The City of Toronto has an opportunity to transform Leslie Street into a welcoming gateway to the Leslie Street Spit and the eastern waterfront, but is currently on course to ignore this opportunity.
Creating attractive new routes to the waterfront is a core element of Waterfront Toronto’s plans. In its maps (above), Leslie St. is presented as one of the key routes targeted for such transformation — the easternmost entrance to the waterfront, and the direct route to one of its jewels, the Leslie Street Spit.
Leslie Street becomes all the more significant because the Leslie Street Spit/Tommy Thompson Park is expected to stop being a dumping ground for construction debris, possibly as soon as 2013. While it is currently only open to the public on weekends because of the dumping during the week, once it is no longer a dumping ground it is likely to become a permanent full-time park, used by the public every day. Leslie Street will be a primary route to the park for those on bikes, and those travelling by transit on the Queen streetcar and then walking.
Currently, the strip of Leslie Street between Queen St. East and Lake Shore Blvd. is an unattractive stretch, with narrow sidewalks and awkward intersections for those on foot, and narrow, poorly maintained traffic lanes for those on bikes. The attractive two-way Martin Goodman Trail bike route up from the Spit on the east side of Leslie ends abruptly at Lake Shore for anyone wanting to continue north.
But there’s a golden opportunity to change all that. The TTC is building yards for the new streetcars in the empty lot south-east of Lake Shore and Leslie, and it will have to tear up Leslie all the way to Queen to install tracks. As compensation to the local community for the disruption and noise that will result from the presence of the new streetcars, it is supposed to engage in some streetscaping of Leslie while it’s at it.
It seems like the right time to install bike lanes and improve the walking infrastructure to create the gateway envisioned by Waterfront Toronto, but the TTC and the City of Toronto have so far insisted that they will rebuild Leslie St. exactly like it was before, with just a few cosmetic touches.
The key question is, could Leslie Street lose a lane of traffic in order to create bike lanes and more pedestrian space? Currently, Leslie from Queen to Lake Shore is four lanes. Outside of rush hour, two lanes are used for parking and only two lanes are used for traffic, but during rush hour parking is prohibited to allow two lanes of traffic in the rush hour direction.
Leslie Street is classified as a “minor arterial” road by the City — but minor arterial roads are a primary candidate for bike lanes, and for example another minor arterial road in the area (PDF), Dundas St. East, consists of bike lanes and only two lanes of traffic. So the classification is not an obstacle.
A street also has to be able to cope with the vehicle traffic on it effectively. A single lane of traffic is normally considered to be able to handle up to 900 vehicles an hour. The City’s traffic counts show that even peak traffic counts are below that number, with the exception of one side of the southernmost block, from Eastern Ave. to Lake Shore (1000 vehicles southbound in the morning). So two lanes are needed during rush hour only on the west side of one block — the rest of the street only needs one lane even during rush hour.
What about the streetcars? According to the TTC (PDF), “The majority of the streetcars travelling on Leslie street will operate during off-peak hours, between 5 am and 7 am. The bulk of them will return to the facility at 7 pm, after servicing rush-hour demand.” So they will be travelling at off-peak times when there is already only one lane available each way .
In terms of parking, some residents who face onto Leslie use the parking there — but they cannot use it during rush hour, and have to move their cars elsewhere during that time. While the on-street parking is used, there is no full parking study to show whether there is other nearby parking that could be used instead. The primary destinations on the street, the big-box stores near Lake Shore, already have large parking lots.
As long as there can be two lanes of traffic during rush hour on the southernmost block on the west side, and there is some parking provision for residents, there is reason to suppose that Leslie St. could lose a lane of traffic to create better space for cycling and walking.
A simple solution presents itself: use the easternmost lane of Leslie to continue the two-way, separated bike path on Leslie up from the Spit, which currently stops at Lake Shore, all the way to Queen East. Make parking on the west side from Queen to Eastern permanent. Keep the parking off-hours only from Eastern to Lake Shore to accommodate the heavier traffic in that stretch.
The separated two-way bike lane to Queen East would create connections to the bike lanes on Jones and, through it, the bike lane on Dundas East — helping to build a real cycling network connecting to the Waterfront. (A contraflow lane right up Leslie where it is one-way north of Queen would be even more effective in linking to the Dundas East bike lane).
No major reconfiguration is required to implement this – just blocking off one lane of mostly-parking that is not needed by traffic. The rest is simply changing parking regulations, although that would also provide an opportunity to expand the sidewalk at some intersections to create a more attractive walking route.
Add in a few sidewalk enhancements, and the result is an appealing gateway to the walking and cycling destination of the Leslie Street spit. It’s a solution that is within the City’s grasp, if it would only seize it. If not, Leslie Street will remain an obstacle discouraging access to the waterfront rather than a route encouraging it.