Completing Our Streets
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Completing Our Streets

The Toronto Centre for Active Transportation is trying to foster visionary goals for improving Canada's public streets.

Yonge Street as it could be, with the removal of two traffic lanes and the inclusion of bike lanes, a widened sidewalk, and cobbled pavement. Image courtesy of Chris Hardwicke and the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation.

Ryan Whitney grew up in a small town in northern Ontario where the streets were designed with cars—and only cars—in mind. The safety of pedestrians and cyclists was an afterthought, subsidiary to ensuring the smooth flow of vehicular traffic. Now living in Toronto and working as a researcher and project manager for the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation (TCAT), Whitney can see some of those small-town planning sensibilities on our big city streets. But problem streets don’t need to be blown up and rebuilt, he says. They only need to be completed.

A “complete street” is one that is safe and accessible for pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, and motorists, irrespective of age or ability. “It’s not something to benefit one user over the other,” Whitney says. “It’s a comprehensive approach that benefits everybody.

“Complete streets can exist in any type of environment,” he adds, because they’re designed contextually and with respect to their surroundings.

The concept has spread rapidly across the United States since the formation of the National Complete Streets Coalition in 2005. In 2009, TCAT and the Toronto Cyclists Union (now Cycle Toronto) teamed up to bring the concept to Toronto. Earlier this year, TCAT produced Complete Streets by Design, an “envisioning exercise,” as Whitney calls it, “that shows what Toronto could be.”

Complete Streets by Design identifies six major types of Toronto street—urban arterial (east-west), urban arterial (north-south), suburban arterial, highway crossing, urban residential, and suburban residential—and shows how all of them might be made “complete.”

Whitney notes that many of the hypothetical changes proposed in Complete Streets by Design are simple and inexpensive. “We wanted to show that complete streets don’t necessarily cost a lot of money,” he says. On Danforth Avenue at Logan Street, for example, a central turning lane is removed in favour of a pair of bike lanes, and the speed limit is reduced by 10 kilometres per hour. On Jane Street at Highway 401, vehicle lanes are narrowed slightly in order to accommodate bike lanes.

Danforth Avenue at Logan Avenue is depicted here with its turning lane removed in favour of bike lanes. Image courtesy of the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation.

But where the completion of a street requires more than a dash of paint and a new set of traffic signs—if, for example, a road needs a tree-lined median strip, a cobbled surface, or traffic-calming curb extensions—Whitney notes that complete streets can be built gradually.

“If you’ve adopted a complete-streets policy, that doesn’t mean that all of a sudden you have to go out and all of your streets have to become complete,” he says. Changing Toronto’s streets, he thinks, could be a gradual process, timed to coincide with scheduled road maintenance. “Whenever there’s an opportunity,” he says, “we need to move forward.”

So far, Toronto has lagged behind. Whereas Montreal has had segregated cycling infrastructure since the 1970s, and Vancouver has dedicated resources to making its key corridors more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly, Toronto has, for the most part, stuck to a “business-as-usual approach to road design,” says Whitney.

“And business-as-usual approaches lead to business-as-usual outcomes,” he adds.

Still, Whiteney sees some cause for hope. He notes that the first step toward completing a city’s streets is to strengthen that city’s policy language. In Toronto’s case, “a lot of the ideas and a lot of the language is definitely [already] there.” But the language could still use some tweaking. When it comes to implementing design policies, he says, “if you have language like ‘might consider,’ then that essentially means ‘no.’”

With Rob Ford as mayor, getting from “maybe” to “definitely” poses a significant challenge. “We’re in a situation where it’s become a left-and-right issue,” Whitney says. “It’s become an urban-and-suburban issue.” The concessions required of drivers to complete some of Toronto’s streets—lane reductions, lane-width reductions, and speed-limit reductions—will certainly make it a cyclist-and-motorist issue as well.

But Whitney insists that it is possible to move past the divisiveness and political polarization that has impeded so much progress in Toronto. He cites the case of Charlotte, North Carolina, where an award-winning complete-streets policy was formally adopted in 2007. “Every single street there goes through the process and it’s no longer a question of left or right. Once it’s established, and once it’s integrated into the culture, it takes it out of the realm of politics and it becomes just the way that municipalities do business.”

This rendering of Seneca Hill Drive includes curb extensions, which discourage speeding by narrowing sight lines. Image courtesy of the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation.

Ideally, Whitney says, what Toronto needs are “visionary politicians who view road design as a balance to serve all users.” But with no such prospects on the immediate horizon, he thinks arguments in favour of complete streets should focus on hard facts and figures. He thinks TCAT’s statistics demonstrate that streetscape improvements can benefit safety and public health.

Community engagement could be an important catalyst for change. “We need citizens to demand that their city is built with all users in mind,” Whitney says. “We need vocal citizens who get out there, talk to their councillors, and get complete streets on the agenda.”