By Claire Nelischer
North York Centre is growing up. It’s the province’s second-densest Urban Growth Centre and one of Toronto’s fastest growing neighbourhoods. With over 75,000 people and jobs (and counting), North York Centre is second only to Downtown in terms of its scale and growth.
But Yonge Street North, the central spine of North York Centre, is not keeping up. Today, the street is essentially a six-lane highway. It’s riddled with congestion, unsafe and plagued by collisions, and lined with crumbling sidewalks. If North York is to live up to its vision as a vibrant, bustling urban centre where people can live, work, shop, dine, and play, Yonge Street needs a major transformation.
The City’s proposed plan, REimagining Yonge, aims to do just that. The plan recommends a full redesign for Yonge Street from Sheppard to Finch – removing two lanes of traffic to improve pedestrian space, enhance safety, make room for patios, beautify the street, and introduce separated cycle tracks.
The redesign has been extensively studied by City staff is supported by the local Councillor, John Filion, and many area residents. Despite this, the proposal has sparked a big battle. Calls for a more pedestrian-friendly street are pitted against concerns over congestion, and a divisive cars vs. people narrative has once again emerged in our city.
Not about cycling
Central to REimagining Yonge is a whole suite of improvements to transform the street from a six-lane highway into a vibrant, walkable, neighbourhood main street. Reducing one lane of traffic in each direction allows for expanded sidewalks, greenery, and more space for patios. Bike lanes are part of the package, but they aren’t the impetus.
Bowing to concerns over increased congestion, the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee asked City staff to look at options to install cycle tracks to a parallel street – Beecroft – instead. This option would increase costs by about $20 million, and would reconstruct Yonge Street in essentially its current form: with six lanes of vehicle traffic. There would be no additional space for patios on Yonge, only minor expansions to the sidewalks, and minimal streetscape improvements (and a longer construction period, to boot!).
Meanwhile, neither plan would significantly impact congestion – adding between one and two minutes to travel times and reducing speeds by only one to two kilometers per hour (keep in mind that the subway runs beneath the street and surfaces at three stations along this stretch). It’s not really about bike lanes here or bike lanes there – it’s about transforming Yonge from a highway into a neighbourhood main street by reducing the number of vehicle lanes.
The debate over the cycle tracks distracts from the main thrust of the decision: whether to re-design Yonge street for people – residents, workers, and a growing number of visitors – or to lock Yonge Street North into another 50 plus years of being a thoroughfare for commuters and passers-by.
The battle brewing over Yonge North is a sign of the times, as Toronto struggles to change the way we design our streets. We must remember that full road reconstruction happens only once every 50-100 years – Yonge North was last reconstructed in 1975 – making this a generational opportunity. We can’t just maintain the status quo or fall back on how we designed streets in the past.
We need to redesign the Yonge North for future needs, and to reflect the values of the city we want. With all its anticipated growth, North York Centre will look very different in 50 years, and it will need a vibrant, safe, pedestrian- and business-friendly street to help transform it into a true urban centre.
The future of Yonge North – and the quality of life for its residents and workers – shouldn’t come down to the question of bike lanes on Beecroft or bike lanes on Yonge. It shouldn’t come down to a one minute increase in travel times, or a one minute decrease in vehicle speeds. This divisive, cars vs. people thinking doesn’t help us move forward as a city, and certainly doesn’t advance new ideas about how our streets should look, feel, and function.
We need to imagine a brighter future for Yonge Street North that moves beyond bike lanes and towards a bolder vision of who are streets are for: people.