Toronto council backs away from bold decision, deferring vote on whether to reduce traffic lanes on northern stretch of Yonge Street

3:43 p.m., March 27, 2018. Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong illustrates the decision council has to make for Yonge Street using images of Drano and lard.
3:43 p.m., March 27, 2018. Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong illustrates the decision council has to make for Yonge Street using images of Drano and lard.

March 27, 2018

By Arianne Robinson

Toronto council voted to defer the decision to reduce traffic lanes on the northern stretch of Yonge Street from just south of Sheppard Avenue to north of Finch Avenue on Tuesday afternoon, after spending most of the day debating an ongoing study on the issue.

The reason for the deferral was to permit the TTC board to “consider the long-term considerations for surface level buses as well as the overall City/York Region transit planning and report directly to City Council.”

The results of the deferral vote show multiple divides within council on the substantive issue of the environmental assessment that would change the street’s capacity, reducing the number of traffic lanes and adding bikes lanes – and the political risk for council of making the decision ahead of the election.

Some councillors made public their support for Mayor John Tory’s preferred option, some with reasons that had nothing to do with city planning.

“As a child of Regent Park and a child of poverty, I’m keenly aware that fixing the problems facing our city, requires good will and hard work by all,” appointed Councillor Lucy Troisi said.  “Over the past few months my focus has been on my community and their needs. Ideology doesn’t interest me. Solutions do … I have decided to support the mayor’s common sense approach initiative. Mayor Tory has fashioned a solution that incorporates the best of Councillor [John] Filion’s work while respecting the needs of our city.”

Troisi voted against the deferral motion to do more research on the impact of transit.

Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong made all of his comments based on photos of Drano and lard.

“We talk about being congested in this city. When you have a drain that’s stopped up and jammed, what do you do? Do you reach for Drano or do you reach for lard to make it worse. … We have an opportunity actually to build bike lanes right nearby, and give people the opportunity to ride their bikes, and not further congest an important artery… I implore council, for this time, between choosing the lard and making things worse, or choosing the Drano trying to clear up the congestion in this city,” said Minnan-Wong, who did not vote on the deferral item.

City staff told council earlier in the day that the area is the second fastest growing in the city outside the downtown.

Others such as Councillor Josh Matlow brought great passion to their speech from the floor of council.

“If you believe that it is our responsibility to protect the residents of Toronto, we should choose Transform Yonge [the option which reduces car lanes and adds bike lanes]… when you talk about safety, we’re not looking for that magic, balanced, mushy place in the middle, as even I’ve been criticized for before. That’s not going to save lives. Let’s show leadership, let’s show courage, even yes, in an election year. And if we believe in doing the right thing, let’s go out there, and let’s knock on doors, and tell them what we did. Let’s boast about what we did. Let’s be proud of what we did. That we did the right thing, the honest thing, the evidence-based thing that we know will save more lives and prevent, preventable deaths and preventable serious injuries.”

In the end, Matlow, along with Tory, voted to defer the vote.

After the deferral vote, the local councillor for the northern stretch of Yonge Street, John Filion, told reporters there weren’t enough councillors to support reducing traffic lanes on Yonge.

“It wasn’t going to pass, that’s why I supported the deferral,” Filion said. “If there was any chance that it would have passed I certainly wouldn’t have been supporting the deferral.”

Defer vote Yonge

4:30 p.m., March 27, 2018. The vote to defer the decision to reduce the number of traffic lanes on the northern stretch of Yonge Street, in order to consider the long-term implications for buses and transit planning in the region.

Filion was also hopeful that the mayor’s support of the deferral was due in part because Tory might have a change of heart in the future. Asked why the mayor would support pushing the decision to the future, Filion replied, “I think, just, it takes a bit of the heat off… it could also mean [Tory] wants to come at things with a fresh mind next year, so I’ll be optimistic and say it’s that.”

But Tory’s stance on the issue in his comments was clearly against the lanes.

Councillor Joe Cressy asked Tory to acknowledge the changes to the demographics and way of using the streets.

“Changing streets is hard; we’ve been through many of them together. Do you acknowledge that on this stretch of Yonge that there is already an emerging mode shift, that in fact the number of cars using the stretch is already decreased 21% over the last 20 years and that’s continuing?” Cressy asked Tory.

In response, the mayor said, “The facts are the facts, but I also acknowledge the fact that as you have a rapidly growing city, or rapidly growing York region… I also am aware of the fact that our present subway, running in this stretch of Yonge Street, is dramatically overcrowded, that we have other transit projects on the books, that we have other places we can build the bike lanes, which may not be the case everywhere.

“There may be other places where you just don’t have the Beecroft alternative, which to me is so sensible and so safer than Yonge Street, a busy street, which is still going to be a busy street even after, if it was reduced to four lanes… We have an opportunity here to achieve all of the things that we need to achieve and do it in a way that does not disrupt and make worse traffic that is already among the worst in the city.”

The environmental assessment study of the area considers how traffic will move through this northern part of the city and provides council with two primary options to decide the future stretch of the area. One option is to reduce traffic lanes on Yonge Street with the addition of bike lanes, and the other to put protected bike lanes on the neighbouring streets, and leave the traffic on Yonge Street as is.

In the morning session, councillors focused their questions on a few topics: where traffic comes from (mostly from York region); where traffic would be diverted if moved to Bathurst and Bayview (these roads aren’t at full capacity); and how TTC bus routes would be affected (planning city staff said they will be able to address potential problems in the actual design stage).

Tory introduced a motion right before lunch to conduct an immediate safety review on Yonge from Sheppard Avenue to Finch Avenue, and to implement immediate pedestrian safety measures.

Filion questioned the mayor in council chambers before the break.

“Are you aware that every organization in the city and beyond that is interested in pedestrian and cycling safety opposes the Beecroft option and supports Transform?” Filion said, referring to the option to reduce the number of traffic lanes on Yonge to implement wider sidewalks in sections and protected bike lanes.

“I’m aware, through you, Madam Speaker, that there’s been quite a campaign on to have people talk about that,” Tory responded, “but I’m also aware of the fact that, as we will have to with many streets in Toronto, where we won’t be reducing the number of lanes, there are ways in which – and my motion is meant to facilitate that – there are ways in which we can make this street much safer in its present form because this construction, I might add, is not scheduled to begin for some time, nor is this matter budgeted.

“So, while we sort all of that out, there’s plenty of time to make immediate improvements, which I want to see made on Yonge Street,” Tory said.

The mayor’s motion was never voted on because the deferral motion by Cressy ended the debate.