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What Cities Can Learn From Greater Toronto’s Transit-Oriented Development
Toronto's Streetcar

An icon of Toronto, the city’s streetcar not only provides mobility within the urban core, but also integrates with regional transport to ensure transport access to residents on the periphery, as well. Photo by superherb/Flickr.

While there are many inspiring examples of walkable, transit-oriented cities in Europe, there’s also plenty to learn from Canada. For example, with the extraordinary help of Jane Jacobs and other leaders, Toronto has been able to successfully keep expressways out of its historic urban core. Beyond that, leaders have also focused on expanding transit connectivity beyond the city center and into suburban communities.

Thanks to strong leadership and long-term vision, Greater Toronto managed to both build a compact, mixed-use urban hub and expand transit connectivity across the region.

Building on a Vibrant Urban Core

Spadina Avenue is a remarkable example of a complete street, with dedicated lanes for its vintage streetcars, spacious sidewalks, bike lanes, and slow traffic. Passing through the city’s lively university district, it is lined by a continuous stretch of shops, cafes, and restaurants, making it a vibrant place. King Street, similarly, has bike lanes and the city’s iconic streetcar, but the lack of segregated bike lanes makes bike commuting slightly precarious. Fortunately for safety advocates, the average speed on the street is just 7-10 km/hr.

Along the lake, there is bustling construction activity as the city advances its ambitious waterfront redevelopment project. New condominiums are sprouting up along the refurbished Light Rail line, which will have segregated tracks and a large amount of public spaces. With good access to a range of mobility options, Toronto is demonstrating exemplary transit-oriented development (TOD) on the edge of its dense core.

Bringing Bus Rapid Transit to the Suburbs

York—a rapidly growing suburb north of Toronto—is another great example of advancing TOD around bus rapid transit (BRT). The city has plans to build 80 kilometers of rapid transit using buses, and will invest in 20 kilometers of light rail development. The project, called VIVANext, is becoming a standard for good quality BRT in North America. The main line has dedicated median lanes and high quality stations, and buses are large and comfortable. The York Rapid Transit Corporation, with the support of the Government of Ontario, is in the first phase of its ambitious plan.

This project is not just a transit network. It’s about developing complete streets with good sidewalks, landscaping, pedestrian infrastructure and lighting.  As part of the region’s development strategy, the BRT system will provide connectivity to the thriving tech community in Toronto’s core, which is home to IBM, Honeywell, and mores. So far, the plan is working. There are new buildings for offices and condominiums close to the BRT stations, and many more are under construction.

As is common in many cities, there was considerable debate over which transport option to pursue, and the community was divided. In the end, local authorities committed to BRT, but the agreed upon design allows for light rail to be added in the future—a move Ottawa has already done with its Transitway system. Currently, York’s bus system operates frequently and extensively, providing connectivity directly to locations outside the main transit corridor. This is an immense benefit to those who live on the city’s periphery and need access to the center for jobs and education.

While many residents own cars, the investment in transit has been well-received. “The people out here are not anti-transit … you have to make the service time-competitive and reliable, and people will use it,” said Peter Miasek, President of Transport Action Ontario and Vice President of the Unionville Ratepayers Association.

Planning from the Metropolitan Perspective

These two examples from Greater Toronto show that it is possible to advance development around transit if the right mix of ingredients is in place. In both Toronto and York, there is strong leadership from elected officials as well as skilled, results-oriented implementation teams. This has helped each city tackle the difficulties often encountered in decision-making, advancing strong plans, and implementation. Furthermore, leaders have also leveraged adequate levels of funding for preparation and implementation. Without reducing the quality of service to save money, transport leaders have invested in strong design, branding, and communications in order to give public transit an attractive image.

As a result, Toronto doesn’t have just a dense and mixed-use core. It is also bringing accessible transit to the suburbs with remarkable success.

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