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TTC's St. Clair plan is good - in theory

Nov. 27, 2006. 06:41 AM

There is a better way; but around here it has nothing to do with the TTC.

In classic Toronto style, this city’s transit commission seems unable to distinguish ends from means.

There are many examples but none illustrates its constant confusion more than the St. Clair Ave. right-of-way.

In theory, the idea is a good one. In practice, it will be much less so.

Yes, Toronto needs enhanced public transit, and although subways are the best alternative, we have been told again and again that they are just too expensive for poor little old us.

(Interesting, then, that a city such as Madrid, with about the same population as Toronto, has managed to construct more than 50 kilometres of subway since the late 1990s.)

Then, of course, there’s that little problem of the Sheppard Line, our most recent foray underground, which, as it turned out, was built to please the vanity of our political leaders, not the needs of Torontonians.

Now we have the St. Clair Ave. right-of-way, a modest attempt at improving streetcar service along a major east-west artery that long ago turned into a fiasco. How could this be? Why is it that something as benign and potentially useful has become such a nasty and divisive issue?

True, the residents, especially the merchants, bring a certain NIMBYism to the table. But there’s also the project itself, which many feel isn’t as good as it should be.

Typically, it’s a scheme that no matter how well engineered was poorly designed. The trouble results from a failure to see that the right-of-way must accommodate a series of elements, including the streetcar, vehicular traffic, pedestrians, cyclists, merchants and residents. Even with an unusually wide street— St. Clair is 30.1 metres from edge to edge rather than the typical 20 — compromises must be made.

Therein lies the essence of urbanity. Like automobiles, public transit is a means to an end, namely, mobility, getting from A to B. Streets, on the other hand, are not merely a way of moving from one place to another. They are important, indeed vital, destinations as well as traffic corridors.

There’s no better example than St. Clair of a street that’s both a means and an end. But for that end to have value, it must be served by transit, not the other way around. This means that whatever happens to the St. Clair right-of-way, it should enhance the street and all its users, not just commuters.

Sidewalks, for instance, must be widened and bicycle lanes added for the same reason that streetcars are given priority.

Historically, drivers have been given precedence, their needs considered paramount. St. Clair has been treated as little more than an east-west vehicular thoroughfare. The damage to the street life has been significant; for much of its length St. Clair is degraded and demoralized.

But as the European experience makes clear, streetcars can co-exist with traffic and even pedestrians. Cities in Spain, Portugal and France manage to design transit systems that are fully integrated, that don’t need to slice their way through communities cutting them in half, as would St. Clair. The Spadina streetcar line, an earlier TTC initiative, has improved service but overwhelms the street and divides one side from the other.

As noted Toronto landscape architect Janet Rosenberg points out, “…when you make a decision to put in a streetcar that saves people seven minutes, you also have to give equal balance to the price in terms of the public realm.”

In their 2003 report on the St. Clair right-of-way, Toronto architects James Brown and Kim Storey argued for an approach they called “conciliatory urbanism.”

The idea, they explained, is to achieve a balance between competing demands. They suggested widening sidewalks, narrowing roads but also the use of other means such as advance traffic signals, restricted left turns, bollards, elimination of TTC islands, and lay-by parking.

The TTC plan, with its raised tracks and fractured streetscape, seems most likely to replace one problem with another. It is at best a partial solution. Perhaps it will benefit TTC passengers, but what about the rest of the city?