This Intersection Takes More Than Eight Minutes to Legally Cross and Shows What's Wrong with the Gardiner
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This Intersection Takes More Than Eight Minutes to Legally Cross and Shows What’s Wrong with the Gardiner

The waterfront is a destination, but it's hard to access it with intersections like Spadina and Fort York.


Built in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Gardiner Expressway was built to get motorists in and out of downtown Toronto quickly, and to bypass the growing commercial and cultural centre of Ontario. The waterfront area looked very different in the 1960s; it was a mess of rail lines, warehouses, and grain silos. Consequently, it didn’t seem to matter that an elevated expressway would loom over it, with ramps spilling out to the surface streets. Even in the early 1980s, the Harbourfront was still a gritty place where tourists never strayed unless they were headed to the ferry docks.

Much has changed on the waterfront since then, but for pedestrians intersections under the Gardiner remain uninviting, dangerous, and can take a ridiculously long time to legally cross and access what has been built up to the south of the urban expressway.

Waterfront 7 - bridge path. - 1976
Queens Quay West looking west from between Rees and Spadina, 1976
Toronto Archives Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 126, Item 1

Over 50 years after the Gardiner was built, the city has grown up in spite of the urban highway.

Queen’s Quay, once an industrial service road, now hosts a popular multi-use path, a streetcar route, the Harbourfront Centre, and thriving businesses serving new condominium towers and office buildings. North of the Gardiner, tourist and sports attractions like the CN Tower, Rogers Centre, the Air Canada Centre, Ripley’s Aquarium, and the Roundhouse were built, joining thousands of new residents at CityPlace and office workers and hotel guests on Bremner Boulevard. There are now 18,000 residents living in CityPlace, and even more development is planned.

Yet in between the condo towers, sports venues, and offices, the Gardiner Expressway maintains its hold on the past. Pedestrians are instructed to wait for cars at on-ramps; traffic light cycles are timed to efficiently move cars, no matter how long one must wait to cross Lake Shore Boulevard. And in many places, pedestrians can’t even cross the street legally. With new parks planned for the area, this will likely change; there are several proposals to improve the pedestrian experience here. But in the meantime, getting around on foot is challenging.

Pedestrians instructed to wait for gaps to cross Gardiner on-ramp on Bay Street

Last June, Metro‘s Matt Elliot wrote about the ordeal of crossing Lake Shore Boulevard at Parliament Street. But at Spadina Avenue, getting across the Gardiner Expressway is even worse.

Walking south on the west side of Spadina Avenue at Fort York Boulevard.

Pedestrians walking directly south from the corner of Spadina and Fort York Boulevard (opposite Bremner), intending to reach Queen’s Quay and the Waterfront, find themselves crossing a busy two-lane on-ramp to westbound Lake Shore and the Gardiner, and then a signalized crossing at eastbound Lake Shore and the Spadina off-ramp from the Gardiner. At that point, a sign directs pedestrians to cross on the east side of Spadina. It’s not fun.

Sign tells pedestrians to cross at east side of intersection; pedestrians simply ignore it

The trouble is, there is no way that pedestrians can cross the intersection at this point to reach the east side. To legally cross Spadina, one must return north to the intersection of Spadina and Bremner/Fort York. But then the pedestrian must cross that intersection three times, as pedestrians are prohibited from crossing on the south side of the intersection (to allow unimpeded access to the Gardiner for cars in two left turn lanes during the green cycle).

The corner of Spadina, Fort York and Bremner. Pedestrians are banned from crossing on the south side of the intersection.

Once on the other side of Spadina, walking south, pedestrians have to cross another Gardiner off-ramp, again instructed to wait for a gap. The crossing, for which motorists get priority, is at the end of a tight, blind curve, which makes it especially dangerous for vulnerable road users.

Off-ramp from the Gardiner Expressway to Spadina Avenue

When I attempted this crossing, it took me eight minutes, and 30 seconds to legally cross Spadina Avenue at Lake Shore Boulevard, and I am a younger, able-bodied, healthy adult. It would take many other pedestrians far more time to cross. The first phase of The Bentway (originally known as Under Gardiner) will open next summer, terminating at this corner.

Councillor Joe Cressy (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) is aware of these concerns, and is working to address them.

“CityPlace is growing, and we are working hard to build a complete community with the services and infrastructure that truly makes neighbourhoods liveable, for families, children, older adults and all residents of the area,” Cressy says.

He also acknowledges “…the need to provide full pedestrian crossings at every traffic signal so that walking is a safe and attractive way to get around, and people are encouraged to leave their cars at home.”

There are several changes proposed for lower Spadina:

  • Last year Cressy requested that Transportation Services report to Toronto-East York Community Council on adding a south crosswalk at the corner of Spadina and Bremner/Fort York. But in its report back, Transportation Services opposed a new crosswalk here, citing projected increased delays and longer queues for vehicles.
  • Another proposal involves building a pedestrian bridge located between Bremner and Lake Shore Boulevard. $800,000 in Section 37 funds from the planned condominium development at 23 Spadina Avenue (pending Ontario Municipal Board approval) could be used for this purpose. The bridge would link several parks together, including the Bentway, the Southern Linear Park, Roundhouse Park, and Canoe Landing Park.
  • Finally, at Spadina and Lake Shore, Councillor Cressy’s office has asked Transportation Services for a crosswalk on the west side of the intersection; Councillor Cressy anticipates that this will finally be installed next year as one of several improvements to come before the first phase of the The Bentway opens in July 2017, and a report will come to Council early next year.

These improvements will be welcome, and it is encouraging that the local councillor has been pushing for change. But it’s disappointing that the poor pedestrian experience has been allowed to continue for so long as the city grows around the Gardiner Expressway; it is also disappointing that Transportation Services has been a roadblock, continually putting motor traffic ahead of other road users.