[This is a repost of an article that I originally put together for Torontoist in 2008. Torontoist’s recent redesign seems to have eaten all of the photo galleries in older posts, so I’m adding this one here because it was way too much fun (and work!) to allow it to disappear into the ether.]
Mr. Stickman has the toughest job in Toronto: keeping you safe. In a day’s work, he gets smushed, crushed, beheaded, befingered, mangled, strangled, thrown, blown, ground, and crowned. And unlike the relatively delicate spokesmodels who calmly remind you to mind the gap or use proper escalator technique, Mr. Stickman is willing to give the extra effort and actually demonstrate the consequences of not following the rules. Wherever danger lurks, Mr. Stickman plies his educational trade. He endures every manner of indignity, accident, and disfigurement that you can imagine, all in the hope that you will learn from his painful and sometimes deadly misadventures. What follows is a small sampling of his daily work around Toronto.
In case it wasn’t obvious from my previous two posts about Pottery Road, I should say again that I quite like all of the improvements that the reconstruction project has brought to this important connector. Pottery Road is a historic oddity, one of a small handful of roads that lead directly to the floor of the Don Valley and provide connections to all of the parks, infrastructure, and attractions down there. The only other road access nearby is via Beechwood Drive, which also used to lead to a paper mill. Although car drivers can access alternative routes easily enough, the options for pedestrians and cyclists are too far away to be practical in many cases. So even though Pottery Road has been an absolutely miserable route for pedestrians and cyclists for as long as I can remember, we’ve continued to use it regularly.
So with all the good news covered in my previous posts, what’s the bad news? The main problem with the improvements is that they don’t go far enough. Literally. All of the improved cycling infrastructure and signage ends on the east side of the Don River, with no provision for cyclists between the Lower Don trail and Bayview Avenue. The new cycling facility gets cyclists as far as the trail, but leaves them on their own if they want to continue across the Don River to the Crothers’ Woods trailhead or to Bayview to ride down to the Brick Works or beyond.
There were two main constraints on taking the cycling infrastructure across the river as part of this project. The first is that there’s no room to add separate bike lanes across the bridges, and no money in the budget to continue the trail onto a dedicated pedestrian and cyclist bridge across the river. The second is that the cycling improvements on Pottery Road and at the Lower Don trail were a side-effect of the larger project; although cycling infrastructure was improved, it wasn’t the primary reason for the project. In fact, one city staffer told Ward 29 Bikes that they didn’t really consider Pottery Road to be a viable bike route and they’d rather cyclists use Beechwood Drive to get into the valley. Fortunately, cycling staff was able to get a lot accomplished against what seemed like a fair bit of push back. But despite that, I don’t see why, for example, the sharrows couldn’t have continued at least across the westbound bridge and been painted coming up from Bayview and across the eastbound bridge until a cyclist could get onto the separated path. This would have required a maximum of eight more sharrows to be painted on the road which, frankly, I can’t see as having any financial impact on a $5 million project.
To make matters worse, Bayview was the site of a parallel project that saw a new separated bike path extended and improved from Rosedale Valley Road past the Brickworks and up to Pottery Road. That path along Bayview ends here, at a sidewalk just a few feet short of Pottery Road:
Duncan over at BikingToronto has a pretty good analysis/rant of the problem at this intersection, and I can’t say that I disagree with him. City staff has indicated to 29 Bikes a couple of times that they plan to connect this path to the Pottery Road path and the Lower Don trail, but the timeline has ranged from “maybe next year” to “it’s still in the conceptual stage.” In other words, I’m not holding my breath. But what makes the lack of connection particularly galling is that these two cycling projects, both undertaken at the same time, end less than 200 metres apart (only about 100 metres as the crow flies) and are separated by a wide, newly reconstructed road that could easily accommodate an extra stripe of paint along the sides and a couple of sharrows to safely direct cars and bikes across the bridges. I’m astonished that the two pieces of infrastructure were not connected.
My other concern is with the sharrows in the downbound lane as they reach the Lower Don trail. If you look at the pciture below, a cyclist riding at this point who wants to turn onto the trail has to make a quick 90-degree turn to the left to go southbound or right to go north. The problem here is that cyclists will have to slow down considerably to make the turn in either direction, and there’s a good chance that a speeding car or two will be right behind them.
I know from experience riding down Pottery Road for many years that car drivers do not like to brake once they hit the bottom of the hill. Most are still travelling quite quickly as they approach the bridge here and I’m not sure how well they’ll react to a cyclist in the middle of the lane slowing down to 20 km/h to make a turn off the road. My sense is that most cyclists who are heading for the Don trail will just ride down the path on the side of the road. Only cyclists who are going straight through to the trailhead or Bayview will take the lane on the way down. Which is kind of ironic, considering that the infrastructure ignores their needs past this point.
As I said, I like what’s there, but it just doesn’t go far enough. I’m hoping that at the very least we can get sharrows across the bridges next year, and a dedicated cycling path linking up to Bayview shortly after. I understand that the current condition of the infrastructure here is temporary, but it could still stand to be fixed a bit to make it a little safer. It’s better than what was here before, but it could have been so much more without much additional effort.
The reconstruction fixes a lot of deficiencies, but many cyclists will continue to avoid Pottery Road for the simple inevitable reason that it’s a giant stinking hill that’s a real pain in the thighs to ride up on a bike. The final improvement I’d like to see, and one that I advocated at the Ward 29 Bikes public meeting two and a half years ago, is the addition of a bicycle elevator like the famous Trampe in Norway:
Pottery Road is the only road crossing on the central and lower Don trails from Edwards Gardens at Lawrence and Leslie Avenues all the way down to Lake Shore Boulevard. That’s remarkable if you think about it. Along the way, cyclists share park roadways and paths with motorists and pedestrians as they duck under other streets that are carried over the Don Valley by numerous bridges, ride both under and over various rail lines, and cross the Don River and its tributaries a dozen or more times. As the only road crossing, Pottery Road is worthy of a bit more than the bollard or cattle gate that Toronto typically uses to separate roads from trails. City staff have done an outstanding job of designing the crossing with both safety and aesthetics in mind.
One of the most obvious features is the large upright steel “Pottery Road” sign that guards one end of the pedestrian and cyclist refuge between the two road lanes. The refuge itself has been upgraded and improved significantly. In the old refuge, cyclists would have to look backwards to see oncoming traffic, which was neither convenient nor safe. The new alignment reverses the flow through the refuge so that cyclists are now looking straight ahead to see oncoming traffic. It’s a small change that you don’t even really think about until the first time that you ride through the new refuge. I don’t have measurements, but the new refuge seems roomier than the old, giving more space for passing cyclists and pedestrians.
Conspiciously missing from the paths that approach the refuge are any notices that cyclists must dismount. Given the lack of these signs on this and other recent projects, it looks like the city is finally taking cycling infrastructure design seriously instead of just assuming that everyone who is not in a car is always in the way of everyone who is in a car.
What we get instead of being told to get off our bikes are beautiful (to me, anyway) reminders made from cut steel plate and incorporated into the sides of the refuge:
This level of design is far above the typical Toronto Jersey barrier, which is so drearily common that it could go on our municipal flag. I thought it was curious that the rusty steel design here recalls neither the historic concrete bowstring bridge a few steps away nor the nearby Don Valley Brick Works and Todmorden Mills, but it works anyway and is suitably industrial to reflect the heritage of the sites.
The refuge and road crossing also get another significant improvement, in textured and coloured asphalt to mark the intersection. The blue river-like ripples start on the trail, cross the road into the refuge, and flow out the other side:
The pattern has been cut or laid directly into the asphalt and the colour looks like it’ll last. I’ll keep an eye on it for any fading.
Also seen above is the rebuilt pathway north of Pottery Road. This had been a wide 2-lane road that connected Pottery Road to Beechwood Drive (I even remember my family driving on it once in my youth). In recent years, it was almost always gated closed and used only by trucks dumping loads at the snow dump beside the Don River, park vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians. That snow dump was finally closed two years ago and is now called Cottonwood Flats (PDF). Since there’s no longer any need for heavy equipment to use the road, it’s been converted into a normal park pathway.
If you ask me, the improvements on the Lower Don trail at Pottery Road alone are worth the inconvenience of closing the road for six months. The work here shows a real understanding of cycling safety and an acknowledgement that the Lower Don trail is an important piece of infrastructure.
Drivers are looking forward to Pottery Road re-opening this week after a long and troubled reconstruction. The new road brings improvements for pedestrians and cyclists too, but we’ve been enjoying them for months already. Although the road has remained closed to vehicular traffic between Todmorden Mills and Broadview Avenue since May, pedestrians and cyclists have been able to navigate Pottery Road from top to bottom throughout the project and the main pathway has been all but complete since early September.
The most immediately visible (and likely to be controversial) improvement is the line of sharrows in the middle of the downhill/westbound lane (top and above). They’re meant to indicate that cyclists heading west should take the middle of the lane all the way down the hill past the DVP and that car drivers should wait behind them. Why is this going to be controversial? Because many car drivers will hate and/or not understand having to drive behind bikes, and many cyclists will simply refuse to ride down the middle of the lane with cars behind them. A confident cyclist can travel at least 50-60 km/h down Pottery Road and should have no trouble taking the lane. But I think that this sharrowed lane will see a small minority of Don Valley-bound cyclists, with most instead opting for the path at the side of the road.
The path has been widened considerably and is the preferred option for all cyclists heading up the hill. The widening was accomplished largely by claiming space that had been used for a shoulder, moving the concrete barrier closer to the traffic lane. Before May, cyclists had a bleak choice to make when it came to going uphill: join traffic on the left side of the barrier, which required taking the lane in two places (not easy for most cyclists when plodding up a hill like Pottery Road) or take the pathway, knowing that it was in terrible condition and too narrow to comfortably pass a pedestrian or cyclist heading in the other direction. The new path is in excellent condition and is consistently wide enough for both cyclists and pedestrians travelling in both directions. My only hope is that cyclists who want to bomb down the hill will stick to the traffic lane rather than taking the path.
The path used to disappear where the road goes under the DVP, passable only by determined pedestrians. Cyclists were forced to take the road. The reconstruction has opened up this part of the path with a retaining wall giving lots of room for comfortable passage and allowing cyclists a direct connection to and from the Lower Don trail.
This is the new connection from the pathway to the Lower Don trail heading south, which in turn connects up with the Martin Goodman trail at Lake Shore Boulevard. I’ll have a closer look at this intersection in the next post.
At the top of the hill at Broadview, small arrows painted on the pathway direct cyclists over to the left, where a curb cut takes them into Toronto’s shortest bike lane, running about 3 metres from the curb to the crosswalk. It’s a nice touch that takes cyclists back onto the road with minimal effort while reducing conflict with both pedestrians and motorists.
As far as they go, the reconstruction provides a big step forward for cyclists trying to access the Don Valley via Pottery Road. As someone who rides up and down this street regularly, I’ve already come to appreciate many of the changes, especially the added width of the path and the connection to the Lower Don trail. I’ll address the Lower Don connection and some of the places where the infrastructure could be improved in the next two posts in this series.
I went for a short bike ride through the port lands yesterday, the first time I’ve been down there since the autumn. Unlike most winters, there’s quite a bit of work going on. It’s also a little more challenging than usual to get into the area, as two of the three access roads are closed for bridge repairs.
The single-lane Unwin Ave bridge just west of Leslie is closed to traffic, though pedestrians and cyclists on skinny bikes can still use the narrow pedestrian walkway. The walkway is also just one lane wide, so you better hope that you don’t need to pass someone in the middle. Fortunately, it’s not usually a problem at this time of year. Or any time of year, really.
The decking on one section of the bridge roadway has been pulled up and piled to one side as if the reason for pulling up the deck was more to prevent passage than to make repairs. The channel that the bridge spans was recently blocked off from the lake by a cofferdam and is being drained so that it can be dredged and repaired. It used to be the discharge channel for the Hearn generating station, and will be reused as the discharge channel for the Portlands Engergy Centre. This maintenance should be complete by the end of May. Great White North dragon boats ususally launch from this channel for practices in the Outer Harbour. If all goes according to schedule, they won’t have to portage around the dry channel and the dam.
Farther west on Unwin, construction of the transitional sports fields is underway. Unlike many people who frequent the area, I actually like the idea of having sports fields on Unwin. I think the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation missed an opportunity in constructing these as artificial-turf fields. Natural grass fields would speak a lot more to the environment and sustainability, even if that would have required more site remediation than the TWRC was willing to do. This would be especially significant because these are intended to be temporary fields, lasting about 10 years before being relocated to some permanent location in the port lands. I’m betting that the “temporary” aspect gets lost somewhere between now and then. Otherwise, we’ll have an awful lot of poured concrete to dispose of in a decade.
I also stopped in at my (shuttered for the season) sailing club for to see the winter scenery and noticed that someone at the club next door had cleared out a natural rink on the harbour. Unfortunately, it looked a little melty in the sun, so I didn’t risk a review. But it definitely would have scored a 10 for ambiance.