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Dear 2015: Toronto’s Transit Tipping Point

This post is written as part of an Oct. 6, 2015, group blogging event, co-hosted by Meeting of the Minds and Morris Strategy Group, with the prompt, “The year is 2050. Write a letter to the people of 2015 describing what your city is like, and give them advice on the next 35 years.” Based in Toronto, coauthor Bryan Jones, OALA, CSLA, LEED AP, leads HOK’s planning practice in Canada. Coauthor Jordan Lambie, CNU-A, LEED AP, is an urban designer in HOK’s Toronto office.

union-station-food-market-sean-marshall640Image credit: Flickr user Sean Marshall

Dear Torontonians of 2015:

You may not realize it, but, with the clogged sidewalks, streets and highways, this year marked a transit tipping point for our city. Citizens began demanding a comprehensive, multimodal transportation network. As support for public transit continues to rise, it will create political motivation for new financing across all levels of government. With this newfound financial support and political capital, Toronto will begin to benefit from the diversity of a multimodal transit infrastructure and its positive impact on the urban form.

Your current financial limitations have led to urban planning policies that focus density along corridors of existing but already overtaxed underground transit systems. This financial model has relied on what has been built rather than triggering investments in new public transportation infrastructure.

As a result of these policies, property values have increased in traditionally affordable areas, densities have risen without adequate open spaces and social services have been centralized with increasingly limited community reach.

For a short-term solution to alleviate congestion, light-rail transit (LRT) systems were built along corridors outside the city’s core. Rather than contributing to the vibrancy of neighbourhoods, however, these systems often bisected streetscapes, adding noise and creating safety risks for pedestrians. As a result, the city began to refocus on expanding the subway system with several new lines, including a downtown relief line.

Thanks to the Toronto City Council’s commitment to a long-term transit plan, a comprehensive underground transit system was planned, designed and developed in record time. By drastically reducing the number of automobile trips across the city, the renewed focus on underground transit has enabled the public realm to primarily serve the needs of pedestrians and cyclists.

This strategy led to many other positive benefits for our city:

Highly connected and sustainable neighbourhoods

Toronto’s focus on mid-rise structures in the early 2010s had a profound impact on future city-building efforts. In the 2020s, this approach evolved from building only along avenues to constructing entire mid-rise neighbourhood blocks and centres. By creating more modest densities across the whole city, a critical mass of transit ridership emerged, improving the sustainability of the underground transit system by reducing congestion points.

As transit infrastructure and investment began to reach each neighbourhood, a more equitable citywide real estate market emerged, generating modest increases in land values. The resulting increase in confidence among homebuyers and investors helped stabilize the market.

goettingenmarktplatzoct06640A pedestrian street blended into an urban plaza in Münden, Germany, represents neighbourhood centres in 2050 Toronto. Image credit: Wikipedia user Daniel Schwen

Pedestrian-focused streets

Toronto’s impressive population growth and refocus on underground transit have compelled planners and designers to rethink and redefine the function of streets. Pedestrian areas are designed around transit stations in mid-rise neighbourhood centres. Arterial roads with spacious, tree-lined sidewalks and dedicated bicycle lanes connect the neighbourhoods, while internal blocks become pedestrian-focused activity centres. These internal streets eliminate space dedicated to the automobile, now only open to emergency and service vehicles, enabling shops, businesses and cultural centres to spill out into the streets, bringing vibrancy and distinct character to neighbourhoods.

The reduction in automobile usage has also enabled the city to invest in a more comprehensive cycling infrastructure, including cycle-only thoroughfares, dedicated lanes, bicycle bridges and amenities such as bicycle storage facilities and service stations.

A more human-scale and sustainable neighbourhood form has emerged.

Improved connectivity to parks and open spaces

Pedestrian-focused streets better connect parks and open spaces by incorporating elements of their character. This dynamic street experience seamlessly connects many types of open spaces, including vibrant and active urban plazas, quiet points of reflection and relaxation, and places to play for all citizens.

Payoffs from your investment in transit

The city you always dreamed about is just around the corner. Though city-building takes generations, your investments in transit infrastructure and the innovative ways that you are tailoring the built form around transit will prove vital to our city’s long-term success as an international destination of choice.


Toronto 2050

We invite you to join the conversation or comment on this post on Twitter, using #Dear2015 and tagging @HOKNetwork.