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Public Works: Building Bridges

Forget the scramble. Would you rather wait for traffic, or walk over it?

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo of Toronto's Lake Shore Boulevard bailey bridge, from the {a href=""}Wikimedia Commons{/a}.

You’ve been there. Stranded afoot on some stretch of traffic disaster, meanwhile right across the street OMG PIZZA NOVA HAS A LARGE PEPPERONI FOR $8.99 and the nearest light is a block and a half away. You either walk to the light and wait like a chump while they run out of pepperoni, or you do a Frogger across the street, putting yourself in mortal danger and risking a jaywalking ticket just to fill your gut with discounted oregano and nitrates.

Of course, it’s 2013, and we should all have jetpacks by now. But since we don’t, another solution is pedestrian bridges.

Take Hong Kong, for example. It’s one of the most densely populated places on the planet, yet many of the most crowded areas of the city are more pedestrian-friendly than downtown Toronto. There are a variety of reasons for this (including a robust and widely used transit system), but it can be attributed, partly, to a maze of pedestrian bridges—or flyovers, as they’re misleadingly called in the U.K.

We’re not talking about scenic bridges that are physically required to allow passage over creeks and ravines. These overpasses are urban, typically existing in addition to—or in place of—traffic lights on the ground, letting pedestrians rise above the mechanized mayhem and cross busy streets without getting plowed over by a right-turning garbage truck.

These bridges can take many different forms, from enclosed walkways between buildings fully kitted out with shops and conveniences, to straightforward outdoor stair-and-bridge arrangements.

A pedestrian bridge in Hong Kong. Photo by {a href=""}wok{/a}, from Flickr.

We have a few examples locally. There’s the Lake Shore Boulevard Bailey Bridge, which is venerable enough to have been given heritage designation. There’s also the much more recent Puente de Luz bridge, which spans the downtown CN tracks and makes CityPlace feel like more of a neighbourhood and less of a penal colony.

But the idea has never really taken off here, probably because the cost/benefit trade-off hasn’t justified spending taxpayer dollars (the Puente de Luz was paid for by CityPlace developer Concord Adex).

Times change. Toronto is no longer New York’s dull country cousin. It’s now the beating heart of a regional megalopolis stretching from Buffalo to Kitchener to Newmarket. Fact. Even lacking the population density of Hong Kong, there are areas of the city where the volume of automotive and foot traffic would warrant bridges: Bloor between Bay and Avenue, Front Street near Union Station, and Yonge and Dundas come to mind.

As with everything in the city, cost will be an issue. (Witness the debate over the on-again, off-again Fort York bridge.) And prices vary enormously, depending on location, style, and use of the bridge. Detailed studies would be important.

Toronto is one of the most liveable, walkable cities in North America, and we want to keep it that way. An idea that encourages walking, reduces crowding at intersections, and that may save lives is probably worth finding a few dollars for.


  • Michael Kolberg

    Ever been to Vegas? It takes forever to cross the street on the convoluted pedestrian bridges. They turn the city into a baby-proofed Disneyland to better herd the meek away from “important” auto traffic.

    I’m all for more pedestrian bridges over the railroad tracks (one from Liberty Village into Exhibition Place near the Go Station would be nice) but when it comes to roads, look both ways and cross the street like a grown up.

    Oh, and cars and trucks need to slow down.

    • Anonymous

      If we could get photo radar and stoplight cameras, it would pay for a subway to Orillia and the moon the way drivers speed in this town.

    • Sean Marshall

      Totally agree. One problem of bridges that’s not pointed out in this article is that the new ones are a pain to climb and descend if they are only accessible by modern ramps, which on the flip side are entirely necessary to be accessible to all users. The new CityPlace bridge could be so much more useful with stairs to complement the ramps. But requiring such ramps (or elevators, for that matter, as I’ve seen in China) requires more space, which we don’t have on our sidewalks.

      The most important point though, is that grade separating pedestrians from street level is usually fior the benefit of motorists and not an urban solution. I would hate to see this on Yonge, Bloor or just about any street in Toronto.

      Though our (busy) railways and freeways certainly can use more pedestrian/bike overpasses, like the brilliant one built over the QEW in Hamilton, or even the 401 pedestrian overpass to Pickering GO Station.

    • vegasvegas

      Well, those are meant to funnel you into the casinos on each corner. They are ostensibly for “crossing the street”, but really for getting lost in the building you inevitably have to walk through to get where you were trying to go.

      So, there’s really no comparison. Totally different intended functions.

  • Marjorie

    I love the overpasses of Hong Kong. But the challenge in Canada, would be to keep such bridges free of ice and snow.

    • Anonymous


      • Anonymous

        Snow doesn’t fall perpendicular to the ground so unless there are also walls this won’t fully solve the problem Marjorie pointed out.

        • Anonymous

          OK, roof + walls.

          • Anonymous

            Now we’ve got a green house in the summer.

          • Anonymous

            Anything with roof and walls is a greenhouse? I think not…

          • Anonymous

            Anything in direct sunlight, similar in size to the bridges used as examples with closed in sides, and with construction materials similar to shipping containers will get very hot unless you suggest these bridges also be air conditioned.

          • Anonymous

            Was that found to be the case with the bridge between the Bay and the Eaton Centre?

          • Anonymous

            Well, don’t use materials like those in shipping containers. Surely it possible to enclose a space without it heating excessively in summer. (Without using A/C).

  • Anonymous

    A flyover in the UK is usually an overpass for vehicles.

  • Mt

    i’d rather jaywalk on most streets, however it might be interesting to think about bridges when we deal with the gardiner. for example, if it’s removed but lake shore blvd remains, a few bridges would really help.

  • Nick

    The Lake Shore Boulevard Bailey Bridge has a heritage designation?! What other pieces of crappy, jury-rigged infrastructure should be also designate as such? Rusty electric bus trolley poles? How about the concrete block breakwaters by Sunnyside? Or wait, what about designating wooden telephone poles as “heritage”? Then Toronto Hydro would never have to replace them. Sheesh.

    • Mike Anderson

      I’m starting to be convinced that if I littered in Cabbagetown, the discarded bottle would have a heritage plaque before it hit the ground.

      • junctionist

        That’s ignorant. Cabbagetown is a heritage conservation district. More things are designated there because the conservation district designation is meant to ensure that the strong heritage character of the neighbourhood isn’t compromised. But that doesn’t mean that trash is designated. The Lake Shore Bailey Bridge is not “crappy” infrastructure though it isn’t that attractive: it’s an example of a historic type of bridge developed in WWII as a tough structure that could be built quickly by British forces.

        • Mike Anderson

          That’s ignorant. Cabbagetown is full of upper-class yuppies. More things are designated there because this is an entertaining and enjoyable pursuit for upper-class yuppies, with euphemisms like “compromising its historical character” deployed disingenuously (what, like the Annex doesn’t have a similar historical character? Little Italy? All those houses we steamrolled to build City Hall in the 60s?) in order to make them feel better about what essentially amounts to calcifying the local property market, boosting their home values, and gentrifying the area to dizzying heights. It’s not upper-class twittery, it’s HISTORY and CULTURE–things which apparantly stop altogether as soon as you leave the precinct.

          • Anonymous

            Somebody’s jealous they can’t afford to live in Cabbagetown. Don’t worry, I am too ;)

          • Mike Anderson

            Actually, I think we’re far too cautious about historical preservation generally: far too much of what is preserved is unremarkable and of little to no architectural or social merit, and has only been listed because someone talked to a councillor about their property values.

            Cabbagetown is just the absolute worst manifestation of this phenomenon. Sometimes it feels like the individual slabs on the sidewalk have been listed for “cultural merit”. (This slab was once walked on by the wife of the city’s first milk inspector! AND NOW IT CAN NEVER EVER BE MODIFIED EVER FOREVER!)

  • Sean Marshall

    Oh, and we do have such pedestrian infrastructure in our most congested precinct – the PATH – but we put it underground and don’t force pedestrians into it.

    • Anonymous

      and we give really bad mapping to make it hard to get around.

  • Mike Anderson

    “Even lacking the population density of Hong Kong, there are areas of the city where the volume of automotive and foot traffic would warrant bridges: Bloor between Bay and Avenue, Front Street near Union Station, and Yonge and Dundas come to mind.”

    Okay, so we’ll just knock out four lanes of traffic on Yonge in order to accommodate the staircases, pylons and elevators, and–oh. wait.

    • Wally

      Sounds good, when can we start?

    • Anonymous

      What intersections and streets like those really could use instead of bridges is underpasses, which they already have to some extent.

  • Paul Kishimoto

    On Facebook, someone pointed out that stairs like those in the top photo are not accessible. Pedestrian bridges on downtown streets certainly wouldn’t be—no room for ramps.

    On the other hand—and unlike the U.S., Australia and other places—we don’t have any kind of national law mandating accessibility ( ), so maybe we just don’t care about the elderly, disabled, parents with strollers, etc. If we did, we’d improve crosswalks.

    • J

      We do – the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.

      • blearghhh

        He said National, so he’s right. But you’re right because it is covered under Provincial legislation. I’m so conflicted.

  • paulmacd

    If these bridges are built, the needs of people with physical disabilities will need to be addressed, such as elevator access.

    • junctionist

      These bridges are hardly necessary. They wouldn’t make it easier for pedestrians to get around considering the need to climb stairs, and they would make streets less attractive. We also have PATH and numerous tunnels that accomplish essentially the same thing. Unless the weather is really nasty (and sometimes even then), I much prefer walking down a real street for the architecture and the more varied activities that take place in real public spaces over PATH’s sterile, shopping mall-like corridors.

  • Anonymous

    You say pedestrian bridges are called “flyovers” in the UK, but that term is reserved for road bridges that pass over other roads. (Especially those at roundabouts – example: )

    (A pedestrian tunnel *under* a road is called a “subway”, just to confuse visitors form this side of the Atlantic)

  • Anonymous

    “It’s now the beating heart of a regional megalopolis stretching from Buffalo to Kitchener to Newmarket”

    And east of ‘the heart’ is a vast stretch of nothingness? You need to get out more often.

  • stopitman

    Humans, like all animals, take the path of least resistance and would still take the level crossing in almost every case. It’s either walk up 1-2 stories worth of stairs every 100m or save time, energy, and effort and cross without it. People jay walk everywhere to cut corners, do you really think they’ll walk up stairs?

    Plus you’ve overlooked the PATH system and it’s smaller cousin along Yonge-Bloor-Bay that already provides a connection to major places and makes your 3 examples moot:

    *Bloor between Bay and Avenue – already has a tunnel system from just west of Bay east to the Marriott at Esquith & Bloor that goes south into the Manulife Tower complex at Bay & Bloor. It connects Bay & Bloor-Yonge stations too.
    *Front Street near Union Station – Probably the most heavily used section of the PATH network, it connects Union Station to RBC Plaza and the greater downtown all the way to north of Yonge & Dundas.
    *Yonge and Dundas – connected to the northern tip of PATH and N/S connections are provided by the subway station.

  • junctionist

    “Toronto is no longer New York’s dull country cousin. It’s now the
    beating heart of a regional megalopolis stretching from Buffalo to
    Kitchener to Newmarket. Fact.”

    I disagree with this somewhat dull characterization. Toronto is better described as the beating heart of the metropolis of a nation stretching from St. John’s to Victoria. It’s Canada’s largest city–the economic and cultural leader. That’s why Toronto isn’t what it was in the past: it’s not a second city that can only manage to politely watch the leading city achieve the greatest things (Montreal until the last decades of the 20th century).

  • Mason Byrne

    Coming from the birth place of “The Denver Scramble” I want to point out that it has never been implemented correctly in this city. The system works beautifully, for pedestrians AND traffic, but only when it’s used the way it was designed, not as a fresh paint on an attempt to whitewash problems.

  • herb

    Seems to be trying to fit a suburban pedestrian ‘solution’ to an urban setting. A solution looking for a problem? What exactly are we trying to solve here? It is one thing to provide a pedestrian overpass on a highway where engineers don’t want to interrupt car traffic with bothersome lights, but a pedestrian overpass downtown? It looks like an ill-fitting, expensive infrastructure that isn’t needed and won’t likely fit wherever the author thinks they might work.

    Pedestrian scrambles, raised intersections do the job just fine for a much smaller price. Given that it’s more dangerous to be a pedestrian in suburbia, let’s concentrate on how to fix those problems instead: high speed traffic and fast turning radii.

  • Wilbeforce

    Systems of elevated walkways, such as Calgary’s +15 kill street life, and mid-block crossing is not illegal in Toronto.

  • Roger B

    Pedestrian bridges over roads are usually built to keep vehicles flowing. Unless it’s a significant barrier like a wide busy freeway or the crossing is convenient (somewhat level) pedestrians tend to avoid them. That’s why Lakeshore Blvd is lined with high fences. It’s ready for the auto race year round.
    It’s even more obvious in China where significant money is being spent to design architecturally interesting pedestrian bridges often with escalators.

    Government has been ripping down tens of thousands of buildings to ram though wide arterials – like recently completed Beecroft Rd and Doris Avenue in North York – but on a much grander scale. In order to keep the large volume of pesky pedestrians from slowing traffic bridges are built in between widely spaced intersections and at traffic lights. Simultaneously barriers go up to stop non-motorist level crossings, similar to Winnipeg’s Portage & Main.