Public RealmUrban Development

Change afoot on Downtown Yonge

Busy intersection full of people

Downtown Yonge is the epicentre of Toronto’s growth and change, with rising condo towers, increasing office employment, shifting retail patterns and a growing student population. But the street itself hasn’t kept up with the times. Downtown Yonge Street today looks much as it did 50 years ago: four vehicle lanes flanked by narrow sidewalks with little greenery and few places to stop and linger.

The City’s recently launched yongeTOmorrow study is looking to change that, and welcome Yonge Street into the future. Spurred by the need to replace decades-old pipes beneath the street, this long-awaited study will determine a new street-level redesign for Yonge from Queen to College. By improving the pedestrian environment and public realm, the study aims to better reflect how people are living, working and moving around Downtown Yonge today.

Because it’s our Living Room

Ryerson CBI has been actively engaged in conversations around the future of Downtown Yonge Street for years. Our interest stems from our role in the Ryerson community and our location just steps away from Yonge, as well as our research focus on vibrant streets and public realm design.

Promo trailer for our #YongeLove Meetup

In 2016 we convened a major public event with over 250 people on redesigning Yonge Street and later we hosted walking tours to explore its potential. We’ve conducted research on Yonge Street’s future as a great street, and Ryerson Associate Professor, Zhixi Zhuang led research on a CBI report last year that examined how a re-designed Yonge Street could benefit the Ryerson campus and community. And we’ve produced videos to bring these ideas to life.

Above: CBI’s #YongeLove MeetUp, February 2016, and Ryerson Associate Professor Zhixi Zhuang leading CBI’s walking tour of Yonge Street.

Needless to say, we’re excited that the City’s study process is getting off the ground, and we’re looking forward to the first public drop-in event, taking place this Thursday, May 9. At this event, the public will have the opportunity to view the City’s “Long List” of design alternatives for Downtown Yonge — from the obligatory “do nothing” scenario, all the way to full pedestrianization, and everything in between. Feedback on the Long List will help City staff narrow the options down to a handful for further refinement and consideration.

Last month, CBI made a formal submission to the yongeTOmorrow process in which we outlined our preference for a “people-first” approach to the redesign. Here, we take a look at the proposed options and highlight some themes to consider when rethinking how Yonge Street should look, feel and function.

Put People First

It’s encouraging to see a number of of pedestrian-priority and fully-pedestrian options included in the Long List; CBI is on board with redesigns that dramatically reduce or eliminate vehicular travel along Downtown Yonge Street.

Two car-free options from the yongeTOmorrow EA Long List of Alternatives

Consider the existing conditions in the area that lay the groundwork for a pedestrianized Yonge Street from Shuter to Gerrard:

  • Rapid growth, with a 73% increase in population and 43% increase in employment (1996-2016)
  • More development expected, with 8,500+ proposed condo units in the pipeline
  • Very high pedestrian volumes, accounting for 50-75% of all traffic on Yonge Street
  • Relatively low vehicle volumes, compared to nearby north-south streets
  • Optimal access to rapid transit, in particular the Line 1 subway with stations at Dundas, College and Shuter that could serve a fully pedestrian segment from Shuter to Gerrard
  • No on-street parking on Yonge, meaning that no parking would need to be removed (a contentious issue for many street redesigns)
  • Limited left and right turns for vehicles travelling on Yonge, meaning that additional turn restrictions or limits to connections with east-west streets would not significantly impact road operations (another contentious issue for many street redesigns)
  • A diverse mix of surrounding uses, including institutional, residential, retail and office
  • A major destination for festivals, entertainment and tourism

Given this context, a pedestrian-priority Yonge Street would serve the needs of the area’s growing population of residents, students, workers and visitors by providing expanded sidewalk space, a beautiful and welcoming public realm, opportunities for patios and new public spaces, and a safe and lively pedestrian environment to support area local businesses. The Yonge TOmorrow EA presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to introduce a pedestrianized space on Toronto’s main street.

Meet the Needs of Business

Diverse stakeholders — retailers small and large , institutional reps and residents — have voiced support for reducing vehicular traffic and implementing a pedestrian-first redesign on Yonge. But even those who are supportive voice a key concern: how to accommodate access for businesses and users along Yonge (including deliveries, drop-offs, and waste management) in the context of a pedestrian-priority redesign.

Two flexible options from the yongeTOmorrow EA Long List of Alternatives

To ensure that the access needs of local businesses and residents are met, flexibility should be incorporated into any redesign for Yonge Street, particularly one that is fully pedestrianized. Some options to offer flexibility could include:

  • Timed access restrictions to allow for loading and deliveries (i.e. delivery vehicles permitted in pedestrian spaces in the early morning or late evenings)
  • Pooling of deliveries and waste pick-ups into centralized locations
  • Alternative access routes, utilizing existing laneways
  • Dedicated passenger pick-up and loading areas and taxi stands

Creative operational and design strategies like these could ease access challenges associated with pedestrian-priority and pedestrian-only alternatives.

Pick a Priority

We at CBI have been vocal in our support for safe, separated cycling infrastructure throughout the city, including on other portions of Yonge Street. We advocated for the “Transform Yonge” option for the REimagining Yonge Environmental Assessment, which includes fully separated cycling infrastructure from Sheppard to Finch. We believe similar separated cycling facilities should be installed along the majority of Yonge Street (and on many other corridors throughout the city).

However with limited space on the street, a redesigned Yonge will involve making difficult tradeoffs. The priority to allow pedestrians to enjoy a fully-pedestrianized space along this stretch of Yonge, free from traffic, is at odds with the goal to allow cyclists to travel safely and efficiently through the corridor to their destinations. Mixing these two modes in a pedestrian-priority environment could lead to potential conflicts between pedestrians and cyclists, or require cyclists to slow down so much that it would negate the benefits of direct and efficient movement typically afforded by a dedicated cycling facility. And beyond that, with limited space in the right-of-way, incorporating cycling infrastructure into a pedestrian-priority or a fully-pedestrianized portion of Downtown Yonge Street would not only limit dedicated space for pedestrians, public realm and streetscape elements, planting and cafe patios, but would also limit the potential for this space to be used for special events and gatherings like festivals and parades.

Two options incorporating cycling facilities on parallel streets, from the yongeTOmorrow EA Long List of Alternatives

There is high demand for expanded pedestrian space on Yonge Street. And there is also great potential for safe cycling infrastructure on nearby Church or Bay corridors. If Yonge is transformed into a pedestrian-priority space, dedicated cycling facilities should be included on adjacent streets.  

You can find out more about the yongeTOmorrow public consultation process on the City’s dedicated webpage, and view the full Long List of Alternatives here. Images of design options sourced from: https://www.toronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/97f9-PPFA_PCU_FINAL_BOARDS_Yonge-St-v8.0-compressed.pdf