Public bike repair stands

I was riding downtown a couple of weeks ago and decided to pop my bike up on one of the newly installed public bike repair stands to give it a quick once over:

Old Faithful on a public bike repair stand.

Each of the three stands downtown (plus one more on the university campus) includes a full set of tools for most basic on-the-go repairs and adjustments:

Tools available at the public bike repair stand.

The stands even feature bike repair videos and tips, via a QR code that links to a helpful website.

QR code for bike maintenance instructions on the public repair stand.This is the kind of cycling infrastructure that I love: it’s incredibly useful for both casual and seasoned riders and just sits unobtrusively in the background until it’s needed. The only thing missing from the stand is a pump, which is probably the one tool that would be used the most. Susan Sauvé, a transportation planner at the city, told me via email that pumps were originally included with the stands when they were installed in July, but they all broke within a week. The city currently has more durable pumps on order from the manufacturer and hopes to re-install them soon.

My bike checked out fine on this occasion, but I definitely could have used one of these stands when my pedal broke near Grange Park last year and I needed to conduct some emergency repairs before finishing my commute. It’s good to know that if it happened again today, I’d be just a short 163 km ride away from this stand at the corner of George and Simcoe Streets in downtown Peterborough. The two other downtown Peterborough locations would be a smidge closer, and the one at Trent University a bit farther. The stands were installed this summer through a partnership of the City of Peterborough and B!ke, a local DIY bike repair shop. Oh, you didn’t think these were in Toronto, did you? Doncha know there’s a war on the car here? The last thing we want to do is make things easier for those dastardly bikers.

Pedestrian crossing

Pedestrian crossing in a field

Surely my eyes deceive me, but is that a signed and signalled pedestrian crossing in the middle of an overgrown farmer’s field? I’ve got to check this out.


Pedestrian crossing in a field

Maybe I’m not so blind after all. That really does seem to be a pedestrian signal. I must get closer.


Pedestrian crossing in a field

Yep, that’s definitely one of Mr. Stickman’s genteel cousins showing me the way across. But across what? What the hell is he doing out standing in this field in the middle of nowhere?

Pedestrian crossing in a field

Sheesh. I know I often complain about bad pedestrian infrastructure, but this is ridiculous.

Still, I’d love to see simple signals like this across tracks in Toronto instead of huge pedestrian overpasses that turn a 10-second crossing into a 3-minute climb.



Where do the wires go?


Hydro wires to nowhere

Ever wonder what’s at the other end of the hydro lines that come into your house? Well, I traced this set from my house back to their origin—behind a fence guarded by a No Trespassing sign, at the end of a gated gravel road at the edge of a secluded ravine—only to discover that they aren’t wires at all, but are just ropes that are tied around a pole and pooled haphazardly at the base. So if this is where the hydro lines go, where does the power come from? No wonder they put the ropes up on such tall poles: it’s so that you can’t tell what they really are. This investigation seems like a job for Geraldo Rivera.

Hydro wires are a hoax!

No, I will not obey my signal

Dumb pedestrian signal

Dumb pedestrian signal

It’s hard to believe that in 2012, the City of Toronto persists in installing new pedestrian signals on sidewalks across the top of T-intersections. This one, installed as part of the signalization earlier this year of the intersection of Laird and Esandar Drives in Leaside, has also been noted by the Fixer for its perplexing lights that face the two quiet driveways at the top of the T.

It’s not the waste of money or phony “war on” anything that bothers me here, it’s the fact that such a useless signal represents the current standard for pedestrian infrastructure in 2012. City planners and traffic engineers hear me now: a pedestrian on a sidewalk always has the right of way over any kind of traffic that crosses that sidewalk. Period. A vehicle coming out of a driveway should never have the right of way over a pedestrian on the sidewalk.

As for the “pedestrians obey your signals” sign, here’s a hint for the City: any time you feel obligated to put up a sign or signal, and then another sign instructing people to obey the first one, you’re doing it wrong.

(A similar signal installation was noted by Vic Gedris back in 2007.)

This is why Toronto can’t have nice things

Poorly placed bollards on the Lower Don path at Pottery Road

Holes for new bollards were cut into the middle of the asphalt ripple pattern on the Lower Don trail.

Less than two months after the upgraded Pottery Road crossing of the Lower Don trail was officially opened to a single rave review (as far as I know, I’m the only one who cared enough to review it), the city had already taken a knife to the artistic blue asphalt ripples to install a couple of bollards to prevent unauthorized vehicular access to the mixed-use path. I don’t have a problem with the bollards themselves, but would it have killed the installation crew to move them forward or backward a couple of feet and place them on the plain black asphalt instead of cutting into the middle of the embedded pattern? And did they have to make the same poor placement choice on the paths on both the north and south sides of Pottery Road? Anticipating the need for bollards during the main work would have allowed them to be installed without having to cut an ugly square patch out of freshly laid asphalt. Even looking at it now, I’m not really sure why the cuts were necessary.

This is such a small detail in the context of the much larger Pottery Road reconstruction that it probably didn’t merit any specific design other than someone jabbing a finger at a drawing roughly where each bollard should go and someone else going down to Bollards R Us to pick up a pair of the current preferred model. I can’t imagine that there was any real requirement to place the bollards exactly where they did, nor that moving them a little bit would create a problem of any kind or cause them to be any less effective. So if there are no drawbacks, why wouldn’t you install them in a way that doesn’t degrade something unique that’s already there? And while this particular incident isn’t really worth getting too worked up about, the carelessness shown here is depressing only because it’s so endemic to public works in Toronto that overcoming it seems impossible.

(Yes, this is my seventh post about the Pottery Road reconstruction. Will it be the last? Probably. At least until next month.)

Toronto Rink Report 2007

Spring doesn’t seem in any particular rush to arrive so let’s take a final look back at the state of outdoor skating in this town. The city’s Parks and Environment Committee recently received an extensive review (PDF) of its outdoor skating rinks from the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), the research arm of the Friends of Dufferin Grove Park. The paper casts an unflattering spotlight on the state of management of the city’s rinks, condemning everything from staffing and policy to signage and maintenance.

Although the problem rinks discussed in the report are rarely identified by name, they sound suspiciously like my two neighbourhood rinks in Riverdale Park and Withrow Park. Mind you, I’m sure that most rinks in the city suffer the same problems.

On the positive side, CELOS mentions that Toronto operates more outdoor artificial ice rinks than any city in the world. Rather than having one or two large central rinks, we scatter ours throughout the city’s neighbourhoods. It’s one of the small touches that makes Toronto unique.

The report provides interesting reading for people who skate — or refuse to — at their local rinks. Although it contains many common-sense and inexpensive recommendations, I anticipate resistance at council. I’m sure that at least a few councillors will interpret this report as “we have problems with many of our rinks, therefore we should close several and concentrate on running just a few.”

(Related: I reviewed some of the rinks I skated at this past winter. See the Rink Review category for the posts.)

Toronto: Transit City?

The TTC released its Transit City plan yesterday, to a predictable mix of hope and FUD (video) from the usual suspects. I freely admit that I’m no TTC expert, nor am I artistically inclined enough to offer alternative fantasy maps. Even most of my comments on the specifics of this plan would simply echo what’s available elsewhere, so I won’t add my voice to the cacophony. But I do have some preliminary thoughts on Transit City.

First, despite the upcoming hysterics of the naysayers — which will no doubt include my own city councillor and notable small-thinker Case Ootes — this plan is easily achievable if accompanied by some political will. Keen transit advocates are right that subways are just not practical or affordable for blanketing the city with transit and that LRT is the way to go. Will this network be expensive? Yes. But unlike the expense of, say, the Sheppard subway or the Spadina subway extension to Vaughan Corporate Centre, it will also be extensive.

Money and political issues aside, the two biggest threats to the success of this plan are internal: the city’s transportation department and the TTC itself. The TTC has become notorious in recent years for managing service quite poorly. In particular, they seem to focus too much on easily-graphed and ineffective internal performance targets rather than real-world performance from the customer’s perspective. This singlemindedness absolutely must change.

As for the transportation department, they have to be forced to give the TTC true signal priority along all of these routes. No ifs, ands, or buts. No half-baked priority like they’ve implemented down Spadina. Cars should always stop for an LRT; an LRT should never stop for cars.

Simply put, the city’s directive to the traffic managers should be that a TTC vehicle on a dedicated ROW should only need to stop when picking up or dropping off passengers. If an LRT vehicle is approaching an intersection, the lights should change in its favour, even if that means cutting short the cycle for intersecting traffic. Even if it means preventing cars from turning left until the LRT has passed. Even if it means stranding pedestrians at a traffic island. To be a true transit city, we have to stop treating the TTC in general, and surface routes in particular, like some kind of transportation backwater.

Although a lot of reports are labelling Transit City as more dream or fantasy than realistic plan, I hope that the Transit City network is only the beginning. The details aren’t set in stone and will be quibbled over for years to come, even as construction proceeds. But we finally have a real and achievable vision for a city-wide rapid transit system. We shouldn’t let this one slip away.

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.