Visiting Lower Bay – Part 2

The good news for fans of Lower Bay piles on. News broke last week that Lower Bay will be open to the public during Doors Open this year. Not only will people who aren’t willing to brave a dash through the tunnels be able to explore the mythical station’s platform, but this could mark a small turning point in the TTC’s relationship with its fans and boosters.

This is certainly the first time in my memory that the TTC has acknowledged that any part of its infrastructure may hold some measure of interest for a lot of people. I’m not aware of any other TTC property that has been open during Doors Open. The Wychwood Car Barns don’t count because the TTC no longer owned or maintained the barns by the time that Doors Open came calling.

The TTC seems to have a bit of a phobia when it comes to interacting with the public. Last summer, photoblogger David Topping set out to take pictures of all 69 TTC stations in 69 days and was almost forced to quit by overzealous TTC employees (scroll halfway down, just past the photo of the Spadina walkway). Saner heads prevailed and he was able to complete the project, but not before getting far more grief from the TTC than necessary.

So based on the admittedly shaky assumption that the TTC is warming toward the public just a little bit, what else could they add to Doors Open? I’d like to suggest that they park a couple of their work cars in Lower Bay. I think it would be a real treat to get a close-up look at some of the subway’s more esoteric cars, the workhorses that enable the rest of the system to run.

Rather than merely idly wishing for it to happen, I’ve used the Doors Open suggestion form to pitch my idea that the Lower Bay opening include some TTC vehicles. If enough people think it’s a good idea, the TTC may eventually be convinced to do it. Even if they don’t do it this year, a multi-year campaign may convince them to do it sometime in the future. Hey, it’s only taken eight years and probably hundreds of requests to get Lower Bay included in Doors Open.

Visiting Lower Bay – Part 1

Like any good Torontonian Rail Fan geek, I took a ride on the TTC’s temporarily re-aligned Bloor-Danforth Subway today to get a look at Lower Bay station. While I won’t say that it was like visiting Nirvana, it was an interesting experience for a couple of reasons.

The primary reason for going was, of course, to see Lower Bay. While many have been there before me, it didn’t disappoint. We were stopped in the station for about 7 minutes while traffic ahead of us cleared and so got a good look at the station. Two things struck me immediately about the platform: the ceilings seemed much higher than in other similar stations, and it seemed very bright and relatively clean. The former no doubt owes thanks to the lack of a dropped false ceiling with metal slats as has become the standard in most other stations. The height difference couldn’t have been more than a foot or so, but it seemed like the platform ceiling was towering over us as we sat on the train. It’s funny how you get so used to small changes over time that the original configuration suddenly seems so foreign.

As for its cleanliness, aside from a caged-in storage area at the eastern end of the platform which my wife called “kind of junky,” the station was remarkably well-kept for an unused space. Or maybe it’s well-kept because it’s an unused space — no giant piles of free newspapers, empty coffee cups, or the general detritus of thousands of city dwellers passing through every day.

People-watching was the other interesting aspect of the trip. I was surprised that the people sharing my subway car seemed roughly split in thirds — one third of them were quite happy to be taking a trip through Lower Bay, another third were a little annoyed by the delay, and the final third were perplexed by the announcement that the train was going south to Museum station and didn’t quite know what to do once dumped onto the platform there. This ratio was roughly maintained in the crowd waiting at Museum for north-, east-, or westbound trains.

I’ll admit that I originally thought this would be an operational disaster for the TTC. When I saw crowds of subway refugees at Broadview and Chester stations yesterday because of the signalling problems on the Bloor-Danforth subway, my worst fears were seemingly confirmed. But what I saw today restored a small portion of my faith in the TTC’s ability to do something right. Considering the potential for trouble in running a variation of the interlining service that they abandoned forty years ago as unworkable, it all went fairly smoothly.

The second-class pedestrian

In a story last week, The Fixer touched on one of my pet peeves: pedestrian signals at intersections that don’t change with the traffic signal unless you press the button. Now I understand that many signals in the city won’t change unless a vehicle is waiting or a pedestrian presses the button. That’s not what’s at issue. The problem here is that when a vehicle is present and causes the light to change, the pedestrian signal doesn’t change to “walk” unless a pedestrian also presses the button. The reverse is not true: if the signal changes in response to a pedestrian pressing the button, both the traffic and pedestrian lights change.

So why not always switch the pedestrian signal with the main traffic signal? Toronto Transportation Services calls these “Semi-Actuated Type 2” (SA2) signals and gives this explanation in their pedestrian FAQ:

Why do some signals, which have pedestrian displays, show a “Don’t Walk” indication even when the signal is green for the side-street (minor road)?
This situation occurs when a vehicle has been detected on the side-street and no pedestrian has pushed the button. This only can occur at locations where the City’s Transportation Staff has installed a Semi-Actuated “Type 2” (SA2) intersection. With this type of operation, a pedestrian must push one of the pedestrian push buttons to receive a “Walk” signal. When a button is pushed, a pedestrian will receive a “Walk” signal with sufficient time to cross the major road. If a button is not pressed and the traffic control signals respond to a vehicle only, a green signal will be displayed along with a “Don’t Walk” indication for pedestrians. The length of this green signal could be considerably shorter than the required walk time for a pedestrian because the length of the green signal is variable, based on the vehicle demand only (as the pedestrian push button was not pressed).

We use this type of operation to maximize the efficiency of the intersection. It serves to minimize delay for the relatively heavier volume of traffic on the major road.

It is the City’s practice to always install pedestrian information signs, which describe this operation at these types of intersections.

“So what’s the big deal?” you ask? Just press the button, right? Well, it’s not always that simple. First, pedestrians don’t always arrive at an intersection in time to press the button. If you’re walking up to an intersection and don’t reach the button before the light changes, you’re stuck waiting for the next cycle. Well, most people aren’t willing to wait and will simply walk across with the green light, even though they’re facing the “don’t walk” hand.

This behaviour raises at least two safety problems. First and foremost, the immediate safety of the pedestrian is at stake. Many drivers, seeing the “don’t walk” pedestrian signal, will simply power ahead with a left or right turn, completely ignoring any pedestrians that may be crossing at the time. I’ve seen this happen many times at my local SA2-signalled intersection.

The second, more insidious, effect of these signals is that they train pedestrians to ignore pedestrian signals. Most pedestrians in Toronto know by now that if they’re looking at a “don’t walk” signal but road traffic travelling in the same direction has a green light, it’s okay to walk across and ignore the big red hand. Unfortunately, this isn’t always true: pedestrian walk signals at many three phase intersections are active for only one phase, and crossing at any other time is a genuine hazard. It can be difficult for a pedestrian to tell whether a “don’t walk” signal is “legitimate” or not.

It’s one thing to bellyache about a problem, and quite another to propose reasonable alternatives. So here are two easy solutions:

  1. Allow a pedestrian to light up the walk signal by pressing the button after the traffic light has changed to green. Yes, this will extend the cycle by a few seconds, but it will greatly enhance safety. And it will only slow the cycle if a pedestrian is actually present. I noticed on a trip there last summer that many signals in San Francisco behaved like this.
  2. Failing that, just program the SA2 signals to always flip the pedestrian signal along with the main signal and forget about the few seconds potentially saved by shortening the cycle for vehicles only. The efficiency lost will be more than offset by the elimination of confusion for both motorists and pedestrians.

Above all, Transportation Services must remember than pedestrians are traffic too. Just because we’re walking doesn’t mean that we aren’t in just as big a rush to get from A to B as someone in a car.

Rink Review: Withrow Park

Toronto’s outdoor public rinks have suffered in recent years. Cutbacks mean that most rinks no longer have a dedicated Zamboni, instead having to share one that gets moved from rink to rink throughout the day. The result of this is that many rinks are only flooded once or twice a day, which can make the ice quality highly dependent on whether you’re skating one or twenty hours after the last ice resurfacing. Withrow falls into this category, but the rink is so little-used for most of the day that the ice is usually in good shape.

The first thing that makes the Withrow rink notable is the general absence of other skaters. I’ve been to Withrow for leisure skating a couple of times this year and have been the only person on the ice each time. The ice is a little busier evenings and on weekends, but there’s still an awful lot of room for each skater.

The second thing you’ll notice at the rink is its location in the middle of one of the east end’s busier dog parks. One end of the rink overlooks the main off-leash area that features an overwhelming array of dogs (and owners/walkers) of all descriptions who arrive, play, and leave in well-coordinated hourly shifts. It’s quite the spectacle to watch.

The standard-issue change room is nothing to write home about, and there’s a small bank of lockers near the door. The washroom is typical of other public washrooms in the Toronto park system — you may or may not get soap, paper towels, or hot water. There are no vending machines or other services inside the rink’s support building. The park clubhouse a couple of hundred metres north of the rink is usually much cleaner.

Withrow Park rink information:

  • Facility type: Outdoor artificial rink.
  • Public skating hours: Various; see page 8 of the Toronto South District skating guide (pdf).
  • Public skating cost: Free
  • Accessibility: A small step down to the ice surface and one up into the change room. Narrow doorways.
  • Public transit: 72 Pape bus (any branch) south from Pape station to Wroxeter; walk one block west to the park; or walk west on Danforth from Pape station, then south on Carlaw to the rink.
  • Parking: Local on-street, paid lots on Pape north and south of Danforth.
  • Lockers: Yes ($0.25).
  • Change rooms: Yes.
  • Washrooms: Yes.
  • Skate rental: No.
  • On-site services: None.
  • Nearby services / after-skate meal / snacks: The Riverdale Perk cafe is a block southwest of the rink at Logan and Withrow. The many restaurants and shops of the Danforth are within a 5-10 minute walk.

On a scale of 1-10:

  • Crowding: 9
  • Ice surface: 6
  • Ambiance: 7
  • Cleanliness (washrooms, change rooms, etc.): 5
  • Ease of getting there: 7
  • Overall: 7

A congestion charge in Toronto?

I just finished watching the worst kind of call-in show, CityOnLine on Citytv. Call-in shows in general provide somewhat questionable entertainment, and often present such a skewed perception of reality that they are even more questionable as sources of information. Today’s show about imposing a downtown congestion charge on vehicles like London‘s was no exception.

The impetus for the show seemed to be a story in today’s Star that Councillor Brian Ashton is going to London to get more information about the effects (both good and bad) the charge has had on that city. There was no indication in the story that Toronto would (or could) implement a similar toll any time in the near future, nor how high a potential Toronto toll would be — Ashton is just gathering information on the subject, not drafting a by-law.

Of course, the show’s host, Ann Rohmer, directed the discussion throughout the half-hour as though council was already pressing ahead with this, and that the toll would be $20/day. She and her guest, Faye Lyons of the CAA never really suggested any possibility that a Toronto charge could be lower than that (or higher!) or even work entirely differently from London’s flat rate once-a-day charge. Naturally, our congestion charge would have to be at least as high as London’s if we’re going to be considered a World Class City.

The callers, predictably, were dead-set against the idea. Most (though not all) callers were from outside Toronto and generally echoed two themes: 1) $20/day was way too expensive, and 2) they hated coming into the city because it was so expensive, too difficult to find parking, and too frustrating to get anywhere because traffic was so bad. None of the callers seemed to make the mental connection between their complaints about traffic and the very problem that the city needs to address.

Also predictably, Lyons was against the toll too. Imagine that, the Canadian Automobile Association against something that may affect their free-wheeling ways. Shocking! While I don’t fault Lyons for presenting her organization’s point of view, I do fault Citytv for not having someone with an opposing view on the panel. And that’s the real prolem with call-in shows: too often they have someone advocating one half of a contentious debate with no one there to rebut them. And let’s face it, the call-in demographic isn’t exactly known for its non-knee-jerkability.

It’s precisely this kind of simple-minded, lopsided presentation that poisons debates and stifles political will to do anything. It becomes so fixed in people’s minds that “wacko proposal X” == “end of civilization as we know it” that politicians aren’t even willing to discuss anything that could even be remotely interpreted as addressing the problem in a useful way. Instead, we end up with half-measures and platitudes that end up solving nothing.

I’m willing to bet that tomorrow’s Toronto Sun front page and/or main editorial will rail against this “cash grab” by Toronto’s “car-hating” council, further eroding the debate among people who don’t take the time to think that their actions may have consequences. It’s entirely possible for intelligent people to disagree, and I respect alternative viewpoints on virtually any issue, but I object to debate by shouting and fear-mongering, which is what proponents of business as usual frequently resort to. To be fair, proponents of change also frequently resort to FUD and name-calling, invoking the end of the world and referring to opponents as “dinosaurs” or worse.

Back to the show. One caller from Oshawa said that he was last in the city to see the Lion King (which closed over three years ago) and another $20 on top of his $350 theatre excursion would keep him from visiting the city as often. I’m not sure how much more infrequent his visits could get. Another complained it was already so expensive to drive in from Mississauga, find parking on King Street, take a cab to the Hummingbird Centre, watch a show, cab back to the parking lot, and drive back to Mississauga. Could I suggest to both of these callers that it would be better, for both their wallets and the city, if they parked their cars at a suburban GO lot and took the train into the city?

I can live with the obvious bias toward a particular viewpoint built into today’s show, but it was made almost laughable when Rohmer asked Lyons to expound the intricacies of such topics as tax impacts on businesses, quality of life for condo owners, the London economy, Toronto’s international reputation, and doctors’ incomes. Naturally, as a PR person for an automobile association, she was fully qualified to answer these questions as the expert witness of the half hour.

In discussing the potential impact of a London-like toll, both Rohmer and Lyons either didn’t say or didn’t know that London’s toll is 90% reduced for people who live within the congestion zone. This would have been an important point to discuss during the hand-wringing about the impact of a charge on people who live within the zone. But hey, why place information and reason in the way of the spitting-mad fury of callers? It’s about good TV. Entertainment. And a reasoned debate is not good TV.

Anyway, when they totalled up the calls at the end of the show, about 1300 of 1400 poll respondents said they wouldn’t pay $20/day to drive into downtown. Which is kind of the point behind a congestion charge, isn’t it?

Citytv’s mangling of the debate aside, a congestion charge does present an interesting problem for Toronto. Unlike London, we don’t currently have the transit infrastructure to handle an increased load of commuters. GO and the subway are pretty much at capacity during peak hours and we don’t have enough streetcars and buses to significantly increase capacity there either.

A congestion charge could help fund new transit expenditures, but we’d need to have the increased service in place before we impose a toll so that people will have a real choice about how to get into the city. Unfortunately, I don’t think that our esteemed council would be willing to make a real investment in transit without the revenue to pay for it up front. Toronto council doesn’t seem to subscribe to the belief that you have to spend money to make money. A more appropriate tagline for our council would be, “you have to spend money to spend money, and spending money is not allowed.” In short, there’s probably no political will within Toronto to allow a congestion charge to work properly. Hell, there isn’t even enough political will to paint a few bike lanes on the road.

But what if somehow, the political will emerges? How should the toll be implemented? I think it’s clear that a flat rate of $20/day is way too high for Toronto. World-class aspirations aside, Toronto is not London. It’s also unfair to charge someone who pops downtown for ten minutes to pick up a radio the same amount as a courier who drives around the core all day long. The Sunday Star had a good article about a local company that has developed an alternative to a flat rate system like London’s. It can work more like the hated but well used and very profitable 407 electronic toll highway, with charges based on distance driven and time spent in the congestion zone. It would provide a fairer distribution of the cost than a simple flat rate does.

There’s also the question of what exactly constitutes “downtown” or “the core” of the city, where the charge would apply. At a block away from Broadview & Danforth, I consider myself to live outside the core, in the East End. But virtually everyone I know who lives north of Lawrence or east of Victoria Park says that I live downtown, and I’ve stopped correcting them. People clearly have different ideas of where “downtown” stops in this city. Most people in my neighbourhood would bristle at the suggestions that we live downtown and that we should be within the congestion zone. But Danforth Ave and its commuting alternatives are at least as gridlocked as any streets further downtown and would benefit immensely from better traffic management. I, for one, think that my area should be included in the zone.

So if all the pieces fall into place and Toronto implements a congestion charge, how should it happen? Off the top of my head, I think it should be a multi-phase process over the course of two or three years:

  1. Decide clearly whether you expect this measure to be a revenue-generating or quality-of-life issue. It should be the latter. In fact, the goal should be to collect as little money from as few drivers as possible while tolls direct the majority of people onto transit, foot, or bike.
  2. Spend real money to quickly build up surface transit, GO, and the subway (in that order) to handle increased passenger loads. In particular, the province should start running GO in both directions on all lines all day long. It may be inefficient at first, but it’s really the only way to build sustainable demand on these lines.
  3. Implement and enforce transit priority all day long on all downtown surface routes. If this means delaying left-turning cars on Spadina or hiring more police officers to hand out tickets to drivers flouting the Bay or King transit lanes, so be it.
  4. Implement tolls in the city centre first. Give drivers a choice of buying a transponder to get a more fine-grained charge based on their actual time/distance in the zone or paying a higher daily flat rate whenever they cross into the zone. This would accommodate both daily and infrequent visitors.
  5. Expand the toll zone section by section, with fees set appropriately for each area.
  6. Look into demand pricing — set a higher toll during peak hours and lower it when demand for road space isn’t as high.
  7. Re-evaluate the program and adjust it as necessary.

I think that would give us a good start down the road to a sustainable city. With any luck, increased reliance of more people on the TTC and GO will create the political will to spend more money on those services. And that’s got to be a good thing.

Rink Review: East York Memorial Arena

Leisure skating hours at this indoor public rink on the northeast corner of Cosburn & Cedarvale Avenues in East York are rather anemic — just two hours a week, 11:30 am – 1:30 pm on Sundays. It’s a shame, because the facility provides a high-quality full-sized skating surface without a huge number of people crowding the ice.

The rink isn’t as crowded as many of the higher-profile sites in the city, and the ice was in very good condition for our visit there. Unfortunately, we discovered that the on-site pro shop and skate sharpening booth were closed during the public skating hours, so we had to make do with our semi-dull blades. The rink and facility are both very clean and well-maintained. Many indoor arenas are built with all the ambiance of a bunker, and the East York Memorial Arena was no excpetion. But a mid-90s renovation really opened up the entrance and added a lot of space and light to the public areas of the arena, making it feel very comfortable and inviting.

As at most public rinks, the leisure skates are supervised by barely-interested teenagers who don’t really pay too much attention to what anyone is doing. A couple of kids were roughhousing a bit on the ice, getting in the way of some of the other skaters, and none of the three skate supervisors did anything. I don’t even think they noticed.

East York Memorial Arena information:

  • Facility type: Indoor arena.
  • Public skating hours: Sundays, 11:30 am – 1:30 pm.
  • Public skating cost: Free
  • Accessibility: The facility is barrier-free, but there’s a small step down to the ice surface.
  • Public transit: 87 Cosburn (any branch) from Main Street or Broadview Stations to Cedarvale Ave; or 91 Woodbine (any branch) north from Woodbine Station to Cosburn, then walk one block east to the Arena.
  • Parking: A small on-site lot, local on-street, and another large lot one block north.
  • Lockers: No.
  • Change rooms: Yes.
  • Washrooms: Yes.
  • Skate rental: No.
  • On-site services: Snack bar, pro shop, skate sharpening (the pro shop and skate sharpening seem to be closed during the public skating hours).
  • Nearby services / after-skate meal / snacks: The East York Curling Club is kitty-corner from the Arena on the south side of Cosburn and has a quick-service restaurant and licensed bar. There are a handful of convenience stores and restaurants on Woodbine Ave. nearby, but you’ll probably want to go down to Danforth Ave. to get any real selection. There’s also a short restaurant strip about 1.5 km west of the Arena on Cosburn, just across from Dieppe Park.

On a scale of 1-10:

  • Crowding: 6
  • Ice surface: 7
  • Ambiance: 7
  • Cleanliness (washrooms, change rooms, etc.): 7
  • Ease of getting there: 7
  • Overall: 7

A mission statement of sorts

Actually, it seems that it’s the second blog entry that’s the difficult one.

One of the reasons that I’ve resisted starting a blog for so long — aside from sheer laziness, of course — is that I’ve seen far too many get bogged down in the mundane details of the author’s life and I wanted to be sure my own site could avoid that fate. The various incarnations of my web site over the last 13 years have been notable for their near-complete lack of detail about me and my life. I’d like to continue that tradition, so if you catch me writing about what I had for dinner last night or how fascinating I find the squirrels in my backyard, you have my permission to give me 30 lashes with a wet noodle.

That said, I intend this blog to be about all aspects of life in and around Toronto, with a focus on the city as experienced on foot and by bike. I realize that I’m not breaking any new ground here — there are at least a jillion Toronto-centric blogs — but I hope to be able to bring a slightly different perspective to this very broad topic.

Like most new bloggers, I have a handful of issues that I’d like to concentrate on. Either you’ll see the patterns starting to emerge over the next few weeks, or you’ll see the blog sporadically updated with short meaningless entries before I abandon it entirely. Your guess is as good as mine at this point.