Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

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

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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