Archive for the ‘ Planning ’ Category

Complete Streets and Dutch Junction design

To most observers of Toronto politics, it was very surprising to see councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the Public Works committee, come out (apparently on his own initiative) to advocate for a road design concept called complete streets. The Toronto Centre for Active Transportation (TCAT) defines complete streets as:

Complete Streets provide safe access for all road users including pedestrians, cyclists, public transit users, and motorists of all ages and abilities.

Given the councillor’s many storied run-ins with cycling advocates, his “ally” status of Mayor Rob Ford, and the generally suburban, auto-oriented prism through which he views transportation, it was indeed a surprise. I am not yet sure of his motivation, but Minnan-Wong is one of those local politicians that doesn’t necessarily stick to one side of the political spectrum.

Regardless, the formulation of Toronto’s complete streets guidelines is a positive step. Whether it leads to any real changes in the way that engineers design our streets is another matter. We are still in the hopeful phase.

It was while this news was appearing that I stumbled upon the video below explaining what blog Bicycle Dutch calls “Dutch junction design”. It is something I noticed throughout the Netherlands when I visited the country last September. Even as a visitor, unfamiliar with the Dutch signal system, it was very intuitive to use. The most danger I felt through these junctions was the potential for a collision with an aggressive cyclist!

A frequent excuse of road designers in Canada regarding European cycling infrastructure is, “well yeah, but we can’t do that here– we don’t have space”. This may be true on some roads where we have decided that driving and parking lanes are crucial. But what is most attractive to me about this concept is this: if you have room for bike lanes, you have room for a Dutch junction.

Evidently, there are some other aspects of the design that would have to be implemented at the same time, in order to make it function properly. Most notably, the video below explains how the signals are timed appropriately to maximize cyclist safety and minimize auto-cyclist collisions. It also occurs to me that this only works at an intersection of two bike lanes– a pretty rare phenomenon in Toronto.

[Edit: OK, I thought of a few, that could at least be pilots for this approach: Gerrard & Sherbourne; Wellesley & Sherbourne; College & Beverely/St. George; Harbord/Hoskins & St. George. Tried to think of/ find some suburban bike lane intersections, but the only one I could think of is a T-intersection– Conlins & Sheppard. Help?]

I think it’s a pretty useful design to keep in mind as we move toward complete streets in Toronto.


Old Urbanism

One of my daily website visits is a photo blog by Toronto photographer Sam Javanrouh. The photo blog contains thousands of photographs in and around Toronto, often highlighting the vitality of the city.

The daily photo for 25 November 2012 struck me (see it here). At first it seems like an everyday “slice” of a Toronto street– a retail/residential row-building, likely built in the early 1900s. But I  began to contemplate the photo beyond first impressions, and, being an urbanist, thought about how this building got to be where and how it was. What conditions allowed or prescribed for its 3-storeys? What caused the builder to decide to build right up against the next building? What realities contributed to retail being on the first floor and apartments on the 2nd and 3rd? (or was it even originally this way?) Why did the builder decide to use brick instead of other building materials available at the time? Why does it appear that the 3rd floor windows were replaced with modern vinyl window frames, while the 2nd floor windows remain apparently original? What motivated the architect to include small architectural details above the windows and a decorative cornice along the roof’s edge?


Queen Street East, Toronto (Google Maps)

Given that zoning by-laws are almost exclusively an early-to-mid-20th century phenomena, it is unlikely that municipal regulations had much to do with this building’s design. And yet, this is the type of decidedly urban structure that planners in the 21st century are striving to encourage. How do we re-create the conditions that allowed this type of building to be constructed throughout the city? Is it an absence of planners that allowed this to happen, or is there a role for planning departments in encouraging this type of development?

It’s got me thinking.

On the Pharmacy and Birchmount bike lanes

Last week, the City of Toronto’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee, chaired by councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, voted in favour of this motion. It adds some separated bike lanes downtown, but also removes bike lanes in Scarborough at the behest of the local councillor, Michelle Berardinetti.

Ms. Berardinetti made traffic congestion her main campaign issue in the recent municipal election, which may or may not have delivered her a victory over the incumbent, Adrian Heaps. Like Rob Ford, she feels that her victory symbolizes widespread local agreement with her issue of choice (for Ford, it was subways vs. “streetcars”). Perhaps this is so– but I can think of other reasons. (“Traffic congestion is bad” is to local political rhetoric as “God Bless America” is to American political rhetoric). Activist Dave Meslin has a good perspective on Pharmacy and Birchmount lanes here. (Unfortunately his very reasonable amendments were not adopted by committee members.)

Certainly, errors were made in the way in which the bike plan has been implemented in Toronto. This is especially true in areas where residents are skeptical of their worth on high-speed, high-traffic arterial roads. Too often, lanes were built without connections to other cycling infrastructure, or built in short spurts where works crews were already working on the road. (It is also a result of a city unwilling to fully commit to true cycling infrastructure, like bike boxes and separated lanes).

Ms. Berardinetti’s main beef with the bike lanes seems to be that they were built with a “lack of community consultation”. Yet yesterday, fellow councillor John Parker (a member of the PWIC, who moved the motion to remove the Jarvis bike lanes) wrote a blog post for the Toronto Star’s cycling portal to justify his decision regarding Jarvis. In it, he writes:

Since 2001 the city of Toronto has had a comprehensive bike plan that envisions a network of bike lanes throughout the downtown area. It was drawn up after widespread consultation [emphasis mine] and was prepared by the city’s transportation services department together with Marshall Macklin Monaghan, one of Canada’s leading engineering firms.

For one councillor, it appears that consultation on the Toronto Bike Plan was sufficient (Jarvis lanes are not in the bike plan– hence Mr. Parker was using the Bike Plan as justification to remove the lanes). For Ms. Berardinetti, the fact that the Birchmount and Pharmacy bike lanes were planned from 2001 and finally painted in 2008 is, it would seem, irrelevant. That City staff have found that the Pharmacy and Birchmount bike lanes have had no effect on local traffic (pg. 15) is also lost on Ms. Berardinetti.

Pharmacy & Birchmount, the first bike lanes listed in the Bike Plan for Scarborough

The costs for removing these lanes is estimated by staff to be $210 000. That may not seem like much in a budget of $9-billion, but in Rob Ford’s Toronto, every penny counts, and is counted (supposedly). Ms. Berardinetti is hoping that the bike lane removal can be synchronized with pending road repairs, therefore resulting in no additional cost– however, the repairs are not proposed for the entire length of the lanes. If this synchronization fails, the councillor will have to explain to her constituents (“taxpayers” in the verbiage of the day) why she wants the city to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to remove infrastructure. She might also have to explain how her previous commitment to sharrows, in place of bike lanes on Birchmount and Pharmacy, fell off the agenda. This from the previously-linked Toronto Sun article:

“As for those bike lanes, rather than paint them over immediately, she wants to tackle them when the roads are resurfaced.

When that work happens, Berardinetti said she wants to see the dedicated bike lanes removed and shared lane pavement markings (sharrows) painted within the car lanes.

“I’m not against bike lanes,” said Berardinetti, an avid cyclist. “They had a mandate of laying down so much (bike lane) tread a year instead of having a concrete plan.””

Sharrows, while problematic, seem like a compromise here (though it still does not make a whole lot of sense to remove bike lane for sharrows). Will Ms. Berardinetti remember her previous musings? Or will council decide to kill an already-built portion of Toronto`s Bike Plan?

PWIC’s decision goes to Council on July 12-13.

Could hydro corridors be used as high speed rail corridors?

I am tempted to think so. As a supporter of a high-speed rail system for certain corridors in Canada, I am familiar with the usual arguments against such a project. Whether it is “too expensive”; “won’t work in our weather”; or “impossible to get a right-of-way”– most of them do not hold much water. The last argument– that right of way is unavailable or too difficult to acquire– to me is the strongest of the arguments. It got me thinking: what would be the easiest way to solve this problem?

Hydro transmission corridors are huge swaths of mostly clear land that slice through our cities and countryside, allowing electricity generated in one part of the province to be transferred great distances over high-voltage lines. Because they respond to demand for electricity, many of the corridors blaze a trail from major power producers to major power users (i.e. large urban centres). In fact, if you look at a map [PDF] of these corridors, the system looks quite similar to our other large infrastructure right-of-ways– highways, railways and the like. In some cases, the corridors are almost “as the crow flies” from city to city.

One of the major reasons they are so straight is that these corridors do not have to respond to variability in the terrain like highways and railways do. This obviously does not work for high speed rail, which requires mostly flat terrain. However, there’s no reason that surrounding land could not be acquired in order to avoid significant topographical features. Using existing hydro corridors would probably reduce expropriation by 90% (no evidence for this number, that’s just my opinion).

What if Ontario Hydro agreed to a lease of its property for such purposes? Would it actually work? Would the removal of such a significant barrier (right-of-way acquisition) change our governments’ current reticence to pursue such a project?

Note: I am definitely not the first person to think of this. I have found at least one example: the Maryland Department of Transportation studied the suitability of hydro rights-of-way [PDF report] for transportation infrastructure in 2002. If you know of any other examples, especially in the Canadian context, please let me know in the comments below.

Cambridge mayor blasts planners for alleged bias

Tensions are growing ever higher in the Region of Waterloo’s debate over the future of rapid transit in the region. The October municipal election, during which politicians got an earful from residents, triggered the anger over the apparently large portion of the cost of a rapid transit system that the Region will be on the hook for.

It was expected that the provincial and federal governments would foot the majority of the cost of the system. For whatever reason, expectations were raised to this level somewhere along the way. (The “norm”, if there is one, for funding large infrastructure investments, is commitments of one-third from each level of government.) To expect that the Region could get a state-of-the-art rapid transit system for almost no cost to the local taxpayer was unreasonable in the first place.

In many ways, it is this unmet expectation of federal and provincial funds that brought on the debate the Region’s councillors and residents are now having. Local cost burden for the Kitchener-Waterloo LRT & Cambridge BRT is now estimated to be $235M, with property taxes to be increased over six years to pay the difference.

Cambridge mayor Doug Craig has become the most outspoken regional critic of the LRT + BRT scheme, saying it would shortchange taxpayers in his city, who would have to ride buses while those in Kitchener-Waterloo ride on modern trains. He, and voters, convinced regional council to reconsider a system of consisting entirely of buses in January. Planners presented a list of 10 options to the Planning and Works Committee on February 15, a list that consisted of one train-only option and one bus-only option, with the others being combined options. This list will now be subject to public consultation before the question of technology is put to council one more time.

LRT's capacity is a huge advantage

It would seem that the list is a fair account of the options before council and the Region, given that almost two years ago, the same council nearly unanimously approved the LRT + BRT scheme (exception being Mr. Craig). Yet Doug Craig and some other councillors do not see it that way. Commenting on the list, Mr. Craig said, “I expected this to be biased. I didn’t expect it to be over the top.” Other Cambridge councillors complained that the list was titled too much toward trains. In response, a councillor from Waterloo accused councillors from Cambridge as being affected by “Cinderella syndrome”, a false sense of being overlooked and neglected. Clearly, a formerly unified council and Region has become fragmented by differing visions of the future.

What disturbed me most as a not-quite-professional planner was the allegations of bias Mr. Craig made towards Regional planning staff. In comments he made after the meeting (rather than in it), Mr. Craig said:

“The whole report is awful… It is a sell job for LRT (light rail transit), plain and simple. And it’s embarrassing. They haven’t done it properly or without bias.”

My guess is he did not allege bias in his comments during the meeting because it would be much more serious if he did so. However, the comments are still of concern to the planners, as they attempt to take a fair and balanced approach to the issue.

The "biased" slide

That being said, Mr. Craig wondered aloud why planners chose to show an over-capacity Ottawa BRT system instead of empty LRT trains in Buffalo during the presentation. Perhaps he is right: planners should have let the facts speak for themselves rather than making the apples-to-oranges comparison of a dying, rustbelt city like Buffalo to a recession-proof government capital.

I have read the presentation, and apart from the pictures, it is mostly full of facts. BRT is a system that would only last for 20 years for the fast-growing region before it is clogging the roads with trains of buses, like Ottawa’s system. LRT costs more than BRT. LRT has a greater positive effect on property values, attracts more riders and employers, and has more benefits to the user. And perhaps most importantly, the number of existing or projected riders “south of Fairview Park Mall” (read: Cambridge) is far below that of Kitchener and Waterloo.

One could fault planners for trying to gussy up a presentation with photos. But one can hardly blame the planners for submitting a report that lays out the facts pretty clearly. Another fact that was in the planner’s report: Mr. Craig’s all-BRT option would cost only 15% less. For a system that would only last 20 years, selecting the all-bus option clearly sacrifices future budgetary concerns for short-term political and budgetary concerns. While Mr. Craig rejects LRT on the basis that it is unfair to Cambridge, clearly what is best for the long-term health of the Region is the proposed LRT + BRT.

You can see the slides the Region’s planners presented to the Planning and Works Committee here and the full report document here [both PDF].

Make a judgement of your own: is the report biased in favour of LRT?

Wytold Rybczynski’s “Makeshift Metropolis”

“The public actually knows what it wants or, at least, recognizes it when it sees it.”

This quote is one that forms some of the basis for urbanist Wytold Rybczynski’s newest book, Makeshift Metropolis. Throughout the book, Rybczynski makes the argument that, while the 20th century was all about planning ideas and concepts shaping the built form of cities, it is the market that today and in the future will shape our cities. Of this he is quite convincing, and as other urban thinkers have pointed out before, the latest planning ideas have shaped our cities the least out of all of them. Think of New Urbanism, for example– embraced by many in the early 1990s as a solution to cookie-cutter suburban communities– now, for the most part, is relegated to being a movement mainly about the aesthetics of homes. It also barely made an impact on our cities; a non-planner or urban designer would not be able to distinguish it from regular suburban planning.

Makeshift Metropolis is one of those books that will begin by being very familiar to those who have studied urban planning. Rybczynski takes the reader through the history of planning theory and practice, focusing on “three big ideas”– the City Beautiful, Garden City, and Le Corbusier’s “towers in the park”. The author’s writing style is highly readable, and he manages to spruce up otherwise dry planning history with anecdotes about the often larger-than-life personalities behind the theories. While it makes for an interesting read, it by no means is a comprehensive history of planning theory– that is not the purpose of this book.

What is very striking to me is that almost all of the members of the “planning Parthenon”, so to speak, were not professional planners by any stretch. Charles Mulford Robinson, father of the City Beautiful movement, was a journalist and freelance writer. Ebenezer Howard, creator of the Garden City concept, was a clerk and a parliamentary stenographer. Le Corbusier was a slightly eccentric and mostly egotistical architect.

Initially I was hit with the thought that perhaps this reflects poorly on planning as a discipline, that individuals from mostly unrelated occupations could simply pick up a pen and change the face of cities. Perhaps planning is not something that can be taught, but has to be learned and gleaned from inspirational encounters with urbanism. However, reflecting on those thoughts, I am more inclined to believe that planning as a discipline is by its very nature multi-disciplinary. Even today in Ontario, as the Ontario Professional Planners Institute moves to more stringent qualifications and ethical standards, the OPPI’s membership includes people from all kinds of occupations– lawyers, writers, architects and engineers to name a few. Planning thrived on the ideas of non-planners in the 20th century– but maybe they were planners.

Rybczynski does nice work relating the history of planning theory to the shape of cities throughout North America today. Nothing is new about this approach, but he does bring some new ideas to the subject. In particular, I like his approach of weeding through the planning ideas and finding out which ideas worked and which did not.

Rybczynski seems to have a soft spot for the Garden City– and who wouldn’t, with its generous parks, large-sized lots and generally definitive town centre. While people generally enjoy a high quality of life in these places, they are not, and never will be, cities. They are suburbs, plain and simple– but foster a more community-oriented environment in which to live.

Personally I found that Rybczynski fails to conclude his book effectively. Essentially what I gathered from his points, if I were to put it simply, is this: the market is not always right when it comes to city planning, but yet it is more right than “willful urban visionaries” such as Le Corbusier. I think this conclusion is correct, as recent emphasis on public participation in planning has shown. Where this point gets confused is the author’s oft-repeated admiration for Garden City– the idea of a “willful urban visionary”.

That being said, as a reader, it stimulated my planner mind. I found myself so stimulated that I took notes immediately after finishing the book, even though it was a late evening on a work night. Despite the sleepy haze I was in, I think I came up with some interesting questions:

  • How would a “regular” citizen design a city and/or neighbourhood? For anticipated traffic volumes and safety? Or for aesthetics? Convenience? Walkability? Connectedness? Environmental Impact? Where are our priorities when it comes to the city?
  • History has shown “trendy” planning to have some good results but mostly bad. Which “trends” should we be careful to avoid? Are there any “tried and true” planning concepts that we should embrace as gospel?

Most of all, I was inspired to think again about a way of planning cities that I have often found myself thinking about. It involves reverting back to the planning of streets and city plans by governments and very large scale (city-sized) developers. Earlier in the 20th century, this resulted in a systematic (some say boring) grid of streets, and systematic parcelling. The result of this (in a different planning climate, obviously) was structures tailored to the street and the needs of the immediate surrounding residents– not just the financial needs of the developer.

Currently, developers of “subdivisions” plan street networks. These networks are disjointed from the “arterial” roads around them, and even the neighbouring subdivision developed by a different company. I have found the main impetus behind this sort of planning to be traffic engineers, as well as concepts of safety accepted by developers and the public as gospel. Engineers say that entry points to the subdivision need to be limited so that residential streets are “safe”; and arterial roads are separated for safety reasons– but the only reason they are unsafe is because they are deemed to be arterials. My own hunch is that non-planners and non-engineers would not plan their city in this way, simply because it does not make common sense.

If we are attempting to design new developments in a most livable way, Rybczynski is right to look at past development that has worked, and to suggest that we embrace these ideas in a market-based. However, we should always, always be careful not to accept some woman’s or man’s thoughts outright. History has shown many times over that ideas become “what the people want” for a short time, only to leave semi-permanent scars on our cities. What history also has made certain is that cities are the largest experiment humans have ever conducted– and will continue to conduct.

Gordon Chong’s Fantasy Transit Land

The Toronto Star published an editorial submission today from former chair of GO Transit and vice-chair of the TTC, Gordon Chong. You should also know to start that he was a prominent member of newly-minted mayor Rob Ford’s transition team.

In this editorial, Mr Chong attempts to outline how Mr Ford’s vision for transit in Toronto can and should be accomplished. He, like the mayor, declares that Transit City needs to be altered and that Toronto should aim higher (not those congestion-causing “streetcars”, but subways). For someone most would consider an expert on these sorts of issues, he makes some glaring logical leaps and avoids current political and fiscal realities.

One glaring logical error is the much-ballyhooed “one-seat ride” for Scarberians. This has been a common salvo of critics of Transit City, who like to call it “Transfer City” because of the switch a rider may have to make from LRT to subway and vice versa. However, while it’s not clear how a Sheppard subway would work for Scarborough (because it’s not been planned), it is reasonable to assume that the Sheppard line would function separately from the Yonge line and the Bloor-Danforth line (and the SRT, assuming it either remains something other than subway). Hence, unless a rider is going from Scarborough Town Centre to North York Centre or somewhere right along Sheppard, they will not have a one-seat ride. A ride from Scarborough Town Centre to Yonge and Finch, for example, will still require two seats.

Without presenting the numbers, Mr Chong also tells us that before the Yonge Subway was built, the ridership numbers were not there to support it, and yet here we are today. Perhaps Mr Chong is not as experienced in the field of urban planning as he is transportation, because Sheppard Avenue of 2011 is not Yonge Street of the 1950s. Yonge street was an is an urban street, full of shopping, residents and entertainment venues. The majority of Sheppard Avenue’s

Much of Sheppard Ave. looks like this

surroundings are low-density residential subdivisions, zoned as such, and protected from development by the City’s Official Plan. This is why the LRT was such a pragmatic choice for Toronto’s suburban streets: only some of Sheppard is available for more intense population growth. To project that Sheppard would equal Yonge would more than likely mean a paradigm shift in north Scarborough’s planning landscape.

“But what about the money” you say? Mr Chong has a solution for that too:

We should beg, borrow or steal to finish what was started instead of settling for second best simply because it was on sale.

Financial constraints have been cited ad nauseam by various levels of government… However, funding then miraculously appears for some other vote-getting initiative.

Worse still, an auditor general reports on the enormous sums that are wasted or mismanaged annually, leaving the mendacious politicians with egg on their collective faces.

We should “steal” from those latent pots of money identified by the auditor general to build the Sheppard subway to the future.

Mr Chong has come up with an idea so brilliant that no one has ever thought of it before. Take all that money being wasted at all levels of government, throw it into one pot, et voila, a Sheppard Subway with no pain to you! This is such a problematic proposal, it’s almost impossible to know where to start with it. If this money is so easily attainable, why hasn’t this method been used to build all sorts of other goodies for us? For one thing, I would be willing to bet that Mayor Ford will give a tax cut with those savings before he builds anything. It is also very interesting to see a key member of Mr Ford’s transition team declare that the City should increase its debt level in order to build a Sheppard subway (remember that thing about “stopping the gravy train”?)

Don’t fret, disadvantaged people at Jane and Finch, Mr Chong has a solution for you too. Instead of a quick, reliable LRT line along Finch, Mr Chong proposes that we “settle for second best” (Mr Chong’s own slanderous words) in a big way by building a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line through the Finch hydro corridor. It’ll be like a three-seat ride to get downtown, and it will be isolated from the street, but it will be dirt cheap and you get to ride on comfortable highway coach buses! (Now I’m getting snarky.)

While I can agree with some of Mr Chong’s sentiments (visionary subway building, helping captive riders, practical transit systems, and more for Scarborough), it is when his philosophies meet up with cold, hard reality that he loses me. One cannot simply ignore the fact that governments have chosen not to spend money on these types of projects. We all like to dream, but one also cannot flippantly make plans for transit without conducting studies to back it up (Mr Ford likes to do this, too). While Transit City has been studied to death, a Sheppard subway has been deemed unworkable before, and BRT lines have been built selectively due to the public’s distaste for buses of any kind.

Instead of dreaming up unrealistic financial schemes and dictating transit planning from the mayor’s office, Mr Ford and his team should be committing to the long-term vision that was (and is) Metrolinx’s Big Move. It is the only vision that has been put through its public paces and has met with political and fiscal realities.

We should beg, borrow or steal to finish what was started instead of settling for second best simply because it was on sale.