Yesterday urban planners Asher Mercer (Urban ID Consulting) and Edward Nixon (EN Consulting Group) hosted a walk along Queen Street as part of their project, The People’s Queen Street, which is attempting to reimagine the major east-west corridor as a public space prioritizing people. Partnering with the Toronto Community Foundation, Evergreen Foundation, the Centre for Social Innovation, and 100 in One Day Toronto, Urban ID Consulting and ED Consulting Group are organizing several events from summer 2014 until spring 2015 to help people experience the street in new ways and think about ways in which it could be redesigned as a better space for pedestrians.

Yesterday’s walk began at Neville Park, where the 501 Queen streetcar begins (Neville Loop) and continued all the way to Queen and Roncesvalles. Joined by intrepid walkers from Toronto Trails and Ontario Walks, a group of about 35 walkers crossed the city, stopping to think about development opportunities at Queen and Broadview, view historic Ashbridge House and Campbell House, and finish the day at Beaty Boulevard Parkette. The walk is about 17km in total, but I focus here on the first 5.7 km east of Broadview.

Neville Loop is a small unimposing turnaround for the streetcar (albeit with quite a long history as the City of Toronto’s easternmost streetcar loop) across from the Art Deco-styled R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, which writer Derek Flack characterized as “one of Toronto’s most beautiful and mysterious buildings.” For our purposes, the westernmost corner of Neville Park provided a natural meeting place and amphitheater for Asher and Edward to introduce the purpose of the walk today and invite participants to submit their comments, tweets, and photos to the project website.

We began at a brisk pace on Queen, taking in some of the built form that spoke of an earlier main street. On the way, we passed a number of historic buildings, like Black’s Veterinary Hospital (founded in 1911) and the Ashbridge Estate, which are well known: Toronto’s Ashbridge’s Bay was named for Sarah Ashbridge, in recognition of her position in one of the city’s founding families. Other lesser-known marvels included the tiny Fox Theatre (opened in 1914) and the Beaches Library (whose original structure was a Carnegie library). Queen Street East has that intrinsically interesting pedestrian atmosphere of the early 1900s, with the recurring main street urban form of a two-storey brick structure with apartments over the shops, punctuated by unfortunate modernist intrusions, as I’ve shown in the photos below. You can tell the street was gradually widened, giving even the most charming main street areas very narrow sidewalks.

It’s also impossible to ignore the hipster influence on the street, as the traditional dry cleaners and butchers of The Beach give way to coffee shops and restaurants in the popular neighbourhoods of Corktown, Riverside, and Leslieville. The urban redevelopment of the New Broadview Hotel and the Riverside Square project (check out streetcar.ca for more details) will continue this character shift towards upscale urban living. Displacement of the current residents is seen as a necessity: Streetcar Developments has been working with the City of Toronto and Woodgreen Community Services to assist transition of the existing residents to other community housing. Aaron Knight from Streetcar met us to explain some of the changes that will happen near this historic intersection, particularly the south side of the street meeting Munro, which will be reinvisioned as a pedestrian and urban space open to the public.

From Queen and Broadview, the group continued west on to Campbell House, and finished up at Queen and Roncesvalles. If you have any thoughts on Queen Street, and how to improve its public realm and pedestrian amenities, share them with Asher and Edward at peoplesqueenstreet.org/queenstsurvey, on their Facebook group, or on twitter.

DSCF8881

The Fox theatre (opened in 1914 as “the theatre without a name”)

 

The pedestrian amenities are minimal east of Woodbine

The pedestrian amenities are minimal east of Woodbine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beaches Library

Beaches Library featuring a one-ton sculpture of an owl (Philip H. Carter, Ludzer Vandermolen), was one of Toronto’s original Carnegie libraries

Bike parking and seating in front of the Beaches Library

Bike parking and seating in front of the Beaches Library and Kew Gardens, offers a much better pedestrian realm

 

Bam! Breakfast and Bistro displays one of many colourful murals along Queen Street East

Bam! Breakfast and Bistro displays one of many colourful murals along Queen Street East–but note the narrow sidewalk

 

Much more space for pedestrians, but no amenities

Much more space for pedestrians, but no amenities at Queen and Northern Dancer Blvd. (named for the horse, as the Greenwood Racetrack was here until 1994, before it was demolished and replaced by Greenwood Park). I’m guessing the owner of this building would be able to attract tenants with some seating, bike racks, and public art

 

DSCF8902

Squeezed for space at Eastern Ave.–it’s difficult to get around the bus shelter. Why not just ask building owners to construct an overhang?

 

Another pedestrian desert at the Alliance Theatre (Beaches) just west of Eastern Ave.

Another pedestrian desert at the Alliance Theatre (Beach) just west of Eastern Ave. that could easily be improved with some seating–who doesn’t need somewhere to wait when meeting friends for a movie?

 

Velotique making an imprint on the urban fabric at Queen and Rhodes

Velotique making an imprint on the urban fabric at Queen and Rhodes

 

Playground and chain link fence protecting the private realm at Queen and Craven

Playground and chain link fence protecting the private realm at Queen and Craven (see below for the north side view) makes the street uninviting for pedestrians

 

The northern side of the street at Queen and Craven shows a very different view--the old main street shops

The northern side of the street at Queen and Craven shows a very different view–the old main street shops. Again, note how little space there is for pedestrians, especially when signage and street trees are added.

 

Ashbridge Estate, the remains of Sarah Ashbridge's plot of farmland that stretched south to the lake

Ashbridge Estate, the remains of Sarah Ashbridge’s plot of farmland that stretched south to the lake. Ashbridge’s Bay and Ashland were named after her.

 

The street in front of the Ashbridge Estate feels like a country road with its white picket fence

The street in front of the Ashbridge Estate feels like a country road with its white picket fence

 

East End Garden and Hardware Centre spilled out onto the south side of the street with its Halloween display

East End Garden and Hardware Centre spills out onto the south side of the street with its Halloween display, taking advantage of its private space.

 

DSCF8927

Black's Toronto Veterinary Hospital, just west of Carlaw, (opened in 1911) gives a glimpse of the old main street

Black’s Toronto Veterinary Hospital (opened in 1911), just west of Carlaw, gives us a glimpse of how buildings used to meet up with the old main street: with a sidewalk, lawn, and garden.

 

Queen and Coxwell has vestiges of the past, but the pedestrian realm is barren here

Queen and Coxwell has vestiges of the past in the Woodgreen Pharmacy, but the pedestrian realm is barren here. Note the brick only faces Queen Street, obviously the higher impact was needed on this street over Coxwell.

 

Slices of Canadiana--Canada Dry, immigration/citizenship, and the streetcar

Slices of Canadiana–Canada Dry, immigration/citizenship, and the streetcar. In the Leslieville area now, the sidewalk is far too narrow for the amount of foot traffic the newer shops and services attract.

 

Queen and Broadview, until recently home to Jilly's adult entertainment. The New Broadview Hotel is currently undergoing a major redevelopment through Streetcar Development

Queen and Broadview, until recently home to Jilly’s adult entertainment and a residential hotel with long-time residents. The New Broadview Hotel, which dates back to 1893, is currently undergoing a major redevelopment through Streetcar Developments. It’s the kind of project that could change the character of this intersection for decades in the future.

 

2014-10-18 13.47.45

“Time is Money. Money is Time.” street art at Queen and Broadview

 

Aaron Knight of Streetcar Developments tells us about the redevelopment opportunities for the space currently devoted to a car dealership (south side of Queen at Munro). Redevelopment will see the space as an extension of the public realm.

Aaron Knight of Streetcar Developments tells us about the redevelopment opportunities for the space currently devoted to a car dealership (south side of Queen at Munro). The redevelopment project Riverside Square will see the space as an extension of the public realm.

 

 

Those of you following my blog have seen some of my recent writing about Dutch culture, as I navigate the murky waters of Amsterdam canals as part of my post-doctoral position at the University of Amsterdam. Today my article on Amsterdam cycling, “A reluctant cyclist in Europe’s cycling capital”, is featured on Spacing Vancouver and also on the main Spacing website. For all the cyclists out there, you’ll probably accuse me of complaining about the conditions of paradise*, but for the rest of you it might be funny**. Check it out: Part 1 of the article appears today, and Part 2 will appear next Monday.

*Sample comment: “Take a tram those days if you don’t like the rain or snow – or buck up – I assure you, you are not made of sugar…This article really does sound like an “unexperienced cyclist” moaning about what most people get used to in a single riding season and learn to deal with.”

**Sample comment: “For cycling to be seen as “normal” in Toronto, we need more “normal” people to commute on “normal” bikes.”

Like many cities in North America, Vancouver is in a love affair with roundabouts. And why not: traffic engineers tell us they improve vehicle safety, increase roadway capacity and efficiency, reduce vehicular delay and emissions, provide traffic-calming effects, and mark community gateways. But hang on…isn’t this just another road design that prioritizes cars over pedestrians and cyclits?

roundabout-labels1

At a roundabout, pedestrians must wait until there is a gap in traffic to cross, placing them at a considerable disadvantage from traditional stop signs and stop lights. There is no designated time for pedestrians to cross, like a walk signal, which means at a busy intersection you can wait several minutes. And there are reasons to fear for pedestrian safety as well.

Studies shows that while the risk of serious vehicle collisions is decreased, this is mainly because they reduce collisions where cars run red lights/stop signs or drivers misjudge the gap in oncoming traffic while turning. The US Access Board, a Federal agency committed to accessible design, writes that “the research findings on pedestrian safety at roundabouts are less clear. There have been relatively few studies, mostly conducted in Europe, concerning pedestrians and roundabouts.” Little is known about the effects of roundabouts on the particular demographic groups, such as the elderly, children, and those with accessibility issues. Many drivers do not yield to pedestrians at crosswalks, and it might be difficult to tell if they plan to yield; as the traffic volume increases, the number of “crossable gaps” decreases.

The design of a roundabout also pushes the crosswalks away from the intersection, creating travel paths that are inconvenient for pedestrians, according to the New Urban News. New Urbanists have been promoting roundabouts for many years as a traffic calming measure, despite any evidence that they increase pedestrian safety.

In England, where roundabouts are commonplace, drivers are reasonably vigilant and yield to pedestrians. Nevertheless, the real advantage of roundabouts is that cars are not required to stop. Drivers generally like them for this reason; it reduces their travel time. But what does this do for pedestrians? It again places them at the bottom of the pecking order, and places them at considerable risk. It also lengthens their travel time considerably, as they must cross several directions of traffic, waiting for gaps each time. Compare this to a regular four-way signalled intersection, where the pedestrian gets a clear walk signal and does not have to determine whether it is safe to cross. In other words, the problem that cars supposedly have at four-way intersections (trying to judge the gap in traffic) is transferred to the pedestrian, who is not encased in steel for protection.

Path 1 shows the pedestrian at risk at four different instances; Path 2 (simply continuing straight through the intersection) shows two instances of risk

Path 1 here shows the pedestrian encountering traffic in two instances; Path 2 shows the pedestrian must cross four lanes of traffic. In all cases, since this is a roundabout, traffic does not stop and pedestrian paths are greatly increased from a traditional four-way signalled intersection.

Interestingly, public opinion on roundabouts is divided. Many drivers I know detest them, and find them difficult and confusing to use. A cab driver recently told me that he hated the new roundabouts in Vancouver, but one friend of mine defended them. She hails from England and says that the problem is simply public education: North American drivers just don’t know how to use roundabouts. When the issue of pedestrian safety is raised, she said, “I see nothing wrong with pedestrians having to wait a few minutes to cross the street. There’s way too much encouragement of pedestrians getting the right of way all the time, even when it’s unsafe.” 

I wonder what experts like Barry Wellar, a retired University of Ottawa professor who studies public safety and testifies at trials where pedestrians and cyclists are injured, thinks about roundabouts. Wellar developed the Pedestrian Safety Index, which some municipalities have been using to evaluate their busiest intersections. Similarly, John Pucher of Rutgers University discusses the many innovations in Europe designed for pedestrian safety, including advanced crossings for pedestrians, scatter crossings, grade-separations and separate pedestrian and cyclist signals. One of Pucher’s main arguments is that pedestrians and cyclists increase in number with increased safety precautions; he also argues that penalties for striking a pedestrian or cyclist are much harsher in Europe.

Surely we should be examining all the different safety aspects of roundabouts if they are to be applied everywhere from quiet residential streets to major intersections such as the one pictured in this article. My guess is the UBC roundabout, which was converted from a signalized intersection last year, will prove treacherous to the pedestrians (many of them seniors) crossing the intersection at 16th and Wesbook Mall to access the new grocery store, community centre, school, and housing in the area. But UBC already has plans for another roundabout, and like many municipalities seems content to let traffic engineers’ reports lead the way. 

The US Access Board makes several suggestions for improving roundabouts for blind pedestrians, including:

  • Landscaping, planters, pedestrian channelization, bollard-and-chain separation, railings, and other architectural features can delineate paths that lead to the crosswalk and prevent or discourage crossing at locations other than the crosswalk; a distinctive edge such as a raised curb
  • Traffic calming measures to ensure vehicles are travelling at low speeds, which influences whether or not they will yield to a pedestrian
  • Raised crossings to discourage vehicle acceleration
  • ‘Smart’ signals that can sense and signal a pedestrian’s presence
  • ‘Splitter’ islands with a detectable surface, which can be used as a pedestrian refuge
  • Public awareness campaigns encouraging drivers to yield to pedestrians

These measures can help counterract some of the pedestrian safety issues associated with roundabouts, but the fundamental question of whether they are advantageous for all transportation modes is not addressed. Pedestrians and cyclists are considerably disadvantaged by roundabouts as compared to traditional street crossings, proving once again that traffic engineers have a tendency to prioritize cars’ needs over non-motorized transportation modes. Hopefully we learn more about roundabouts through research and not pedestrian and cyclist fatalities.