The Evolution of St George

On Thursday April 22, I attended a pre-workshop for the Complete Streets Forum that featured Eric Pedersen (Program Manager, Toronto and East York District, Urban Design, City of Toronto) and John van Nostrand (Principal, Planning Alliance) speaking about the work that was done in 1997 to calm traffic patterns on St George between Bloor and College Streets.  Diving into both the back-end process as well as the design and construction of the street gave some interesting insights into how streets can be guided by psychological rather than mechanical features to create a safer, more accessible and enjoyable street.  Here’s the story of St George and how it has impacted other street transformations in Toronto.

Our Motley Crew treks north...

St George street, between Bloor and College is one of the nicest KM of riding in the city. Passing right through the University of Toronto, the space is often alive with bustling pedestrians, cars, and bikes yet somehow they all seem to be able to move along very amicably, each enjoying their unique perspective of the streestscape. It wasn’t always this way though. St George once looked much like Beverly to the south, minus the bike lanes.

Looking S on Beverly from College

How the road was changed from a 4-lane standard issue city thoroughfare to a complete street was combination circumstance and hardwork.

In 1995, St George Street was up for reconstruction. At the time, the city had yet to be amalgamated and the Public Works committee was ripe with ideas on how to remake the soon-to-be city. St George presented interesting possibilities as well as challenges as it ran right through the university. Most prominent was the debate about whether the area should remain public space or be made de facto private by closing the road, or having gates that would close the road, to traffic at the university’s bidding.

Stone "Gate" added to offset the gates on Bloor and St George

After it was determined that the space would be public, the designers set to work on making a space that would suit the needs of the space. But what were those needs?

Determining to reduce lanes in the mid-90s was no easier, and probably more challenging, than doing so today. An intensive traffic count was undertaken, but instead of using solely the traditional metrics focussing on number of cars per hour, an additional emphasis was placed on the number of hours spent by walkers and cyclists as well as the hours spent by cars. With this measure, it was determined that 70% of the use along St George was by pedestrians and cyclists, yet 80% of the existing infrastructure was aimed at expediting and supporting automotive transport. Not only did this recommend that the existing traffic could be supported by two lanes (realistically, parking was allowed previously, so there were rarely 4 working lanes), but it also allowed the designers to realize that accommodations had to also be made for the many non-motorists in the area.

Bike accommodation? Check.

Rather than swarming the strip with traffic lights and signs governing user behavior along the street, the designers sought to introduce elements that controlled flow by calming and subtly directing traffic.

They used the idea of friction to control automotive speeds. By having parking cut-outs along the west side of the street, as well as bike lanes on both sides, speeds are naturally reduced. In this case, average speeds dropped from 41kph to between 36 and 39kph depending on the time of day. Another way to control these speeds as well as to direct pedestrians to planned, but uncontrolled, crossing areas is the addition of textured crossings at regular intervals.

Textured accents extend from into the street

These textures were also applied to large pedestrian areas along the road to unify the streetscape. Trees were introduces in deep wells, dug among the existing underfoot infrastructure and grass abatements were curved up and away from the street to create more visual greenery and a definite barrier between road and walkway. The reduction in working lanes also allowed the west side of the street to have its walkways expanded to better accomodate bi-directional traffic. The end result is a well integrated street, but not everyone shared the same vision of success.

Convincing stakeholders that these psychological calming measures would be enough to protect university students, support traffic needs, and enhance the neighborhood was not always easy. In fact, every one of the textured crossings along St George is wired for traffic signals…signals that the city at one point planned to add. One streetlight did make it in, at the request of a donor who sponsored a building on the west side of the street. They were concerned that engineering students crossing to the building required some special protection for their street crossing needs. The bills were also steep for the project, coming in at a final $5M for the 1km restructuring. That money included city capital, public works, as well as a rare private donation from the family of Judy Matthews, whose home still stands at the NE corner of St George and Harbord.

Parking and engineering student security in background...another streetlover in the fore

If you’ve not been over to ride on St George, go and check it out and make sure to pay attention to changes still to come. Fiona Chapman, who manages pedestrian projects for the city, mentioned that Willcocks as well as Devonshire Circle are being targeted for test projects which would include seasonal closures of the two streets to motorized traffic. Looking to take the Paintbucket approach recently used in NY, the streets would be adorned with planters, new paint, and street level furnishings inviting passersby to enjoy the street. The possibility of hockey rinks in the winter was also made. It sounded like these projects could start as early as this summer.

Judy Matthew's House

Thursday Morning’s Rides:
iMapMyRide: 2010-04-22 11:40 AM

Since March 20:
Total KM Ridden: 205.97
Total $ Saved: $113

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2 Responses to “The Evolution of St George”

  1. Fiona Chapman Says:

    Nick, A lovely review of the walk – thanks. As well, we had a chance to hear from Andy Wiley-Shwartz of New York at the Complete Streets Forum on the success of their ‘pilot’ pedestrian projects. They focused their messages on enhancing the efficiency of the network and safety – because that is their core business(NYCDOT) and left the articulation of the other benefits (enhanced economic opportunities, reduced emissions, personal and community health) to other agencies and/or advocates.

  2. simplynick416 Says:

    Thank you for the note, Fiona! I had a chance to hear Andy as well and thought his talk was excellent…trying to get around to adding a bit of a recap on the Complete Streets Forum as well as a closer look at how NYCDOT has so successfully collaborated with the community to deliver on great public space in the weeks to come.

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