The curious case of Jarvis Street

As Shawn Micallef wrote earlier this month, Jarvis Street has been much abused over the years. It was once one of Toronto’s most elegant streets, lined with trees and handsome mansions on both sides of a narrow road. But over time the trees were cut down and the street widened. Still home to some majestic historic mansions as well as interesting modern buildings and the western border of Allan Gardens, and a street where thousands of people live, work and go to school each day, the street is currently little more than a wide, dull transportation corridor through the heart of one of the oldest parts of the city. It is utterly dominated by five lanes of car traffic — the middle one switching directions with the rush hour — devoted to moving cars through the space as rapidly as possible. Both pedestrians and cyclists avoid using it unless they have to.

There has been some discussion in the media recently about how the City of Toronto has come up with a plan to change the situation. At the May 5 meeting of the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee, city staff will present a plan to remove one lane of traffic on Jarvis between Queen and Bloor and narrow the roadway. The plan is to divide the 3 meters of this lane between pedestrians and cyclists — 1.2 meters to widen the narrow curb lanes to make them safer for cyclists, and about 1.8 meters to create a sidewalk boulevard on the eastern side to allow the planting of a row of trees along most of the street, and other enhancements to the public realm, that will restore some of the street’s former elegance.

The plan to remove a lane of traffic has provoked predictable anger from drivers who don’t want to have to spend an extra two minutes to drive from their jobs in the financial district to their homes in Rosedale and North Toronto. But in stories in the Star and the Globe and Mail, local councillor Kyle Rae, one of the prime movers of the project, stood up to this opposition and spoke out in favour of taking out the lane and improving the street.

But here’s the curious thing: at the final public consultation meeting for this project on January 22, 2009, Rae announced that he was not actually supporting the plan City staff will be presenting for Jarvis Street. He said that he is instead supporting a last-minute alternative proposal — one that would not in fact narrow the roadway or create a widened sidewalk boulevard, would not enable the planting of new trees, and would allow for few of the proposed enhancements to the pedestrian realm.

The goal of this alternative proposal is to put full painted bike lanes on Jarvis between Queen and Bloor (not just widened curb lanes). The problem is that bike lanes would take 1.5 meters on each side of the street, meaning they would take up all of the 3 meters of space made available by removing a lane of traffic, leaving no space for the plan to create a boulevard in which to plant trees and make Jarvis more attractive and more pedestrian-friendly.

Bike lanes are, of course, desirable on all streets with heavy traffic.  But the case for giving full bike lanes such exclusive priority over this limited space on Jarvis is relatively weak. Bike lanes on Jarvis would serve a fairly small number of cyclists. Most cyclists whose journey includes an east-west portion could take the existing Sherbourne bike lane, only 2-3 blocks away. Furthermore, Jarvis would not be a integral addition to any bike lane network. Going from Queen to Bloor, it would not really connect other lanes — unlike the Sherbourne lanes, which connect the waterfront trails all the way to the lane to the Bloor Street Viaduct, and to routes connecting through Rosedale. Parallel lanes on Jarvis and Sherbourne would be closer together than any other bike lanes in Toronto, and given Jarvis’ heavy traffic and its dangerous intersection with Mount Pleasant, most cyclists are likely to choose Sherbourne anyway (at least if the terrible paving gets fixed).

But the more important issue is that the revitalization of Jarvis Street wasn’t really about transportation at all. On the contrary, it was about moving away from Jarvis Street as a transportation corridor and giving it a real sense of place – a place to be rather than a place to travel through. Jarvis is home to many residential buildings, several large office buildings, and several important educational institutions, yet the thousands of people who live, work, and study there currently spend as little time as possible on the street, and probably don’t even enjoy looking out their windows at it. Jarvis is also home to many historical buildings and to the historical Allan Gardens, yet no-one particularly wants to spend time on the street appreciating them. The goal of the revitalization was to make Jarvis once again a destination, not a thoroughfare — a place people might actually want to spend time, thanks to a wide, tree-lined boulevard. Bike lanes would make the street a little less unpleasant, mostly by slowing traffic and buffering it a bit, but it would still remain an unpleasant transportation corridor.

The question of a champion

So how did this curious situation come about? I suspect a key issue in the Jarvis situation is the lack of a champion for the City’s plan for a tree-lined sidewalk boulevard. The buzz at the public meeting in January was that the original impetus for the plan to make Jarvis an appealing street came from Ted Rogers, whose corporate headquarters sit at the street’s northern end, and who died just as the process was getting under way. Whatever the original impetus, there is no group who has stepped up to champion the plan — no local resident’s association, no BIA (Business Improvement Association) — in part for the very reason that no-one really identifies with this neglected street. By contrast, cyclists in Toronto have become increasingly well-organized and vocal, and were able to mount a strong lobbying campaign for bike lanes.

A related issue may well be that bike lanes are simply cheaper.  Another curious aspect of the Jarvis plan is that, unlike most other street-narrowing projects this decade (e.g. Lansdowne, College St. between Spadina and Bathurst, or Roncesvalles), the Jarvis plan is not part of a scheduled and necessary road rebuilding program, in which a lot of the expenses of tearing up the road would be incurred anyway and narrowing the roadway can be done efficiently. The out-of-cycle nature of the plan is another indication that it may have originally been inspired by the prospect of private support. Without the prospect of private contributions to the project, repainting the street is a lot cheaper than rebuilding a portion of the sidewalk and road.

It’s interesting to contrast this situation with a comparable plan in Rae’s ward, the now-underway project to widen and beautify sidewalks on Bloor St. between Avenue Road and Church. This stretch of road would in fact be a strong candidate for bike lanes — there is heavy bike traffic already, there is a real need for a good east-west bike corridor, and with a slight expansion it would link together several heavily used parts of the bike network (Bloor Viaduct, Sherbourne, St. George). As well, the pedestrian realm in this stretch is already wide, attractive, and heavily used. But the Bloor sidewalk-widening project has a strong and interested champion and funder, the wealthy and powerful Bloor-Yorkville BIA, who want to create a sense of place to enhance the shopping experience for their walking customers. Because they were providing the money, they were able to govern the direction of the project.

The Consultation/EA process

One problem with the curious case of Jarvis Street is the way the Environmental Assessment (EA) and the public consultation process played out. While the Jarvis Street consultation process experimented with new ideas (such as a Facebook group), the outcome suggests that the whole formal EA public consultation process is something of a marginal exercise that cannot actually shift the bureaucratic momentum of the internal direction of a project (whereas political channels can make a difference).

Right from the beginning of the consultation process, there was a strong demand for the city to provide bike lanes on Jarvis. It is, surely, the whole point of public consultation that the City take into account what it hears from the public.

There are two ways the City should have responded to this demand. First, among the options included in the early part of the EA process was the possibility of taking out two lanes of Jarvis Street, leaving the centre lane to shift direction according to demand as it currently does. That would have kept exactly the same rush-hour-direction capacity on Jarvis as the 4-lane plan that is being recommended — but it would also have allowed both widened sidewalks with trees, and also full bike lanes. But it was clear from the beginning of the process that this option was pro forma only and was not being looked at seriously. Yet this option should have been one of the leading contenders in response to the public consultations and the demand for bike lanes. Instead, it was dropped in the final document (PDF) and to make way for the bike lane-only option (while the pointless option of creating a median was kept).

The other way the city should have responded would have been to immediately design and introduce an option with bike lanes instead of sidewalk widening at the beginning of the EA process. That way this option could have been evaluated by the engineers, the designers, and the public on equal terms with the other options. Instead, it was denied as a possibility for most of the process, and then inserted right at the end, seemingly when it received political support.

It’s unclear how this will all play out at Works Committee and City Council, although generally council is deferential to the local councillor in these matters. It could also be that, whatever the decision, the project will be shelved for a while for lack of funds.

Photo of Jarvis Street is from the Jarvis Streetscape Improvement Facebook group


  1. It’s not true that the Jarvis bike lane is/will be less connected than other segments. Bike lanes on Mount Pleasant are being discussed right now, and this would be a perfect opportunity to have a N/S connection and create a coherent, connected, network.

    The plan for sidewalk widening also had the travel lanes being axpanded from 3.0m to 3.2m. As 0.2m * 4 lanes = 0.8m would be left on the road, leaving only 1.2m, or 0.6m/sidewalk, which is about 23.5 inches. That’s about enough room to add bike racks. 😉

    And it is a compliment to cyclists that they have finally organized themselves and become vocal enough to be noticed by City Hall. We saw near zero movement on the bike plan when cyclists were not organized and vocal. Perhaps this year will be better for cyclists…

  2. For once, I feel conflicted about the installation of a new bike lane. I was pretty excited about a nicened-up Jarvis…

  3. AMH – the sidewalk widening is concentrated solely on the east side to maximize the space for trees, and because of underground utilities on the west side.

    The final proposal calls for two 3.0 meter center lanes and two 3.6 meter curb lanes. Currently all five lanes are about 3.0 meters. So that leaves about 1.8 meters to expand the east side sidewalk – enough to create a proper boulevard with viable trees and other amenities.

  4. When a 2-minute “average” additional delay is reported, I wish the variance of the additional delay would also be reported.

    If you can guarantee that each car is delayed by exactly two minutes, that’s not really a big deal — but if you can expect a ten-minute delay 20% of the time (say during rush hour) and no delay 80% of the time (late at night, early morning, around noon etc.), that would suck a lot, in spite of being an “average” two-minute delay.

  5. Kyle Rae?
    Enuff said, he’s no more progressive than Rob Ford and is simply in the way of improving downtown.
    Time for him to be turfed.

  6. Andrew – I believe the slight delay expected is specifically in rush hour. Although it’s true that could mean a longer delay some rush hours and no delay other days, but that’s not so different from the way rush hour always is.

    Angus – far be it from me to defend Kyle Rae, but taking out a lane of traffic for *any* reason is reasonably progressive.

  7. This sort of thing is becoming more common as the low-hanging fruit is picked and the more challenging urbanist vs urbanist battles begin.

    I’m firmly in the boulevard/trees camp, for the following reasons:

    – I bike in New York a lot, and the painted lanes here are worthless. Don’t think for a second that this will represent progress. You are better off finding a quieter street that can accommodate true separated bike right of way and making your stand there.

    – Toronto is not a very green city, at least not on its major streets. Sure, the residential sidestreets have tremendous tree cover in places like North Toronto, but compare any major street in Toronto to a comparable American road and the lack of street trees, plantings and other greenery is surprising. Learn from Chicago, and green up the streetscape. I’d prefer to forgo sidewalk widening and put the 1.5m into trees on each side or a green median, but however you do it the street needs green.

    – Traffic is elastic and will go elsewhere or disappear over time. Look at what happened to Broadway in New York, which was, similar to Jarvis, once the prime route downtown from the Upper West Side (i.e. North Toronto) and remained a major traffic street until fairly recently. First traffic was stopped from making turns at Times Square, then Herald Square and other plazas were widened, then tubs of planters claimed a little more space at various intersections, and last year a full pedestrian and bike promenade was installed along much of the road in midtown. Now they are talking about completely closing it from Times Square to Heralrd Square. Start with the streetscape improvements, then keep making incremental urban improvements until it becomes feasible one day to put the bike lanes in with a reduced car traffic pattern.

    I agree that Jarvis lacks a champion but hopefully someone who has visited other cities lately will see the light and insist on making Jarvis beautiful for all users and not just a transitway for bikes and cars.

  8. As a cyclist going down that part of town almost daily, I’d agree with Dylan that a bike lane on Jarvis should not be on the top of the agenda. The Sherbourne St. bike lane, as bad as the paving is, gets the job done. It has much less car traffic and I will definitely prefer it to Jarvis, even if bike lanes are installed on Jarvis as well. The space from a reduces lane can be better used to improve things for pedestrain/streetscape. If bike lane is still in the card, why don’t we give a try to the idea of a bi-directional bike lane on one side of the street, with slightly higher curb to separate from traffic lane, and slightly lower curb than sidewalk? I figure that would require less space. Instead of 2×1.5m, 2m is probably enough for a bi-directional lane, then we still get 1 meter left for pedestrains. Europe has a lot these kind of bike lanes, why can’t it work here?

  9. Is there much disparity in between morning and afternoon direction in traffic flows anymore?

  10. The City’s web site has a map showing AM peak, PM peak, and 24-hour weekday traffic volumes (it is a couple of years old by now). (There are no volumes for the streetcar streets, because the volumes are obtained automatically from those rubber tubes you sometimes see placed across a street, and obviously you can’t put those on streets with streetcar service.) See — scroll to the bottom.

    There is still a difference between directions in the north half of Jarvis (say, north of Dundas), where Jarvis is more a commuting route north to Rosedale and North Toronto. South of Dundas things are a little more evened out as there is also additional traffic bound for the Gardiner and DVP.

  11. Jarvis is a major transit thoroughfare because it is one of the quickest ways to get from Bloor down to the Gardiner Expressway. The major problem I see with eliminating one lane is that left turns would gum up traffic considerably. If left turns are prohibited during rush hour, things could work.

    Why can’t the City doesn’t do a trial run of a four-lane Jarvis St. (e.g. by marking the centre lane with a red arrow in both directions) and see how traffic flow is affected?

    It’s interesting how Jarvis and Sherbourne evolved. Both have a lot of history associated with them, but Jarvis turned into a wide road with no bus route or bike lane, while Sherbourne is fairly narrow and has both a bus route and a bike lane.

  12. Ageeing that sidewalk widening is the lowest of the priorites (below trees and bike lane) as the current sidewalks aren’t too bad. It’s just that the freeway-like traffic so close by makes it unpleasant. With bike lanes and a row of trees as buffers the current width of sidewalks would be adequate (maybe not ideal but adequate).

    Oh and Jarvis bike lanes could connect with the proposed Gould Street pedestrian mall providing a major route for eastsiders into downtown.

  13. Does anyone know which bike people are lobbying for the Jarvis st lane? I haven’t seen much about it around…

  14. The rationale behind cyclists’ groups lobbying for bike lanes on Jarvis is based on the concept of ‘complete streets’, where all users of the road should be considered.

    Toronto needs to have a policy of minimum standards for cars, cyclists and pedestrians. When considering a street redesign like Jarvis, the city could then look at these minimums, and decide how to allocate newly-found space. (Such a policy would have got us bike lanes on St. Clair; instead cyclists were told “sorry, it wasn’t in the bike plan”)

    Ignoring non-existent cycling infrastructure in favour of widening (arguably) fine pedestrian infrastructure is not acceptable.

    I don’t agree with Dylan that Sherbourne is an acceptable substitute for bike lanes on Jarvis. Students at Jarvis Collegiate, and residents in the many residential buildings on the street deserve better.

    On the other hand, I do agree with Dylan that this is a great opportunity to bring back some of the grandeur of Jarvis as it used to be. Reducing the street to three lanes (or even two) makes the most sense, giving much needed space to both cyclists and trees.

    But that would require a political will that is not in evidence these days at Toronto’s City Hall. Let’s hope one day it will be there.

  15. Why in the world would you want a bike lane on Mt. Pleasant? The stretch from Bloor to St. Clair has a huge change in elevation and very limited access. There are very few/no buildings that open directly on to the street until you get to St. Clair, and it only becomes a real street north of the cemetery. For biking, Sherbourne is a much better route and you can easily connect to Glen Rd, Summerhill, and the North Rosedale pedestrian bridge for a quieter and gentler path up the escarpment.

    If a lane is removed from Jarvis, it should be devoted to beautification rather than a useless painted bike lane. Painted lines are rather crap, as is the idea of getting bikes and cars on the same streets. Let’s get bikes on secondary or tertiary roads, where they’re in less danger from traffic and doorings.

  16. One thing people forget, a narrow road is less dangerous, then a wide one. Removing a lane will result in a less highway like feel for drivers. This will probably mean cars travelling at 50-60km/h instead of 70km/h – 80km/h.

    I don’t know if turning one car lane into a pair of bike lanes will really help much, it’s typical for Toronto though, where the traffic engineers are only interested in car traffic. I would think what will probably happen is nothing.

  17. Rick – I don’t agree that a road without bike lanes has “non-existent cycling infrastructure”. Cyclists are legally vehicles and have the legal right to travel on any street in Toronto. Every day, thousands of cyclists travel successfully on main streets without bike lanes all over the city. All city streets belong to and are infrastructure for cyclists as well as cars.

    The problem is that where traffic is fast and lanes are narrow, this infrastructure is inadequate because it feels uncomfortable and unsafe to cycle – just as a narrow sidewalk right beside fast traffic is inadequate because it feels uncomfortable and unsafe to walk. Bike lanes are important enhancements to cycling infrastructure that buffer cyclists from traffic and make cycling better and more appealing, just as a boulevard that buffers the sidewalk from traffic is an important enhancement that makes walking better and more appealing.

    The Jarvis plan is a compromise that improves things a little for cyclists (wider curb lanes, slower traffic, no parking), and more for pedestrians, for the site-specific reasons I outline above. There are many more kilometers of streets in Toronto this year where a bike lane was put in, but nothing was done to improve the walking infrastructure, for site-specific reasons.

    Yes, “Students at Jarvis Collegiate, and residents in the many residential buildings on the street deserve better” – and many more of them walk than cycle. The proposal tries to do something to help all of them.

  18. Too often, people talk about “road narrowing” as if means the same thing in all instances and as if it is automatically good for pedestrians. This is not the case. In the Lansdowne situation, the travelling lanes were actually made wider — with the result that when there is no congestion, vehicles tend to move much faster than they ever did before. (Yes, it’s a basic premise of traffic engineering that motorists tend to move faster when the lanes are wider.) I live on the street and take the bus frequently, and typically the bus is moving at about 55k/hr in a 40k/hr zone. The speed of the vehicles often results in many cyclists (about half I’d say) riding on the sidewalk rather than the road. As for the City’s claim that the street has actually been made more pedestrian friendly, this is nonsense given that on the east side, the sidewalk is no wider than previous (and much more narrow than on Jarvis)… but now pedestrians are walking right next to a lane of fast-moving traffic, something which angers parents with young children on this side of the street. The narrowing was achieved by removing a parking lane on the east side, which I know is an idea that many on this site would support. But guess what… that lane of parking that was removed served as a safety buffer for pedestrians and resulted in vehicles moving more slowly on this stretch. Oh, and taking out a parking lane hasn’t reduced the volume of traffic on the street. Sorry for the long post, but my neighbors and I are still angry about our Councillor’s utter lack of consultation.

  19. Trees on the east side? Haven’t they learned? Trees usually do poorly on the east or south side of busy streets as they are constantly bombarded with salt spray over the winter as the prevailing north-westerly winds always blow the spray onto the trees. A great idea, but trees on the west side would stand a much better chance of success.

  20. Really, lets go big.

    Let’s close the three middle lanes and build a real pedestrian sector vis-a-vis Barcelona Las Ramblas

    It will be a decade before we get the DRL, so build a busway with frequent service with Moore Park and Rosedale buses feeding this transit way. No one is going to get out of their car if there isn’t an alternative with appropriate service. More space, less cars, better air and community building, is it really that hard to do?

  21. My feeling is that Kyle Rae has ‘got’ the message that is hiding behind urban redevelopment in TO and slowly, most slowly, easing its way to the surface.

    That is that ‘traffic’ as it exists today is an artifact of oil, that with the demise of the later will trail off to a trickle. (how much will it cost to fill your 2006 vintage Hummer, when the cost of crude is $300/barrel?).

    The days of building for the dinosaurs are ending, and it makes much more fiscal sense to put the bike lanes in now(they are forever, and are dirt cheap!), and leave the rest as is, until it can be clearly seen what and who you are designing for.

  22. Really fascinating piece, especially the way you’ve identified the role of different actors, like the champion. Wondering if you’ve heard of Peter Evans’s “ecology of livability actors”?

    As an arborist, I say the more growing space for trees, the better. Given the dimensions of the entire public right of way, surely trees, bikes, pedestrians, &c. can be accommodated…

  23. It’s a shame Kyle Rae doesn’t have the guts to support the alternative solution – bike lanes, widening the east sidewalk, and reducing cars to three lanes. But that would require him to be a leader, instead of blowing in whatever wind emanates from the unholy trinity of the North Rosedale Ratepayers’ Association, the cycling lobby, and Denzil Minnan-Wong (who stuck in his oar on the Jarvis proposal a few days ago). Whatever the City ultimately does to Jarvis, it’s apparently not going to create a sense of place, grace and urbanity.

  24. Is this really true?
    I was so excited to hear of the improvement to Toronto’s streetscape until I read this.
    Think I’ll stay in NYC. A public city by design.
    (But is this really accurate…I just can’t believe that Rae would really choose bike lanes over public art, greenery etc. Any comment from him?)

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