New TTC shelter at Queen West and Peter
In recent weeks, while walking on routes which have been familiar to me for years on Queen Street West and Hoskin Avenue, I have noticed that the sidewalk space suddenly feels cramped where new transit shelters have been put in. These shelters are in locations where there was previously an older type of shelter, but those older shelters did not create the sense of crowding the sidewalk to the same degree.
New TTC shelter at Hoskin and St. George
I decided to investigate, armed with a tape measure, a camera, and a determination not to be worried if people looked askance at someone measuring sidewalks with a tape measure.
It turns out that the sidewalk spaces where I was getting the cramped feeling beside the new shelters are less than 1.6 metres wide (usually around 1.55 metres). The City of Toronto’s accessibility standards call for 2.1 metres of clear space on sidewalks on main roads, and 1.7 metres of clear space on other roads. These standards are to allow for easy pedestrian flow, and to allow unhindered passage for people using wheelchairs or other mobility devices. The absolute minimum accessibility standard mandated by the provincial government for sidewalks is 1.5 meters.
So the new shelters are violating the City’s guidelines, especially along a main road such as Queen Street West, although they leave just enough room to meet the provincial standard. All of the shelters I looked at are in locations with very high pedestrian traffic (the Queen West shopping strip and the University of Toronto campus), and the narrow sidewalk certainly interferes with easy flow when there is a high volume of walking traffic.
The thing is, it’s not supposed to be this way. Quite the opposite. The new street furniture program, of which the transit shelters are a component, is supposed to herald a new era where the City makes sure sidewalks are well-managed. The city introduced “Vibrant Streets” guidelines that direct how sidewalk furniture should be placed to ensure clear sidewalks that meet the city standards, and it set up a street furniture section within city staff to implement them.
I brought up the issue of these new shelters at the November meeting of the Toronto Pedestrian Committee, and staff indicated that there is supposed to be quite a thorough vetting process before any piece of street furniture, including shelters, is put in place. An external engineering consulting company is supposed to review all proposals, and then City staff in the street furniture section are supposed to make sure it complies with the “Vibrant Streets” guidelines.
It looks like the process is not working the way it is supposed to.
I decided to compare the measurements of the new versus the old shelters in more detail to make sure the cramped effect wasn’t just an optical illusion resulting from a different design. Some of the older style of shelters provided by an ad company, introduced in the 1990s, are still in place along Queen West. My measurements with a tape measure aren’t necessarily exact, but they’re accurate within a few centimetres.
The older style of shelters are about 1.37 metres deep. The new ones replacing them now are about 1.63 metres deep at their widest point. So the new shelters are about 0.25 metres deeper than the older ones.
Older-style shelter at Queen West and Spadina
As well, the older-style shelters, where they are placed on the roadside, are set back from the road by about 0.6-0.75 metres, whereas the new ones seem to be set back a minimum of 0.9 metres from the curb. Although it’s not really noticeable to the naked eye, that’s an additional 0.15-0.3 metres of depth.
Older setback on the left, newer setback on the right
So the total extra space taken up in the walking section of the sidewalk by the new shelters is something like 0.45 metres. It may not sound like much, but it’s about the width of an average person. It’s also the difference between leaving just enough sidewalk to barely meet the provincial minimum (say, 1.55 metres) and almost meeting the higher city standard for a main street (say, 2.0 meters). So, while the old shelters in these locations might not have met the City’s standards for clear sidewalks on main streets either, they came a lot closer and certainly left more room for pedestrians. And, at least for me, the switch made enough of a difference in the perception of the space that I noticed a change for the worse.
The reduced space for walking past shelters makes a small but real difference both in practical terms, creating a bottleneck when there is a high volume of pedestrians, and in terms of the look-and-feel of the experience of using the sidewalk. This is especially true on a street like Queen West, where the sidewalk space is both heavily used and already limited, and whose vibrancy depends on pedestrians.
And there are alternatives. The new street furniture program provides a wide range of possible transit shelter designs. For example, this new transit shelter on the north side of Queen West at Simcoe provides good shelter but leaves plenty of space for people to pass, even on a narrow sidewalk.
The problem, of course, is that this nice thin shelter doesn’t provide space for ads — and ads are what are paying, not just for the new street furniture, but also for the new street furniture section of the City of Toronto bureaucracy that is supposed to control these installations. There may be some danger of conflict of interest in this situation, at least in terms of the fact that the City could lose revenue if it enforces its standards and disallows these new shelter installations in locations where there were previously shelters with ads.
On the other hand, it should be possible to design a shelter that takes less room but still provides space for ads — after all, the older shelters did. It’s up to the City to stop the implementation of these new shelters where the sidewalk space is too narrow, and push the ad/street furniture company, Astral, to come up with a more streamlined design for these situations.