Rethinking Our Streets – The Cannon Oct-2010

My second column of the school year is out as of last week! Take a look if you are interested in urban design, if you are a cyclist, or if you think maybe Toronto’s approach to transportation could be reassessed.

Rethinking Our Streets

Engineering, Politics, and All That Jazz
The Cannon – The Official Newspaper of the University of Toronto Engineering Society
October 2010, Volume XXXIII No.3, p.3

Inspired by the Rethinking Our Streets Symposium
Engaging Engineers in Dialogue to Define Public Policy
See my review of the symposium here.

This is an event organized by Professional Engineers Ontario, the OCEPP (Ontario Centre for Engineering and Public Policy), and Ryerson University, offered to UofT engineering students through the Citizen Engineer club.

OCEPP Getting Engineers into Policy

Toronto has become a world-known urban center. It is Canada’s economic center, as well as its largest city by population, with 2.5 million people residing in the city, and over 5.5 million people in the GTA. Even though our population density has risen steady, our transportation system has stayed about the same since the 70s, and it now lags significantly behind other metropolises around the world.

At the Rethinking Our Streets Symposium on Sept.25, the speakers mentioned that there is a tremendous car culture in Toronto, and this has brought on many undesired consequences for our city. We need to rethink and redesign the transportation aspect of the public sphere, so that we can support the continuing population increase and help Toronto become a more efficient, more responsible, and more effective modern city.

The Problem

Inefficiency – Time

An amazing 70% of Torontonians drive to work, with an average commuting time of 80.0 minutes per day. This is largely due to traffic congestion from commuters in private vehicles, for whom driving is the best option at the moment.
This is not surprising, because driving can be significantly more convenient and timely for an individual compared to taking public transit. Commuting weekly last year, I noticed that travelling from Hwy 7 and Warden Ave. in Markham to Finch Station takes about 30min more by bus than by car. Naturally, like many others, I drove to the station to save time. This phenomenon is a considerable problem, because unless we include more pleasing incentives for individuals toward commuting options that are more collectively efficient, we can only expect the already unnecessarily lengthy commuting times to increase.

Inefficiency – Space

Transportation occupies the largest portion of public space in this city. It is not rare to see six or eight-lane local roads, which are often built to accommodate private vehicles. In a city such as Toronto, these roads take away from the already limited park space, public recreational space, and housing space that we have. Sadly, this inefficient use of space is an effect of our car culture, as passengers occupy much more space than they need by travelling in private vehicles rather than by bike or public transit. The amount of space required by cyclists is approximately 1/8th of that required by the same number of private drivers. Similarly, space that is occupied by a full bus is closer to 1/16th of that occupied by passengers in private vehicles.
We can save a lot of space by choosing to walk, bike, or take public transit

Environmental Damage

Even though not everyone agrees on the impact of automobile waste gases on climate change, we agree that air pollution is undesirable. With the large car culture we have here, little is done to curb our use of fossil fuels. The use of these fuels with motor vehicles release chemicals into the air such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and nitrogen oxides. The negative impact of these chemicals on air quality is considerable, and the cleaner air that we can gain from using more environmental friendly and energy efficient ways to travel will make investments into those ways worthwhile.

Safety Issues

As stated on, “too many of our streets are designed only for speeding cars, or worse, creeping traffic jams.” Very often they are not designed to accommodate other methods of transportation, such as cycling, even though that might be a more effective travelling method in parts of the city such as the downtown core. The few bike lanes we do have seem to have been added as quick bandaid-solutions. For me, biking on a road with cars has always been nerve-wracking, not only because you must move beside such a massive machine in a tiny lane, but because of the offensive attitude of many drivers against cyclists. A road should be designed to provide a safe place to travel using different methods for different people, be it biking, driving, walking, or skating.
Even though there have been initiatives to encourage drivers and cyclists to share the road, some drivers seem very reluctant to share. There seems to be a general attitude, that cyclists travelling on streets without being on a designated bike lane – especially when such a lane does not exist – are in the way. This attitude is much worse in communities where less people walk or bike to their destinations. When living in Markham last year, I found a complete disregard of cyclist safety by multiple drivers, who consistently swerved around me and cut me off as I turned at intersections. I can only imagine that this is due to the drivers having less interaction with cyclists, as well as having less experience on a bike than drivers in areas such as downtown Toronto. This might mean that they do not understand why a cyclists might have different needs and constraints than someone in a car.
The dangers of biking alongside motorized vehicles were visible at the Rethinking Our Streets Symposium. When asked if anyone who occasionally or regularly travels on their bike has been in a collision with an automobile, or has come close to such a collision, more than half of the cyclists in the room responded. This unfortunate safety issue is not helped by extremists against cycling. It is disheartening to know that this year’s leading mayoral candidate – Rob Ford – refers to cyclists as “a pain in the ass” for motorists. He has also stated, “I can’t support bike lanes. Roads are built for buses, cars, and trucks. My heart bleeds when someone gets killed, but it’s their own fault at the end of the day.”
Possible Solutions

Our objective is to create a well oiled, highly efficient, clean and safe system for all travellers, whether they choose to walk, bike, take public transit, or drive. It is not enough at the present to only think about the next step. We need to think and plan backwards, by first imagining the desired final state, then by solving the previous steps one by one. We can modernize our transportation system, and experience the benefits of the change in the following ways:

Efficiency – Time

We can move toward a more efficient transportation system by prioritizing the modes of transportation that make it efficient. We need to offer compelling incentives toward public transportation, so that we can reduce the number of cars on the road, and reduce commuting time wasted in traffic jams for those who still choose to drive. For example, the proposed LRT plan will introduce faster and more accessible options for public transit. This might be a very appealing option to those who currently opt for driving as a faster alternative to TTC.
We can build upon existing successful transportation designs. For example, the Netherlands has built a network of public transportation where you can travel rapidly to just about anywhere via intra- and inter-city trains and railed buses. To encourage its residents to use public transit, the Dutch government introduced taxes which compose 69% of the total price of petrol and 57% of the total price of diesel. Two of the major obstacles with public transit projects in Toronto are acquiring funding, and increasing public use of the transit systems. Both of these obstacles can be resolved by raising taxes on gas and applying those funds obtained by gas taxes toward construction of a better public transit system. Not only would the public transit options become more appealing as they improve, but users will be economically encouraged to use public transit and discouraged from driving private vehicles.

Efficiency – Space

If we are able to encourage more commuters to choose public transit and biking, then we can increase the traffic capacity of the road – which is the number of passengers that can fit in a unit area on the road. With higher traffic capacity, we will need less space for transportation than previously. The space that we no longer need for transportation can then be given back to the public and used for other purposes, such as business, recreation, or housing.


If more people can choose energy efficient methods of travel, then we can reduce the pollutants that we release into the air. A collective effort on making environmentally responsible choices is worthwhile because the cleaner air will benefit everyone.


At the moment streets are designed for automobiles, but that does not mean it should always remain that way. Instead of designing streets for only cars, we should be designing them for people, and that means accommodating different methods of travel that people use, including cycling. Just because a road might be dangerous for non-motorized vehicles at this instant, does not mean that those vehicles should not be allowed to travel on that road. A better solution would be to make those routes safer so that passengers in cars and on bikes can travel safely alongside each other.
What we need is a complete street, such that we “design and operate the entire roadway with all users in mind – including bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and riders, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities” ( Yes, we have a few bike lanes already, but many of them are thin and unsafe. For example, One road in downtown Toronto is classified as having a bike lane, when the bike lane is only about 1ft wide, and half the lane is in the lower section of the curb. This can hardly be considered a safe lane. A real safe bike lane should be smooth and its width should be closer to 2.5ft wide, including a bit of wiggle room, just like the lanes designed for cars. The leaders of Toronto must recognize that they need to provide safe travelling conditions for their residents. Incorporating better and more widespread bike lanes into the public sphere is a good way to start.

Our leaders in policy need to start thinking bigger and more in the long term. If travelling is to become easier for the residents of Toronto, then some drastic changes need to be made. We need to use social and economic incentives to encourage individuals to use public transit, and discourage them from driving private vehicles. We also need to redesign the streets so that they serve all the people, not just those who drive automobiles. The result will be a more effective and responsible transportation system.

Case Study – Downtown Toronto: McCaul St. south of College St.

On McCaul Street, just south of University of Toronto, the road conditions are exceptionally abysmal for cyclists. There is a narrow 2 ft gap between parked cars and moving cars. This space is often too narrow to ride on during rush hour. Even when there are few cars on the road, this strip is hard to ride down. It has a large crack down the center, leaving about 10in of road to manuver on without falling into the streetcar rail or slipping on the crack. Another option is to use the center of the lane, between the streetcar tracks, but this would be a great source of frustration for motorists.

Meanwhile, even though most residents of this area do not drive, there exists space for streetside parking on both sides of the street. We can easily convert one of these lanes to a set of lanes for cyclists. A possible argument against reducing space for streetside parkng is that drivers will not have anywhere to park. This cannot be less true. There are atleast two large multi-level parking lots on McCaul street, and everyday the top level on both parking lots are near empty. There are many students living in the McCaul area, many of whom bike. This is a prime location where we can improve streets for cyclists without reducing the mobility of motorized vehicles.

Some pictures from Netherlands

Many cities in Netherlands have bike lanes that are separated from car lanes by curbs. Some cities have bike lanes on the sidewalk. This makes a lot more sense to me. What doesn’t make sense is putting bike lanes beside busy car lanes without some sort of physical barrier. Cyclists are injured and killed on a regular basis from collisions with automobiles. On the other hand, if cyclists were to ride beside pedestrians instead, then even if a collision occurs, it will unlikely be fatal.

effective bike lane on sidewalk a street with one car lane, and 2 bike lanes. It can fit two cars

Some small roads are paved with bike lanes on either side, and one car lane in the middle. Just in case there are two cars going opposite directions, they can temporarily use the bike lanes to get around each other.


A (VERY AWESOME) bike parking lot beside Amsterdam Centraal train station!

A shopping strip in ChangSha, China

Can Queen St. look like this?


OCEPP (Ontario Centre for Engineering and Public Policy)

Citizen Engineer Club

Toronto overtakes L.A. in gridlock

Toronto – Transit city

The Dutch Pay HOW MUCH for Gas?!

Complete Streets Coalition – Canada

Toronto Subway system

Paris Subway system

Tokyo Subway system

*note that the population of Paris is around 2.2 million, and the population of Toronto’s is around 2.5 million.


The debate shouldn’t be on motorists vs. cyclists, claiming the road for one method and rejecting the other. Our current roads produce much frustration for motorists because their time and energy is wasted on trying to share the same lane with slower cyclists. It also raises safety issues for cyclists which will not be fixed by adding bike lanes that are too narrow, nor by asking cyclists to be licensed and wear a helmet. Unless roads are designed to safely separate bikes from motorized vehicles, drivers and cyclists will continue to be frustrated and the we will see little progress with the motorist vs. cyclist debate.

Share the Road – Cycling Health and Safety: A Review

Smart cycling – Professor Chris Cavacutti on how to stay safe on the roads

VIDEO: Motorists vs. Cyclists

VIDEO: Rob Ford on Bike Lanes:

Five Ways Motorists Can Defuse Road Rage for Cyclists

City of Toronto cycling initiatives:

Smart Motorist – Sharing The Road With Bicycles

1 Comment

  1. October 14, 2010    

    Love the article Kathryn! Thanks for posting and referring to CitEng :)

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