Lack of Scarborough subway scrutiny makes way for a subway sequel on Sheppard

Mayor John Tory’s executive committee on Monday made quick work of Councillor Josh Matlow’s latest attempt to investigate the controversial planning and political process that led to the Scarborough subway. By unanimously voting to defer his request for a judicial inquiry without debate and without hearing from the members of the public who had signed up to give deputations, they did the procedural equivalent of shooting it into the sun.

But while they were doing that, the provincial party currently leading in the polls according to CBC’s poll tracking aggregator to become Ontario’s next government was busy talking up the need for a Scarborough subway sequel.

That’s right. Like a bad penny, the multibillion-dollar Sheppard subway extension is back.

Both PC leader Doug Ford and Ajax candidate Rod Phillips, who represented the PCs at a transportation debate held Monday at the University of Toronto, have enthusiastically backed the idea of “closing the Sheppard subway loop” (Ford in a backgrounder shown on Twitter by the CBC’s Mike Crawley, Phillips on a TVO panel)— extending the 5.4-kilometre Sheppard subway to Scarborough Town Centre from Don Mills, where it would meet up with the Scarborough subway.

It’s a bad transit project. There are piles of studies supporting its badness. In a city with so many expensive transit priorities, it does not rate.

The Sheppard subway today carries fewer riders than some of the city’s surface routes. 47,780 trips per day pass through the subway’s five stations compared to 44,000 customers per weekday on the Dufferin bus. And while the subway has successfully driven some development along the corridor like Concord Park Place, a 5,000-unit condo development, ridership is still low enough that fares do not even come close to covering the sky high costs of operating and maintaining subway infrastructure.

In an article by Tess Kalinowski in the Toronto Star published in May 2015, TTC chair Josh Colle estimated each rider costs the city about $10 in subsidy — it might be cheaper, he suggested, to move those riders by taxi.

If those ridership and subsidy numbers look bad, the numbers floated for an extension eastward are downright apocalyptic. The cost of subway construction has only grown since Sheppard opened in 2002. Extending Sheppard from its current terminus at Don Mills to Scarborough Town Centre was estimated to cost anywhere between $2.7 billion and $3.7 billion by an expert panel in 2012.

And, according to the same analysis, ridership in the extension is estimated at about 4,200 riders per peak morning hour by 2031, a number that could easily be handled by much cheaper light rail transit (LRT), or even buses. With the line extended, it might not just be cheaper to ferry riders by taxi — it might be cheaper to have them ride in limousines with private chauffeurs.

But on the other hand, “closing the Sheppard loop” sounds good, and looks pretty cool on a map, I guess?

And while the costs and ridership numbers alone should be enough to stop any talk of extending Sheppard in its tracks, that’s made harder by Tory and council’s continued support of the Scarborough subway and their reluctance to really examine the issues relating to planning and politics that led to council in 2012 throwing out a provincially-funded LRT alternative in favour of a subway.

There needs to be some sort of formal review of how transit plans are developed and approved to council — a task for the next City Manager/Chief Planner, maybe – so a precedent isn’t set.

Because here’s the thing: bad, politicized transit decisions spread like a virus. One low-ridership, overbuilt, multibillion-dollar transit project becomes the basis for another, and then another.

The subway extension to Vaughan — pushed by the provincial government despite no strong business case — helped justify the subway extension to Scarborough Town Centre. I’ve heard more than a few councillors and subway boosters explain to me that if Vaughan gets a subway, it’s only fair that Scarborough Centre should get one too.

And similarly, if the notion of a Sheppard subway comes up in council again for debate, expect echoes of the Scarborough subway decision.

If LRT-sized ridership estimates and high costs for tunnelling and building are not enough to stall the subway to Scarborough, why should they stop an extension to Sheppard?

If a warning in the 2012 staff report about the Scarborough subway that “ detailed study and design [had] not yet occurred” wasn’t enough to stop councillors from ditching viable, ready-to-build alternatives in favour of flashy subway promises, why would anyone expect the next time around to be any different?

That’s the real concern residents should have about the Scarborough subway. It’s not just about this one project. It’s about precedent. It’s about the potential for subway sequels, each more expensive than the last — a cinematic universe of questionable transit projects, where the plot is always the same.

This post was originally published at on 2018-05-17T00:00:00.000Z

TOcore’s Great Streets plan can correct mistakes from the past, and help put Toronto on the road to achieving Vision Zero

Seven years ago, Jarvis Street broke my heart.

Toronto City Council’s debate over whether to remove the bike lanes on Jarvis in the summer of 2011 was the first time I got really fired up about a municipal issue. Living just a few blocks away from Jarvis at the time, I put my soul into it. I wrote passionate, overlong posts on my blog about why the bike lanes — approved and installed under Mayor David Miller’s administration in 2010 — should stay.

I got really nerdy about it, too. I pored through city reports and researched the unique history of the street. I transcribed speeches given by councillors who had once supported the bike lane plan, but had since changed their views. I armed myself with stats: after the installation of the Jarvis bike lanes, for instance, bicycle traffic along Jarvis tripled, while the number of collisions was reduced by 23 per cent.

And then I sat, alongside a hundred helmet-wearing cyclists, in the gallery during the city council meeting where the ultimate decision was made. I even tracked the projected council vote result with a spreadsheet.

I was young and idealistic, but I also thought – and still think – I had the facts on my side. And I thought – looking around the chamber at the room full of cyclists and urbanists that seemed just as passionate as I was about this issue – that I could help push council to make the right direction.

In short, I had hope. Hope that a majority of councillors would grasp that cities around the world were installing more bike lanes, not removing them. Hope that appeals to safety would win out.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam’s motion to keep the lanes was defeated, 18-27, the opposition led by Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong and then-mayor Rob Ford. The bike lanes on Jarvis Street were removed in November of 2012, despite last-ditch attempts by some cyclists to physically block the line-erasing machine by sitting in front of it (as reported by The Canadian Press on CBC).

I remember leaving city hall after the vote and just feeling sad about the state of the city and the priorities of the mayor and council. Wondering if there was a real point to my political involvement, when the stuff I valued about the city didn’t seem valued at all by council. When council in fact seemed okay with making one of the major ways I got around the city more dangerous. Heartbroken.

However, this was not just a case of removing some paint on the road. It also put an end to a process started in 2001 to revitalize Jarvis as a “cultural corridor.” And it restored Jarvis Street’s reversible middle lane, a feature that encourages high-speed driving and makes Jarvis one of the most unpleasant streets for pedestrians and cyclists in the downtown core.

Instead, the debate needs to be about making downtown streets more pleasant and safe to get around for people who aren’t driving cars. It needs to be about creating accessible space for walking, riding, and rolling. It needs to be about trees and public spaces; it needs to be about designing streets in such a way that does not encourage reckless and dangerous speed, which causes injury and death.

In effect, Jarvis, with its reversible middle lane, is more like a highway than a street that runs past schools and homes. It’s my least favourite street in the downtown core.

Seven years later, though, I have a bit of hope again.

Last week, the city’s Planning & Growth committee approved the next phase of the TOcore plan for downtown Toronto. It includes a public realm plan for what planners term “Great Streets” – ambitious transformations to 12 of downtown’s most prominent streets.

Jarvis is on the list. Jarvis, my first municipal love – the one that got away.

“Once a grand and elegant tree-lined promenade, Jarvis Street today is a wide, multi-laned arterial roadway, widened in 1947 in response to increasing volumes of automobile traffic,” the report says, before laying out a plan to narrow the street by removing the reversible fifth lane, widen the sidewalks and add lots of space for trees and greenery.

The goal is to “re-establish Jarvis Street as a grand tree-lined promenade that supports civic life, celebrate its significant heritage structures and connect its significant public parks.”

There are no bike lanes in the plan. They probably should get added. But I do hope this time the debate over Jarvis – and the other “great streets” – doesn’t simply get reduced to public squabbling over whether these streets should have bike infrastructure. What’s at stake is bigger than that.

Instead, the debate needs to be about making downtown streets more pleasant and safe to get around for people who aren’t driving cars. It needs to be about creating accessible space for walking, riding, and rolling. It needs to be about trees and public spaces; it needs to be about designing streets in such a way that does not encourage reckless and dangerous speed, which causes injury and death.

That last point is critical. The city has done a lot of valuable work over the last year on its Vision Zero initiative to eliminate road deaths. But this work is undermined by the continued existence of streets like Jarvis – streets that by design prioritize traffic speed over the experience of other road users. With high vehicle speeds, narrow sidewalks and erased bicycle infrastructure, Jarvis Street is fundamentally incompatible with Vision Zero.

When Toronto City Council considers the TOcore plan for Great Streets at their meeting later this month, Mayor John Tory and councillors need to see this as more than just aesthetic improvement. It can’t just be a meaningless aspirational exercise.

This isn’t a plan that should sit on a shelf. If approved and implemented, this plan will do more to keep people safe than any amount of signage or police enforcement blitzes – the typical ways we hear about safety.

Road safety starts with transformation. Its starts with taking space previously given to cars and trucks and redesigning that space so it’s available – and safe – for pedestrians and cyclists.

So do it. Make Toronto’s streets, including Jarvis, great at last. After seven years, please, council, un-break my heart.

This post was originally published at on 2018-05-10T00:00:00.000Z

Forget the mayoral race, it’s Toronto’s council races that will determine the shape of our city

For all the talk of visions and long-term plans and catchy slogans, the two prominent buttons on the council chamber desk of every city councillor – one green, and one red – are what really shape the future of our city. These buttons determine everything.

Why, for instance, is the city rebuilding the eastern section of the Gardiner Expressway when it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars (reports say more than a billion) more than alternatives presented to council earlier this term? It’s not because of compelling reports or the wisdom of experts. Not really. It’s because two councillors pressed a button in favour of that decision.

Had two of the city councillors in attendance during the Gardiner debate in June 2015 – seriously, just two – pushed the other button and voted the other way, the city would be on an altogether different road.

But of course, that didn’t happen. Instead, Mayor John Tory led council to vote 24-21 to keep the expressway.

A two-vote margin. If two measly votes had gone the other way, the result would have been 23-22 in favour of removing the highway.

With Toronto’s government structure, it’s not about the bulleted lists of promises included in mayoral platforms. It’s about electing coalitions of people that represent enough votes to win on the issues you care about.

It’s worth thinking about that tiny two-vote difference and what could have otherwise been this week, as Toronto’s municipal election season officially kicks off. Even if Tory doesn’t face a high-profile challenger to the mayor’s office, Toronto’s weak mayor system — where council, not the mayor, calls the shots — means there’s a hell of a lot at stake.

The mayor is ultimately just one vote, after all. With new and expanded ward boundaries creating three new seats, there are 47 other city hall elections taking place this year, in addition to the mayoral race. And the winners of those elections will be responsible for voting on hundreds of items.

Just a few different button pushes over the last four years could have changed the long-term direction of this city. Billions of dollars could have been devoted to other things. People’s lives could have been different – maybe better.

As an example, consider this: had just five councillors in attendance voted differently – or been different people altogether – Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam’s motion in December to request use of the federally managed armouries as shelter space for the city’s homeless population would have passed. The armouries could have (with federal approval) opened before it got bitterly cold out.

Five changed votes and maybe someone out in the cold finds a warm place to sleep.

Similarly, six council votes made the difference in the city’s decision to keep pursuing the ever-more-expensive Scarborough subway project. Four votes made the difference in council’s decision to stop pursuing ranked ballots as a form of electoral reform. Nine votes ensured that council stuck to Tory’s desire to keep residential property taxes below inflation. One vote – one damned vote – meant that industrial companies continue to get subsidies covering some of the cost of the wastewater they produce.

Toronto’s municipal election needs to be thought about in these terms. With Toronto’s government structure, it’s not about the bulleted lists of promises included in mayoral platforms. It’s about electing coalitions of people that represent enough votes to win on the issues you care about.

To that end, the apparent lack of a high-profile challenger to Tory could be a good thing. Without a showy mayoral race sucking up all the oxygen in the city, Toronto voters have an opportunity this year to focus more on the council races that will actually make the difference.

The opportunity is huge. Those new ward boundaries have created several vacant seats, and the number of vacancies could be further bolstered by councillors attempting to win jobs at Queen’s Park — if they win. Additional momentum could come from advocacy groups who are preparing to put resources toward defeating some of council’s most notorious incumbents.

If, for example, four or five new progressive-minded councillors are elected, a bunch of city-building initiatives that seemed just out of reach during this term of council could suddenly become attainable. But conversely, if some or all of these vacant seats are filled by politicians who like the sound of the mayor’s pledge to keep property taxes at or below the rate of inflation, then, well, the next four years will probably look a lot like the past four. Forget it, Jake, it’s Tory Town.

Don’t sleep on this election. In its own sneaky way, with new boundaries, three new wards and extra attention on council seat races, it might be the most critical since amalgamation. Take the time to figure out who is running to be your councillor. And when you talk to them, don’t let them get away with handing you platitudes about their folksy hardscrabble roots or passion for volunteering. Instead, ask them how they’ll vote.

Remember the stakes, the votes, the implications. Remember the buttons. One green. One red. In the margins: one city’s future.

Matt Elliott is a columnist, blogger and City Hall watcher in Toronto. After starting out as an independent blogger, he later became the city columnist for Metro News. He mostly writes about local issues, often with a nerdy focus on municipal budgets and urban policy. The winner of two Canadian Online Publishing Awards for his writing, the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale has called Matt “one of the best political columnists anywhere.” You can follow Matt on Twitter at @GraphicMatt.

This post was originally published at on 2018-05-03T00:00:00.000Z

Matt Elliott: Toronto City Council is pushing pause on our future

A proposal to overhaul Yonge Street in North York was among those delayed last week by Toronto politicians.
A proposal to overhaul Yonge Street in North York was among those delayed last week by Toronto politicians.

Here’s what your Toronto City Council did last week: They delayed some stuff.

On two of the most significant items to come before them, Mayor John Tory and councillors decided the best course of action was inaction. Why make a decision today when you can make one tomorrow?

Up first was the question of the city’s long-term financial plan. The plan provides some much-needed direction Toronto’s fiscal future, essentially asking Toronto’s elected representatives to choose one of three doors.

Door 1 is the status quo. It keeps service levels where they are. Door 2 would cut city services. Door 3 would find new revenues and engage in what the report calls “a broader city building agenda” where the city would proactively build infrastructure and invest in public services.

Choosing one of the doors is one of the single most important decisions Toronto’s government will make. It literally impacts everything.

But despite the monumental importance – or maybe because of it – there was little appetite among a majority of council to make any decisions, or even really talk about it. All attempts to bring the report forward to council for debate were quickly defeated.

And so the report was returned to city bureaucrats, who will write more reports about this report, and the whole thing will return to council next year.

The same fate befell the other major item council was faced with last week, a plan to revitalize Yonge Street in North York.

The plan is years in the works – the street has not been reconstructed since 1975 — but the road configuration endorsed by transportation staff calls for removing two of Yonge Street’s six traffic lanes and replacing them with wider sidewalks and separated bike lanes.

Some people don’t like that.

In recent weeks, a more car-friendly alternative emerged and quickly gained Tory’s support. It costs more, but keeps six lanes of traffic in place while shuffling the bike infrastructure off to a parallel roadway.

After a few hours of contentious council debate, it became clear that the vote on the issue was going to be really close. So when Coun. Joe Cressy introduced a motion calling to get more reports and put off making the decision, a majority of council — including the mayor — were happy to take the out.

Another delay.

And while this delay may end up helping proponents of the original Yonge Street plan — they will live and fight another day — it remains disappointing that council wasn’t able to make the right choice now. With all their talk about Vision Zero and pedestrian safety over the last year, this council should have no hesitation about endorsing the plan that best addresses pedestrian safety.

And yet when presented with a clear opportunity to take action to make a main street safer, the choice was to wait.

These delays, of course, need to be viewed in the context of this being an election year. But I reject the notion that election years are not the time to have hard debates and make big decisions. Election years are precisely the time incumbent politicians should be demonstrating their principles, their vision and their value — through action, not words.

Because, seriously, if the hard work of building a better city is always being pushed off until tomorrow, what exactly are they doing today?

This post was originally published at on 2018-04-01T00:00:00.000Z

Matt Elliott: Report highlights hard-learned lessons from Toronto’s shelter crisis

Protesters rally with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty at city hall to confront Mayor John Tory on the lack of shelter beds during a budget meeting in February.
Protesters rally with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty at city hall to confront Mayor John Tory on the lack of shelter beds during a budget meeting in February.

The one where it got really cold outside, the city’s shelters were near their maximum capacity, homeless people were reporting being turned away, and then Mayor John Tory got yelled at until he finally agreed to open the Moss Park armoury and other facilities as temporary shelters?

It was a whole big thing.

And yet, despite the seriousness of the issue — it was literally a matter of life or death for the city’s homeless population — it seemed, like a lot of major government snafus, that this would simply fade away without much follow-up. In the headlines one day, then gone the next.

Thankfully, government accountability offices exist.

In this case, our accountability hero is Toronto Ombudsman Susan Opler. Last week, Opler and her team released an in-depth report on the shelter capacity issues that plagued the city this winter.

It’s a damning document, concluding that “the information the City provided to the public about Winter Respite [shelter] sites was overwhelmingly outdated, inaccurate and inconsistent.”

The ombudsman was able to document three occasions where people were told there was no room at shelters, which strongly implies that there were other times where the city effectively left people out in the cold.

It also documents a litany of embarrassing operational issues.

In December, Mayor John Tory and 24 other members of Toronto City Council voted against a motion by downtown councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam to pre-emptively request use of federal armouries and other buildings for use as temporary shelter space. When it became clear the city would, in fact, need such space, staff had to act quickly.

And so there were problems. The report notes that information about shelters was outdated on city websites. And that information about availability at the respite sites was tracked not with the city’s shared internal system, but with a single Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.

And that the temporary shelter opened at the Better Living Centre was operated with a single cell phone that was once broken and once stolen.

Miscommunication was rampant. Conditions at shelters were rough. The ombudsman found that many shelter sites were not accessible to people with mobility challenges. At one site, the indoor air temperature was measured at less than 14 degrees.

I am ashamed to live in a city that fails this badly at supporting our most vulnerable people.

But there is a silver lining of this very dark cloud. This report from the ombudsman is set to go before Toronto City Council this week for debate. There, it can work as a blueprint for fixing these systemic problems.

I urge Tory and councillors to pay special attention to the end of the report, where they can find this bit of wisdom: “Addressing the complex social problem of homelessness is a pressing matter of public policy. As one senior City official put it, ‘words don’t set priorities; funding does.”

A little louder for the people in the back: words don’t set priorities. Funding does.

A hard-learned lesson. It’s not enough to say this won’t ever happen again — the investment needs to be in place to make damn sure of it.

This post was originally published at on 2018-03-26T00:00:00.000Z

Matt Elliott: Four years later, the most enduring Ford legacy is as a cautionary tale

Then Mayor Rob Ford, left, listens to his brother and campaign manager Doug Ford during a commercial break as Rob takes part in a live TV debate leading up to the 2014 Toronto municipal election.
Then Mayor Rob Ford, left, listens to his brother and campaign manager Doug Ford during a commercial break as Rob takes part in a live TV debate leading up to the 2014 Toronto municipal election.

When former mayor David Miller left the job in 2010, he practically gift-wrapped Toronto City Hall for his successor.

There was an operating budget surplus of about $350 million. Hard-won new taxes, including a tax on real-estate transfers, had stabilized the city’s revenue. TTC ridership was breaking records. The provincial government, amazingly, had committed to funding $8 billion in transit projects.

The city still faced challenges, but there was an obvious path forward — a path to fiscal sustainability and a path to city building.

Then the Fords happened.

Miller’s successor was, of course, the late Rob Ford. His brother Doug Ford — recently picked as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party — came with him, elected as councillor for Etobicoke North. They were a package deal.

They used the big operating budget surplus to offer voters a hasty one-time property-tax freeze. They also eliminated one of Miller’s new taxes — a fee attached to vehicle registration — with no plan to replace the revenue.

Suddenly the city’s stabilizing fiscal situation became very unstable.

Meanwhile, TTC service was slashed, despite all the ridership growth gained through investment in service during Miller’s tenure. And yet still transit riders were asked to pay more; fares rose in three of the four Ford years.

But the worst bit was probably their deal-making on transit. A belief by the Fords that Miller’s transit plans were part of a nefarious “war on the car” led to chaotic renegotiations.

As a result, virtually every transit project was delayed. An attempt to prove the private sector would pay for a suburban subway extension ended with a report concluding that the private sector would not pay for a suburban subway extension.

Worried that the Fords were putting the future of Toronto transit at risk, the TTC board revolted, voting to essentially revert to Miller’s transit plan.

The only major change – beyond delays, cost increases and an $85-million penalty paid to the provincial government – was the Scarborough Subway, which the supposedly anti-tax Fords voted to fund with a 30-year property-tax levy.

The cost-cutting efforts didn’t go much better. The first attempt came through hiring consulting firm KPMG to conduct a review of city services and find savings. They found little waste and recommended closing some libraries. The public hated it.

With that effort failed, the Fords next simply demanded that departments cut their budgets by 10 per cent. There was no nuance or strategy to it. They just cut.

The decision to constrain spending and limit revenue growth is still being felt, as Toronto slides toward billion-dollar budget gaps and struggles to deal with demand for homeless shelters and recreation programs.

Note here what I haven’t mentioned: the drugs. With Doug Ford back in the spotlight at the provincial level, there’s some revisionist history going around suggesting that the Fords were capable conservative leaders marred by the personal struggles of a mayor battling addiction.

It’s not true. The Ford story is not a story of personal scandal. It’s a story of bad governance. Four years later, the most enduring legacy of the Fords at city hall is not a policy or a project — it’s a cautionary tale. It’s a warning sign, urging us not to go down this road again.

This post was originally published at on 2018-03-19T00:00:00.000Z

Matt Elliott: 10 steps to marginal improvement for Toronto's pedestrians

A memorial lies across the street from a closed foot path (orange fence) where an 11-year-old boy was killed by a car last month near Kennedy Public School on Canongate Trail and Purcell Square.
A memorial lies across the street from a closed foot path (orange fence) where an 11-year-old boy was killed by a car last month near Kennedy Public School on Canongate Trail and Purcell Square.

Imagine you live on a Toronto street where drivers routinely go way too fast — it’s dangerous.

So you decide to request that the city install traffic calming measures like speed bumps.

So far, so good, right?

But here’s where things get weird. Because the process at Toronto City Hall to get those speed bumps installed on your street is anything but simple. Instead, it’s a bureaucratic ten-step process that takes months to complete.

I’ve been thinking about this after news of the tragic death of 11-year-old Duncan Xu, who was hit by a driver on Feb. 27 while walking near Kennedy Public School in Scarborough.

In the days following, Coun. Jim Karygiannis – who represents the area – successfully pushed to fence off the pedestrian pathway that connects to the street where the driver hit Xu. Karygiannis says the closure is temporary, a stop-gap until the city can go through the necessary process to approve and install “mitigating measures” like stop signs or speed bumps.

And while I disagree with closing the pathway — removing pedestrian infrastructure to improve pedestrian safety is counter-intuitive — I do think Karygiannis’ response to this tragedy highlights something important: the city’s process to install stuff to slow down traffic is way too complicated.

Closing off a pedestrian pathway should not be simpler than slowing down traffic.

Which brings me back to the process required to get speed bumps installed on a dangerous street.

First, you need to kick things off with either a petition signed by enough of your neighbours to reach city-prescribed thresholds or a request taken up by your city councillor.

Then come the reports. So many reports. The second step is a consideration of area-wide impacts. Third is a review of the current road design. Fourth is consultation with the TTC and emergency services.

Fifth is a traffic study. Sixth is a consideration of options and alternatives. Seventh is transportation staff writing a report summarizing all their findings and analysis.

The eighth step gets us to a community council meeting, where politicians finally vote on the traffic calming measures. But even if they back the speed bumps, the process isn’t done yet.

Because the ninth step is a real doozy, requiring the city to conduct a formal poll of households on the street, asking if they’re really sure they want speed bumps. For the result to be valid, the city requires that at least 50 per cent of ballots mailed out get returned, and 60 per cent need to be in favour — a threshold that far exceeds what’s needed to elect politicians at any level of government.

Whether the poll comes out in favour of speed bumps or not, the tenth step is another community council meeting, where politicians vote again. If the response threshold on the poll was not met — and it often isn’t, because getting 50 per cent voter turnout is hard — they can opt to approve the speed bumps anyway.

If they do, congratulations — after months of petitions and politics and polls, your street is slightly safer. Ten steps to marginal improvement.

In a city that professes to care about making it easier to walk safely, isn’t it odd that slowing down traffic remains so devilishly difficult?

This post was originally published at on 2018-03-11T00:00:00.000Z

Matt Elliott: Main streets should not be highways

A plan to transform Yonge between Sheppard and Finch, and make it more bike and pedestrian friendly with bike lanes, was nixed by the public works committee last week.
A plan to transform Yonge between Sheppard and Finch, and make it more bike and pedestrian friendly with bike lanes, was nixed by the public works committee last week.

Imagine your local government decided to take your neighbourhood main street and make it worse.

Imagine they proposed adding traffic lanes and narrowing sidewalks, all in the name of making sure cars can always go fast.

Imagine they wanted to replace restaurant patios with parking spaces and safe bike lanes with painted arrows intended to remind drivers — please, if it’s not too much trouble — not to run people over.

People would freak out.

So I’m having trouble understanding why it continues to be such a challenge to make the opposite happen. Why is it that when local planners propose taking a street that is lacking in urban amenities and making it better, so many people say no?

The latest example of this is playing out in North York, along Yonge Street between Sheppard Avenue and Finch Avenue, where staff have brought forward a plan to reimagine the street.

In a lot of ways, the plan is the culmination of a vision first expressed by former mayor Mel Lastman decades ago. He wanted North York to have a downtown all of its own. And after much political wrangling, it actually started to happen. It got a subway station. It got retailers and office buildings. It got density.

But it never got the final piece. This part of Yonge has not been reconstructed since 1975. The road is too wide at six lanes and the sidewalks are too narrow.

As a result, the street is unfriendly — it can feel like a highway — and dangerous. Between 2010 and 2017, the city recorded 78 collisions involving pedestrians and five involving cyclists.

And so Toronto’s urban planners did what they do best. They designed a plan to give North York’s downtown a downtown street. A safer street. A better street.

The recommended approach includes removing two car lanes, adding protected bike lanes, and widening the sidewalks to improve pedestrian safety, make room for patios and improve the overall streetscape.

The plan is guided by data. The trend line in this area is against the automobile — in the years to come, staff expect more walkers, more bikers and more subway riders.

It’s worth noting too that city staff estimate a whopping 74 per cent of traffic on the road in the morning rush comes from outside the city in York Region. For those drivers, traffic modelling suggests their commute time may increase by about one minute, on average.

But despite all this, the plan has run into controversy and opposition. Some are convinced it will make traffic worse.

At last week’s meeting of the public works and infrastructure committee, North York councillor David Shiner pushed for a compromise that maintains all traffic lanes, doesn’t provide as much sidewalk width and pushes the bike infrastructure to nearby Beecroft Road.

Oh, and it costs more. About $20 million more, though Shiner says the premium can be lowered to $9 million by delaying the property acquisitions needed to install safe bike lanes on Beecroft.

The committee, through a majority vote, supported Shiner’s plan. Mayor John Tory says he supports it too. Toronto City Council will have the final say at a meeting set for later this month.

They have a chance to get this right. Their decision should be guided by uncompromised principles: this is a neighbourhood main street. Main streets should not be highways. Main streets are for people.

This post was originally published at on 2018-03-04T00:00:00.000Z

Matt Elliott: Mayor Tory deserves credit for not bending on King St. pilot

Mayor John Tory deserves credit for not bending on the King Street pilot project that prioritizes transit over cars, writes Matt Elliott.
Mayor John Tory deserves credit for not bending on the King Street pilot project that prioritizes transit over cars, writes Matt Elliott.

Let’s give it up for Mayor John Tory, who has refused to compromise on King Street.

During the uproar and ice sculptures that followed the transit pilot's kick-off last November, it must have been tempting to strike a deal with the restaurant owners along King complaining that the new traffic restrictions and removal of on-street parking are killing their business.

The business push to alter the plan so that the road changes would only apply during rush hours felt like the kind of compromise the mayor might go for. He has, after all, built his political reputation as a conciliator – someone who tries to find balance between competing interests.

But Tory held firm. It was absolutely the right call.

The data tells the story. According to a report on data collected in January, transit ridership is up 16 per cent from before the pilot. About 84,000 people a day now ride the King route.

To put that in perspective, the Sheppard Subway — which came with a price tag more than 600 times higher than the $1.5 million spent to implement the King pilot – carries about 49,000 riders a day.

The King Street pilot might just be the most cost-effective transit investment in Toronto’s history.

Service quality is up. Streetcars move faster, on average. The bigger win, however, is in the consistency of service, as best presented in an analysis by transit expert Steve Munro. Prior to the pilot, travel times across King Street were highly variable — one day a trip would take 20 minutes, while the next day it could take 40. Now riders can count on the streetcar getting them to their destination in about the same amount of time, every time.

Meanwhile, the same data shows that the apocalyptic outcomes forecast by detractors have not come to pass. Car travel times on surrounding streets are basically the same as they were before the pilot started.

And business activity, as tracked by point-of-sale vendor Moneris, shows spending along King Street is in line with seasonal activity city-wide. No catastrophic drop.

This data should put an end to any talk of seriously modifying the plan. Limiting the pilot restrictions to rush hour would ignore both the reality of ridership on the line – it’s busy at night too – and that enforcement would become even more challenging with time-based rules.

Plus, a time-restricted pilot makes permanent infrastructure improvements virtually impossible. If King Street needs to revert to allow on-street parking at night, there will not be room for things like wider sidewalks, expanded restaurant patios and new public spaces — the stuff that can make King Street truly great.

I don’t want to compromise on that. And so far, the mayor hasn’t wanted to compromise either.

It’s a lesson, I hope. When contentious issues arise, the answer is not always to seek balance between opposing sides. There is virtue in compromise, but there’s more virtue in vision.

Whether we’re talking about King Street, Scarborough transit, the Gardiner Expressway or bike lanes on Yonge Street in North York, the best approach is to listen to the data and support bold plans — and to stand unwavering against skeptics and naysayers.

This post was originally published at on 2018-02-26T00:00:00.000Z

Matt Elliott: The not-so-magical answer to Toronto's housing crisis

Regent Park is one of the many neighbourhoods in Toronto that has benefited from past City Hall-led pushes to build affordable housing.
Regent Park is one of the many neighbourhoods in Toronto that has benefited from past City Hall-led pushes to build affordable housing.

A little over a decade ago, in the midst of a frustrating hunt for a decent Toronto apartment, my girlfriend and I went to see a two-bedroom place up for rent in the Annex. The $1,600-a-month rent would stretch our budget, but we thought we could swing it.

But getting the place wasn’t so easy. When we booked a time to see it with the landlord, we didn’t expect to arrive to a crowd of other prospective renters, all furiously filling out applications. It wasn’t an apartment showing — it was a desperate competition.

We didn’t win. It worked out OK. We moved our sights eastwards and found a nice place for about the same rent near Regent Park. But I remember thinking at the time how nuts Toronto’s rental market was.

It’s worse now.

Numbers presented to Toronto City Hall’s Tenant Issues committee earlier this month tell the story. In 2017, rents in apartment buildings increased faster than they have in 15 years, while vacancy rates reached their lowest point in 16 years.

A survey of rental listings found landlords are asking an average of $1,614 for a one-bedroom apartment. A two bedroom will run you $2,252.

It’s no wonder people are going to great and creative lengths to find affordable places to live.

This state of affairs is even more frustrating because governments have been taking steps over the last year to support tenants. Rent control laws have been strengthened. Regulations have been implemented to cool the housing market, which should theoretically lead to lower rents in the condos that make up a large part of active listings.

But the key numbers — average rents and vacancy rates — aren’t getting better.

Which leads to the inevitable question: What next? What’s the next thing governments can do to keep Toronto from becoming what Coun. Josh Matlow, chair of the Tenant Issues Committee, called a “playground for the rich”?

The best answer could be found in the past. When housing was scarce in the 1950s and 1960s, governments built housing. In Toronto, they built whole neighbourhoods like Regent Park, St. James Town and St. Lawrence, with thousands of homes designed and marketed not as luxury condos or investment properties but as affordable places to live.

There are serious lessons to be learned about how some of these housing projects were designed and maintained, but the notion behind them remains sound.

Ambitious housing projects are not something governments seem keen to get behind these days. While there has been support for revitalizing old neighbourhoods with affordable housing, there’s little appetite to build new ones. The Canary District neighbourhood, built as part of the Pan Am Games, is probably the best example, but still is predominantly condos.

Meanwhile, there is to be no housing at all planned for the provincially-owned land at Ontario Place. The same's true for the old Unilever site — a vast piece of vacant land adjacent to the downtown core. And don’t get me started on the new subway stations that opened in December. There are no residential buildings attached to any of them. Too many are surrounded by nothing but parking lots and strip malls.

Bolder plans are needed — plans that recognize the severity of the crisis and are willing to invest to meet it.

There’s no magic to it. To fix an affordable housing crisis, you build affordable housing.

This post was originally published at on 2018-02-19T00:00:00.000Z