How Joe Mihevc Got Conned On St. Clair [Updated]

[I received a very long response to this item via email which contains enough information that I believe it is worth having alongside the original post here.  I have added it below.]

Back in the dark ages when we had public participation meetings on St. Clair, there was a huge amount of concern about intersection design and curb cuts.  The folks along St. Clair were deeply suspicious, and rightly so.  As I have often written, the road engineers cannot be trusted with anything and need to be wrestled to the ground for the slightest design improvements.

Then, finally, construction started.  I had talked to Councillor Mihevc several times about the need to corral the engineers, and met with him and Jim Teeple, the TTC’s project manager, in the cafe over Loblaw’s one day.  I was assured that Joe had his eyes open and was working hard to minimize the intrusions of the project.

That was when the project stopped at the east ramp into St. Clair West Station.

Then something odd happened.  In the interest of speeding up construction, the work for 2006 was extended west to Vaughan Road.  What we now see is the same ridiculous curb cuts that were in the original TTC plans, and which many had assumed we would be able to fix as part of the detailed design for the section from Bathurst west.

It didn’t happen.  The road folks got their widenings, the community got ridiculously narrow sidewalks, and Joe has turned into an apologist for this outrage.

Now we have to go into detailed design for the next section actually believing that we have a chance to get proper treatment for pedestrians and businesses along the street.

The TTC and Council must insist that roads be designed for people and neighbourhoods, not just for cars.

[The following email was received from Sam F. on November 12.  I have run it without embedded comments so that you get the total story without my interruption.]

Please, please, what were you trying to achieve with this post?

For starters, you write “Back in the dark ages when we had public participation meetings on St. Clair, there was a huge amount of concern about intersection design and curb cuts.”

Yes, that’s true, but there was also lots of concern in “the community” about: transit speed and reliability; excessive congestion; parking; car access from & to side roads (incl. left turns and straight through traffic); car access to stores, businesses & driveways along St. Clair; extra cars on side streets; future development of streetcar service and auto traffic; to name just a few.

For the section from St. Clair West station to Vaughan Rd., you claim that fixes didn’t happen in the final design stage, and that “The road folks got their widenings, the community got ridiculously narrow sidewalks, and Joe has turned into an apologist for this outrage.”

In fact: during the detailed design, the lane widths on St. Clair, at the intersections with Bathurst and with Vaughan, were reduced to the bare minimum of 3 metres or less where things are tight, i.e., where there are left-turn lanes. People worked hard to fine-tune this portion of the plans, making sure that not a centimetre too much was taken from the sidewalks. The engineers were really pushed to the limit on numerous details.

I’ve gone out and measured on my own: I see a total width of about 900 cm for 3 lanes, for the full pavement; or a bit less, depending on where you measure. That total actually includes 3 sets of lane markings (between the lanes, and next to the streetcar curb, equalling perhaps 30 cm in total, which are usually calculated extra instead), and a buffer next to the right-of-way curb (smaller than usual). I don’t know the details, but I think other compromises were also made.

You are wrong: Joe Mihevc (and others working on this) were likely able to squeeze out 50 cm or more of extra sidewalk width. Your post is deeply unfair as a result.

I’ve also taken a look at this area with family and friends (who all live in the neighbourhood!): we believe the resulting sidewalks widths are totally reasonable. And we also have the maturity to realize that, in real life, some compromises have to be made. In addition, we have considered how things will look once the sidewalks are complete, the yellow construction fencing is gone, and the sidewalks at the NW corner of Bathurst & St. Clair are widened again at both sides of the new condo which is being built.

I have compared the resulting sidewalks with other successful and pleasant sidewalk areas in Toronto, and I find the width is fine in comparison, especially considering that the smallest widths are for fairly short stretches next to the left-turn lanes. I think it’s really over-the-top fearmongering to write that these are “ridiculously narrow sidewalks.” Don’t you realize that this creates unrealistic fears in people who have don’t take the time to go out and look for themselves?

As far as I can tell, the minimum sidewalk width along St. Clair in this area will be over 3 metres, and most will be much wider, which is really quite good. It seems the exception will be the north-east corner of St. Clair and Bathurst, where the sidewalk will apparently be 2.5 metres, but that would also be 50 cm wider than it was before the ROW! (I haven’t actually measured that corner yet.) Also, I believe the north-east corner has been zoned for a condo for a long time, which would likely allow for further sidewalk widening when it gets built.

The only way to adjust this even further would have been to remove lanes for straight-through or left-turning traffic. That would seriously impact the studies done during the EA. That’s not something that can happen at the detailed design stage; you would likely need an amendment to the EA (which equals further debate & delay, while the streetcar tracks decay, and money spent on staff time & consultants increases).

Besides, you know full well the concerns of significant portions of “the community” about excessive congestion, side-street infiltration, and vehicle access to/from sidestreets, so that an agreement to remove through or left-turn lanes, especially at this critical location, would be extremely difficult.

It’s oh so easy, and oh so over-simplified, to talk about “the road folks” getting one thing, and “the community” getting shafted with another thing, as you did. It’s so nice and black & white that way, isn’t it? I really don’t care much about car traffic, and I don’t own a car. But my neighbours are also “the community” and while many support the right-of-way, many also drive cars, want left turns, don’t want too much congestion, and/or don’t want too much traffic on side-streets.

For sure, I agree with them at least on the last point. Heck, I want left turn lanes myself as well, so I can use them when I’m on my bike or in a cab.

It is very misleading to suggest that detailed design work could somehow, magically, resolve all the conflicting demands, and make everyone happy (except perhaps those evil “road engineers”). Most ROW opponents would FREAK if major changes (like removing lanes) had been made during the design review. Also, this St. Clair and Bathurst intersection was shown with 3 lanes per direction before the intersections (including the left-turn lane), and with some sidewalk reductions, since early on in the EA. A great number of people submitted comments in favour of the right-of-way alternative during the EA. Why won’t you let this portion of “the community” get the intersection it expects?

Since the beginning of the EA, people have been especially worried about the “barrier” effect of a right-of-way. Where it has been built in Forest Hill, people are having to get used to the fact that roads w/o signals are closed off, with only right-turns allowed in and out. From the beginning of the EA, many people have asked for, and have taken comfort in, the fact that left turns and u-turns will be allowed at almost all signals, as that lets them easily imagine the route they will need to take. And left-turns at the signals allow for more direct trips, with less detouring and pollution on side streets.

For sure, left turns signals can be a problem for streetcars, but that’s one of the compromises that everyone is always asking everyone else to make. Transit signal priority needs to implemented much better than on Spadina, and we should push for that — then left turns don’t need to be a big concern.

It may not be perfect in your view, but car drivers are also forced to make compromises (which I think are reasonable, but many think it’s already too much). They lose a lane of traffic or parking in each direction, depending on the time of day; they will have to contend with more congestion outside of the rush hours; they can’t turn left at many intersections; and a few more items.

Left turn lanes and related “throat widening” are not a simple sop to long-distance car commuters forced upon us by road engineers. It’s also an element of community access, especially in an area where there are a lack of major parallel roads, and a multitude of one-ways streets. It affects not just car drivers, but deliveries and many other things, right down to driving directions you give your uncle who’s coming to visit from out of town, or your Mom who is taking a cab from the airport to your house.

There are exciting plans for huge LRT (& BRT?) networks for the future in Toronto. For sure, elements of the EA and public participation need to be improved. The poorly-researched St. Clair “staff report” from 2001, and Moscoe’s bluster about done deals, both did an amazing amount of damage.

BUT, get real for a second: even the best future plans will require compromises, some of which you won’t like, and the public participation will frequently be messy. But we can’t continue to nit-pick forever about past and future plans. And we can’t afford to endlessly criticize and backstab a councillor who is willing to stick his neck out to vote and fight for what he thinks is right — or at least, the best available choice at the time.

For sure, there will be a detailed design review for the remaining St. Clair project. For sure, it makes sense to

let the current construction finish, so that everyone can see what works and what doesn’t. For sure, let’s get the election behind us first, which will hopefully allow for a more rational debate. (Nobody who was contemplating to vote against Mihevc would have participated in a design review for portions of the ROW that they want to stop. Especially the opponents’ SOS cronies would have revolted against further planning before the election.)

Let’s see, perhaps the further design can be adjusted more than I expected: tweak some more lane widths and intersection geometries, perhaps drop a left-turn here and there, or perhaps even contemplate bigger changes that would require an EA amendment. But for sure, it wouldn’t be easy, and all that isn’t going to be decided just by you, me, Mihevc, and a couple of other transit geeks!

And things don’t have to be permanent. As more people can see and believe in ROWs and a “transit city,” better compromises might be possible. Perhaps there can be less emphasis on turns or on through capacity in the future. Perhaps some sidewalk widths can be restored even on St. Clair, as people learn to depend on the streetcar. (Think of the sidewalk that was recently restored at the NE corner of Bloor and Avenue).

Alternately, as development proceeds along the St. Clair “Avenue” (hopefully at a scale that’s appropriate farther away from the subway stations), perhaps more sidewalks can be restored as part of future development applications.

We also need to try and see things in an international context. Out of personal interest, I’ve seen LRTs and other advanced transit systems in many cities around the world. In many cases, the overall systems are much better than in Toronto. But in most of those cases, all types of compromises had to be made, some which I liked, some which I didn’t like.

In some cases, access is very restricted, and speeds are higher; in other cases, access is less restricted and speeds are lower. Sometimes car traffic is much more constrained, sometimes less so. Sometimes sidewalks are very wide, sometimes they are much narrower than what is planned for St. Clair. And some very narrow sidewalks still provide an excellent pedestrian environment, depending on the shops and destinations, the distances, the side roads, the accessibility by transit, and many other details. Sure, sidewalk width is important, but let’s not reduce the whole debate to the number of square feet of concrete sidewalk.

A few things we can say for sure from this international experience: most of these systems have been improved at a much quicker pace, and with less nit-picking of every planned improvement. There is no one Golden Way to do things right; and if we wait for a Golden Way before we endorse changes, nothing is gonna happen. In fact, if you manage someday to work with your community and your councillor, and to implement a Golden streetcar right-of-way down Broadview, I’ll be sure to come and celebrate.

In the meantime, please don’t endlessly pick at the scabs of our community’s Silver plan; we’re trying to heal from a fractious debate, that was worse for many people than any impacts of construction or the final ROW might be. And we don’t want to lose what is far and away the best plan we’re going to get for now.

Lastly, please don’t just be an apologist for a debate which has been truly outragous and over-the-top at times.

Again, I ask: What were you trying to achieve with this post? It’s 3 days before the election. Are you perhaps a personal friend of John Sewell, and is this a little gift to him (even though you don’t agree with his counter-plan for St. Clair)? Or do you believe that Joe Mihevc will win Ward 21 anyway, and that a good kick in the shins will somehow help for the future? I’m particularly concerned that if Mihevc loses this election (after being so popular in previous elections), it will really reduce the hopes for surface transit improvements and anything else that might be controversial. Councillors will start to avoid such controversies even more. Already the endless debates and mudslinging are scaring away people.

Please don’t immediately post a small portion of this out of context, or issue a point-for-point rebuttal. I ask you: stop to think, at least for a moment. What about my points above? What is your motive? Will your post do any good? If yes, would it do more good if you post it on Tuesday, when people can start thinking about designs again, rather than just about names and elections???

Let’s try to find some positive energy to work together for a better Toronto!

Thanks for your time, Sam

Steve: This was not intended as a gift to John Sewell who I feel is out of touch on this whole issue. However, I do believe that Joe, and pro-transit councillors in general, need to be more publicly aggressive when it comes to the roads versus transit issues.

On both the Spadina and Harbourfront projects, attempts at road widening had to be regularly beaten back to preserve pedestrian facilities. Sometimes we won, sometimes we didn’t. We still don’t have priority signalling at many intersections, almost a decade after the line opened, because they have never been turned on. At some locations, the signals actually slow down the streetcars by forcing them to wait for their own green phase when there is no conflicting traffic, or by giving extremely long green times to conflicting traffic.

Somehow the report on fixing this never quite seems to make it back to the TTC Commissioners who requested it, twice. We may see something in the next month or so, but it’s been a long wait.

As for the detailed design from Vaughan to the portal at Bathurst, why has there been no publicity of this work so that everyone can see what is, or is not being changed? The issue of retaining all of the planned lanes and the EA process shows specifically what is wrong with the process. When I asked about things like street geometry during the EA, I was told “wait for the detailed design, we will fix it then”, but of course by that time it’s too late as your comments show.

Either we get the details right before the EA is approved, or we need a way to make changes afterwards.

The issue of road design, lane widths, etc., has come up in other areas where a suburban design specification is foisted on the city as a new standard. We need to be alert to the impact of this standard on future designs, and ensure that neighbourhoods and Councillors don’t have to fight the same fights over and over again to tame the worst side-effects of transit projects. Councillors must ensure that transit proposals include not just infrastructure but a commitment to good service, and a recognition that there are more pedestrians and transit riders than drivers. It’s a question of who comes first.

I still believe that by advancing the Bathurst to Vaughan segment from 2007 to 2006, an opportunity to challenge the underlying design assumptions was lost, and that is the context for the title of this post.

This must not happen from Vaughan westward. Or are we just supposed to accept everything that is in the “approved” plan as gospel?

4 thoughts on “How Joe Mihevc Got Conned On St. Clair [Updated]

  1. St. Clair likely explains why Miller’s dedicated ROW transit plan will be dead on arrival; you can’t placate all the varied transportation needs within the existing road space on a given corridor. If we think St. Calir was bad think of how negotiating a ROW would be downtown on King or Queen … first of all it would require a 24 hr parking ban, a non-starter anywhere in Toronto (I believe the engineers fought and lost this battle back in the 60s and 70s).

    Steve:  A right-of-way is a non-starter on any 4 lane street for many reasons, and the TTC has pursued a hairbrained scheme for a transit mall on King that is never going to happen.  The problem on King is largely due to non-enforcement of existing parking and stopping bylaws. 

    Even on routes such as Don Mills and Eglinton, I believe there will be a lot of opposition to losing 2 car lanes to to transit ROWs.  I think that in our desire to try to do more with less, we’ve lost site of what transit planners had figured out even a hundred years ago; that higher-order urban transit, to be feasible, needs to mostly be underground (except maybe where you have an existing off-road ROW like Eglinton in Etobicoke or north of Finch).

    My own opinion is that this is because roads and transit serve very different purposes without a lot of overlap, and that deleting one in favour of the other won’t change behaviors; we need both … just in different places.  Toronto should have figured this out after the failure of the Spadina subway to attract much ridership even 35 years after we killed its namesake expressway.

    Steve:  The Spadina Subway’s problem is that it is not in a natural, well-used corridor for transit demand.  Planners make the mistake of thinking that transit traffic flows in the same way as cars on expressways, but these are two completely different phenomena.  Expressways have a natural collection and distribution system with the local roads, and people will go miles out of their way (sometimes rather amusingly to their own detriment) to get to what they think is a faster route.  Transit users have to contend with service quality and its impact on wait times, transfers, crowding, etc., not to mention having a longer walk to the bus stop than motorists to do their garage.

    This will create network design issues for the proposed line in the Finch corridor.  It will be totally dependent on feeder services because people don’t live there.

    As for taking road space for transit, this is one of those “bite the bullet” situations:  there is only so much road space and only so much money.  Roads cannot be widened forever and we cannot afford subways under every major transit corridor in the GTA. 


  2. It’s also worth remembering that in a well-designed corridor, adding a tramway need not necessarily mean losing a full two lanes of traffic.  Because they are guided by their tracks, trams can pass much closer together than buses, so a two-track tramway can be much narrower than two lanes of traffic as long as you don’t try to make it a corridor for buses as well.

    It’s also possible to have a line which interleaves mixed-traffic operation, twin-track right of way, single-track right of way, and underground as appropriate to the particular spot, or (though I don’t know whether this would work in Toronto) build single-track tramways which run in opposite directions on two parallel streets.

    Steve:  I agree particularly on the subject of having a variety of types of operation over the length of a tram/streetcar/LRT line (whatever it is called), and this is one of the great advantages of that technology.  As for trams passing more closely than buses, this is true, provided that you don’t use centre-pole suspension for the overhead system as they are doing on a lot of St. Clair.


  3. Like David and Steve, I wholeheartedly agree that we must be willing to pursue multiple right of way configurations on longer tram routes, allowing the transit corridor to feel appropriately scaled in every neighbourhood it runs through. I should, however point out a slight flaw in the idea of running streetcars too close together on a centre-road right of way: this could cause problems for emergency vehicles, particularly large fire engines trying to squeak past streetcars. Unfortunately, as you mentioned, the TTC’s insistence on using centre poles (which at least add character) on St. Clair already creates a hazard for these vehicles when they are trying to race to an emergency.


  4. So is the plan for the King Street transit mall dead?  I kinda liked the design drawings, very appealing urban design.

    Steve:  Realistically, yes.  The idea of blocking off King from, say, the theatre district all the way to Church to all but TTC vehicles and taxis is not going to get much support especially since major new services into downtown will come not via King, but via Queen’s Quay and other possible connections to Union Station.  Some additional service is needed to deal with population growth, but not so much that we need to kick everyone else off of the street.


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