It’s not often I get to say that I underestimated the City of Toronto, but I’m happy to say it now.
A year ago, I wrote about the City’s project to transform John Street, in the heart of the entertainment district, into an attractive walking-oriented destination, event space and “cultural corridor.” It’s an intiative with strong support from the Entertainment District BIA (which would contribute a significant amount of the costs) and the increasing number of local residents. The street links together many cultural destinations and is often closed to traffic for events, but at the moment looks dull and unappealing. I was a little disappointed at the time that the City was avoiding innovative ideas for the street, although even the simple sidewalk-widening and beautification they were proposing was welcome.
Fast-forward to this year, and after working on it more, the City has in fact come up with an interesting and very innovative solution for improving the street. I unfortunately was not able to attend the open house where they revealed it last week, but Urban Toronto has an excellent summary with photos, and the plans are supposed to be available on the City website soon.
The City’s alternative “A” proposes a “flexible boulevard” (top image) — a space between the curb and the main part of the sidewalk on the east side that could be used for multiple purposes, depending on time, location and need: truck deliveries, sidewalk patios, ploughed snow storage, art installations, pedestrian overflow. The boulevard would accompany a narrower, two-lane two-way road surfaced with pavers and without lane markings, designed to discourage car drivers from using the road unnecessarily, and influence drivers who do use the road to drive slowly and carefully (a technique often used in Europe).
The flexible boulevard is an innovative response to the need to provide space for trucks to make deliveries, without blocking the roadway or wasting space that is not needed for deliveries. It recognizes that street space, limited and valuable, is needed for different purposes at different times and locations, and that the most efficient way to use it is not to lock all of it away for a single purpose at all times but rather create space that can be used for different purposes at different times of the day and year. A similar concept has already been implemented in Kitchener on King Street, and has won awards.
No project to make a street more attractive in Toronto is complete without outraged commuters, however, and in this case the role of outraged commuters is being played by some cyclists. John Street is one of the natural extensions of the St. George/Beverly bike lanes, and many cyclists use it for commuting into the downtown (bike activist Dave Meslin has pushed the city to revise its low-balled bike traffic counts for this street). Some cyclists are arguing that John St. should get bike lanes, but that would eliminate almost all of the extra space in the crucial, most active section from Queen to Adelaide, meaning changes might not be worth the cost. The project would likely be abandoned.
Any improvement to John Street has to make it better for cyclists, but that does not necessarily mean it has to have bike lanes. Reducing the volume and speed of motor-vehicle traffic would make the street much more comfortable for cyclists — more like a residential street than a main street. And removing parked cars would also remove the danger of dooring. The volume of cyclists would itself contribute to the goal of forcing drivers to drive more slowly and carefully on the street.
In fact, it has the potential to be much like the quiet block of John St. north of Queen, which I’ve cycled on many times and which is comfortable, with the added bonus of removing the parked cars. With the parked cars, the space for travelling in that block currently is actually less than what is being proposed in the “A” alternative, yet it does not feel cramped because traffic volume is low and the street is flexible.
The unstructured, mixed-use street concept the City is looking at is one that is widely used in Europe, and even Canada, to create pedestrian- and cycling-friendly environments on streets that, like John St., are not major thoroughfares.
One frustration for cyclists in this model might be that they might have to move more slowly than if they had bike lanes. But there is no right to travel fast in the downtown — as cyclists showed when they got bike lanes on Jarvis at the expense of an extra few minutes’ commute for drivers. And there are plenty of alternatives for creating fast routes for cyclists in the same area.
Simcoe St. to the east is desperately in need of bike lanes — its new extension under the tracks is the best bike route to the waterfront in the downtown area, but those bike lanes absurdly end at King Front. In fact, it could be a candidate for the separated bike lanes that the city is currently investigating. Peter St. to the west might also be a good candidate for bike lanes, and is a natural extension of the Beverly lanes for cyclists heading to and from the King/Spadina area. If these were implemented in conjunction with the John Street transformation plans, the result would be a greatly improved, revitalized Entertainment District for almost everyone — residents, businesses, pedestrians and cyclists.
It is important to make sure that the John St. project does, indeed, make things better for cyclists. We want this to be a project that could become a model for other streets in the city. For example, the “flexible boulevard” option seems to envisage a street where cyclists take the full lane. While cyclists like having the option of taking the lane in theory, it may not be that appealing to have it as the primary option in practice (and it could well result in cyclists using the sidewalk for passing cars, given the low curbs). But in fact, the space being allowed for lanes in this option is much the same as the current, rather narrow lane width along John — but with more flexibility. A different option, “B”, sees a wider street, still without markings, which would give much more room for cyclists. But it would likely mean faster motor-vehicle speeds and certainly higher volume, and the need to sometimes manoeuver around delivery trucks (which would happen even with bike lanes, of course). It would also eliminate much of the extra space for patios, art installations, pedestrian overflow and the other things intended to make John a stand-out destination.
There may be room to further refine the plan (that’s what public consultations are for, after all). And since the street varies in size and use along each of its few blocks, it may be that solutions need to be further tailored to each block (they are already somewhat tailored to provide an extra turn lane on the southernmost block of the street).
All streets in the city should accommodate all users, but not all streets can be optimized for all users. John Street is unusual in its multitude of destinations, its high pedestrian traffic (see below), and the frequency with which it is closed for events. It makes sense to optimize it for pedestrians (while still improving it for cyclists). Other neighbouring streets that follow the same route from Front to Queen are far less used by pedestrians, and it makes sense to leave their pedestrian realm in its current basic state and optimize them instead for cyclists — especially Simcoe, which is already part of an important cycling route to the waterfront.
Regarding traffic counts, in the Toronto Star the City provided revised counts for cars and bikes:
City-conducted counts on John early last October found 1,209 bikes and 4,928 cars passed Queen St. W. in both directions between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Some 692 bikes and 8,085 cars passed King St. W. in the same period
No comparable figures for pedestrians were available. [I have to wonder, why not?]
However, now that we have pedestrian counts for intersections, we can make a rough comparison. At Queen and John, the daily pedestrian count was 20,656. That’s going in all directions, but the heavy pedestrian counts continue all along John. At King and John, the pedestrian count was 10, 304; at Wellington and John,12,944; and Front and John’s pedestrian count was 18,295. All four are in the top 100 pedestrian-heavy intersections in Toronto. And these counts were not even looking at weekends, which can be even more pedestrian-heavy in this area. John Street, unlike its neighbours, is a centre of pedestrian traffic, even in its present dull state, and it makes sense to tilt it towards pedestrians, while tilting its neighbouring streets towards bikes and/or cars.