’s progressive development policy, we see that Transit City is closer to a streetcar than light rail, with the exception of the underground Eglinton route. This is fine, and will bring more reliable and attractive transit to many Torontonians, but it serves a different purpose than the LRT lines that you see elsewhere in North America, providing rapid transit in separated corridors, often away from where people live and work. The lines will be great for neighbourhood revitalization and addressing demands on some of the busiest corridors, less so for moving people quickly over longer distances. This is where subways and regional rail come in.