Front Street Redesign Open House (Updated)

The display panels from the Front Street Redesign Project Open House are now available online at the project website.  Here is an overview together with my comments.

The introduction at page 4 shows the overall process and also reveals a major flaw.  We have reached the point of selecting a “preferred alternative” on which all future detailed design and discussion will be based, but I am not convinced that only a single option should be carried forward.  I am quite certain that feedback from many regular users of this area — pedestrians, businesses, transportation service operators, cyclists, even a few motorists — will suggest that more than one option has its advantages.  At this point, we don’t have enough information to pick one, and doing so risks compromising the project’s credibility when it comes before the new, 2011 Council for further approvals.

The objectives listed on page 6 include:

  • Accommodate increased development and passenger growth associated with Union Station, and …
  • Prioritize the role of pedestrian activity.

However, as we will see later, much analysis reflects the need to accommodate auto traffic even though pedestrian volumes will more than double in coming decades.  The premise should be turned on its head — what design is needed to handle the pedestrians, and what, if anything, is left over for other uses.  Some quite attractive pedestrian areas from other cities are shown on page 7, but these are notably devoid of traffic on anywhere near the level now on Front Street.

The urban design template shows the general layout common to many of the design proposals.  Access at the York/Front and Bay/Front intersections is limited to a pair of lanes, and the pedestrian areas are greatly expanded.  A large mid-block crossing is added in front of Union Station, and this area is, similarly, narrowed to a pair of lanes.

The design alternatives explore many combinations of changes and their implications for the street.  Among the variations between them are:

  • Whether the existing median, which is impassible in parts, is retained in whole, in part or removed.
  • Whether there will be a median at all, and how it would function including the option of it being a taxi lay-by or a pedestrian refuge.
  • How much space will be allocated for taxi stands.
  • Whether cab/pickup space will share road lanes, or be intended into the pedestrian space.
  • Whether and by how much the pedestrian spaces at intersections will be expanded.
  • How wide the mid-block crossing will be in front of Union Station (2 or 4 lanes) and how pedestrians will be funnelled through this crossing.
  • Whether the street will operate effectively as a two-lane road and, if so, whether it will handle through or only local traffic, and whether it should be one-way or two-way.  A one-lane, one-way version is also presented for comparison.
  • Whether the space should be converted to a pedestrian plaza with only local access at either end.
  • Whether and how bike lanes would be included.

A mind-numbingly dense comparison of alternatives appears on page 17 of the presentation (page 6 of this set of images).  What is quite striking about this is the degree to which “traffic operations” are an important determinant.  Completely missing in the discussion is the question of whether it will be possible to operate the street for anything other than pickup/dropoff traffic at Union Station once pedestrian volumes double (or more) current values.  This is not a question of engineering “green time”, but of having such an overwhelming volume of pedestrians in an area already rampant with J-walking that traffic would be effectively blocked during peak periods.

One issue in the overall design that is not mentioned is that the Union Station project foresees an additional cabstand on the south side of the station at Union Plaza.  This area is open now, but the access from Union Station is well-hidden by the Via Panorama Lounge which has not yet relocated to the West Wing.  You can reach Union Plaza by going through what appears to be the “paid area” to GO Transit’s southern-most platforms.  This will bring you out behind the Air Canada Centre and the new Telus building at the east end of Bremner Boulevard.

The preferred alternative 2B is a two-way design with a centre median smaller than what is now present, and with taxi lay-bys in the eastern and western thirds of the block.  The mid-block pedestrian crossings would be arranged (and barricaded) so that they occurred directly opposite the main doors of the Great Hall.  Functionally, the eastern one would get the greater traffic as this lines up with a heavily used walking path between the Royal York Hotel and the Royal Bank tower.  Sidewalk space is almost doubled.

A review of technical issues includes observations of current behaviour of pedestrain and road traffic on Front Street, and projections of changes in traffic over time.  As I said before, no allowance is made in these projections for the effect of doubling the pedestrian traffic that will interfere with vehicles.

Pedestrian issues are mentioned in a review of midblock crossings on Bay and York Streets.  Most regular users of Union Station will know that there is a strong demand to cross Bay directly at the eastern exit of the station from the GO concourse to reach the bus terminal across the street, or simply to get to the east sidewalk.  The Front Street study will look at options for providing formal crossings on Bay and York south of the existing signalled crossings at Front.

Next steps include refinement of the preferred option, another public information centre in December and a report to Council in mid-2011.  The project team is soliciting comments by July 27, 2010, and contact details appear on the Next Steps page.

Related projects in the downtown area include the Union Station reconstruction and “dig down”, the TTC Union Station expansion, the Northwest PATH link from Union up to Wellington Street, and other changes to Bay, York and John Streets.

As I said at the beginning, I believe that selection of a single preferred alternative at this time is premature especially because the interactions of pedestrians and other road users, allowing for future GO Transit and TTC ridership projections, have not been considered properly.  Some options can fairly easily be taken off of the table now, but I doubt that everyone will be particularly happy with only one design going forward.

Improve the traffic modelling, cut down the options to a digestible number, and then repeat the review.  Yes, this will delay the project, but in the end we could have something that is better understood and accepted.  The worst outcome would be to have a new Council breathing fire about the “war on the car” trying to ignore that some parts of downtown will be taken over by pedestrians no matter what they do.

If the whole project stops because of such short-sighted behaviour, encouraged by unhappy residents and businesses (see St. Clair project for a comparison), we will have wasted more time than we “saved” by pushing ahead.

The original post from July 2 follows below:

One of the lesser-known aspects of the City of Toronto’s Union Station project is the plan to redesign Front Street between Bay and York.  Preliminary work on this scheme has been underway for some time, and there will be a Public Information Centre on Monday, July 5.  Here is the City’s notice:

The City of Toronto is doing a study of potential changes to Front Street West at Union Station, and we would like to hear from you.

The City is hosting the first Public Information Centre (PIC) event for this project:

  • Date: Monday, July 5, 2010
  • Time: 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
  • Location: Union Station, Main Floor, West Side (towards the Skywalk)

At this event you can see draft drawings of a new design for Front Street at Union Station (known as a “Preliminary Preferred Alternative” within the Environmental Assessment study process).

Changes being considered for Front Street at Union Station include:

  • designing a grand civic plaza
  • creating a mid-block pedestrian crossing
  • improving the intersections and widening sidewalks
  • considering changes to traffic lanes and the layout of taxi stands and pick-up/drop-off areas

At the July 5 PIC you can view information panels, speak with members of the project team and provide your input in to the study.

You can download a PDF of the public notice and background information here.

Further details about the study are available on the project web page.

We also invite you to join the discussion on the project Facebook group.

Materials from the PIC will be posted on the project web page shortly following the event.

We look forward to hearing from you!

8 thoughts on “Front Street Redesign Open House (Updated)

  1. What on earth is a government body doing using a commercial blog/website (Facebook)? This is an unfortunate, but implicit endorsement of a commercial entity for government work. Doubtless, the city is big enough to have use of plenty of its own servers to do this kind of work.

    Surely, this is unacceptable practice/policy for a government, even a city government.

    Steve: Facebook and other social media have become a new way for government agencies to reach out to established groups of people in a way that they cannot using inhouse systems. It is not practical for individual agencies, even the size of the City of Toronto, to attempt to maintain its own social networking system and expect people to become members there. This would result in a plethora of interlocking memberships among many agency-based systems and would defeat the very advantage of a common system like Facebook. It would be like trying to establish your own telephone company and expecting that everyone would subscribe to it.

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  2. One of the things I like about this blog is that there’s no registration required. I think this means that more people post, especially ones that are particularly impacted by a single topic (for example, the comments about the second exits).

    I don’t have a Facebook account, nor am I interested in getting one. Therefore, I will assume — until it’s shown clearly to the contrary — that there’s probably nothing much of interest discussed on a Facebook group.

    Steve: At this point, the Facebook group has only a handful of members, but it will probably grow once it has been publicized. The whole idea is to provide as many avenues for feedback as possible.

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  3. Re: Trevor… The government uses goods and servcies from private companies to achieve their aims… the only “endorsement” is that associated with the choice of a given company. The idea that this counts as an official governmental enorsement of Facebook is silly.

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  4. I suppose I’ll be able to find out tomorrow, but does the mention of “creating a mid-block pedestrian crossing” on the flyer mean that they’ve backed away from making the whole area into a woonerf-style shared street area?

    (Did I just imagine that was on the cards in the first place?)

    Steve: I don’t think a woonerf was ever in the cards here. The big problem is that the primary flow of people on the surface out of Union is to travel north in the space between the Royal York and the RBC tower. To do this, they walk across Front Street. I will be interested to see what the proposed solution to this problem might be.

    An important component in all of this is the creation of a new cabstand south of the station (via the currently well-hidden south exit that takes you out to Union Plaza between the ACC and the Telus building). The intent is to segregate people with luggage (primarily VIA travellers) from the GO passengers on the north side of the building, and in the process recapture some sidewalk and roadway capacity.

    We shall see tomorrow what the preferred design looks like.

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  5. It’s not just the metrics that are faulty, it’s also the scope. The study should look at all the streets around Union, not just Front. There is much more of a situation on Bay St, especially when the ACC lets out. Once the Union renovation is complete, all the new Bay St. teamways will make this pedestrian flood a daily occurrence. Add to that the larger streetcar loop. My alternative:

    – make Front one-way eastbound from York to Yonge, 2 lanes in front of Union, 3 lanes east of Bay
    – at a minimum, change Bay to 2 lanes from Front to LakeShore using just the eastern half of the rail underpass. Ultimately though, I would make this whole section a pedestrian mall which would be near the middle of an expanded trainshed

    Back to Front St. Why the infatuation of this project with a mid-block crossing? There is nothing over there but the Royal York wall? Unless they elbow past the bellhops to Piper St., people will still be going to either York or Bay.

    Steve: I agree that an eastbound-only 2-lane Front Street is the best solution. Anything else invites all sorts of problems and has the additional traffic management issue of an almost ceaseless bidirectional flow of cars.

    The mid-block crossing opposite the east door of Union makes sense because it is already a very busy crossing point. The west crossing seems to be more a question of symmetry than usefulness.

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  6. Another major public project, another preferred alternative that omits any reference at all to cycling. How does this alternative square with the increased cycling use in the area thanks to the expanded bike lockers and upcoming Bixi bike share system? Union Station will soon become a key mode change point for transit users to pick up short-term bike rentals and travel into the heart of downtown. Was this completely overlooked, or do pedestrians cease to matter as soon as they’ve hopped on a bicycle? The bike traffic will completely overwhelm the number of taxi users, but the taxi stand is somehow in the top three design requirements.

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  7. @JT – if they’re smart, they won’t site Bixi stands right at the station. You just end up with empty racks once the morning commute commences, and full racks with nowhere to drop a bike off in the afternoon. The scheme works best when its use is multi-directional, with bikes in circulation throughout the day. It’s been a problem in various places, most recently London, which didn’t locate bike stands right at the rail stations for this very reason.

    Good general post on the topic here (in addition to loads in the UK press):
    http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2010/08/18/can-bike-sharing-work-in-cities-with-monofunctional-job-centers/

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