What's in a street? The extensive strips of pavement that criss-cross the city form the circulation network that keeps it running, but our current-day understanding of the purpose of streets has evolved beyond them simply acting as transportation corridors, as they were reshaped to be in the mid-20th century to facilitate the movement of cars into and out of the core. Today, streets are seen as vital to the prosperity of the city, serving pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, and drivers, while doubling as communal spaces for shopping, socializing, celebrating, and protesting, and in some instances, they can even define the identity of a city. They are perhaps the only truly public spaces in our cities.

In Toronto, Yonge Street checks off all of these boxes, and ranks as one of the most famous streets in Canada, previously holding the title of longest street in the world. Over its 200+ year history, Yonge has been a landmark destination that has drawn crowds year-round. Now, in the wake of the City's sweeping TOCore Downtown Plan, City Planning is taking a good hard look at how Yonge Street is designed, and whether or not it meets the needs of the 21st-century city. 

Looking south on Yonge from Gerrard, image by Richard Pilon.

With the snappy title yongeTOmorrow, the City is currently finalizing a study that will recommend a complete redesign of Yonge Street between Queen and College/Carlton. Analyzing the use of the street over this stretch, an imbalance has been identified whereas anywhere from 50-75% of the users on Yonge at any time of the day or year are pedestrians, but only 25% of the 20-metre right-of-way is dedicated as space for them. Trends indicate that transit users, pedestrians, and cyclists are on the rise on Yonge, particularly with the influx of condo developments along the Downtown Yonge corridor, while vehicular traffic is steadily declining. The City has determined that the current 4-lane configuration of the street is inadequate to meet user demand, and falls short of meeting the high-quality design standards synonymous with having a world-class reputation.

Study of pedestrian volumes on Yonge Street in 2017, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

The City has narrowed down their study to three potential street configurations, each of which would decrease space for cars and significantly increase space for pedestrians:

  1. Two vehicular lanes, one in each direction, with the remainder of the street dedicated to pedestrians. 
  2. Two vehicular lanes, both in one direction, with the remainder of the street dedicated to pedestrians.
  3. Complete pedestrianization of the street with no vehicular lanes.

In the pedestrianized cross-section, the right-of-way for vehicles would still be maintained down the centre of the street to allow managed access for buses, delivery vehicles, and potentially taxis and ride-shares at different times of the day. The City has determined that bike lanes would not be appropriate down Yonge, instead recommending Church, Bay, or University Streets as better candidates for more substantial north-south cycling infrastructure. Cyclists, of course, would still have access to Yonge as with any other street, but without dedicated bike lanes.

One-way, two-lane design option, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

Two-way, two-lane design option, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

Full pedestrianization design option, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

The final design of Yonge is not yet set in stone, and will most likely involve some combination of the three configurations mentioned above over its length. The City has proposed a preferred design, but is still crunching the numbers to make sure it will not have a negative impact on the street. This design, along with some alternatives, was presented to the Toronto Design Review Panel last week.

The current preferred direction of the City is as follows:

  • Two-way two-lane configuration from Queen to Shuter Street, where pedestrian activity is the lowest along Yonge;
  • One-way two-lane configuration from Shuter Street to Dundas Square, where pedestrian activity is moderate;
  • Full pedestrianization with managed vehicular access at night from Dundas Square to Edward Street, where pedestrian activity is at its highest along Yonge;
  • Full pedestrianization with managed vehicular access during the day from Edward to Gerrard Street, where there is a high degree of pedestrian activity; and
  • Two-way two-lane configuration from Gerrard to College/Carlton Street, where the right-of-way increases to 26 metres and can therefore still accommodate a high pedestrian volume as well as vehicular lanes.

This configuration is illustrated in the plan below, and in the series of conceptual 3D renderings further down in the article.

Proposed plan for Yonge Street, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

Given the myriad of uses along Yonge, the design team has much to take into consideration with a redesign. Aside from the pedestrian and vehicular traffic, the redesign must also consider such factors as viability for the existing businesses along Yonge, which includes delivery and service access; public transit, including the Yonge night bus and the use of shuttle buses when the subway gets shut down; potential use of the street for parades and festivals; and all other routine matters, such as universal accessibility, safety and security, maintenance, emergency vehicle access, and wayfinding.

Conceptual model of Yonge Street from Queen Street to Dundas Square, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

Toronto's Design Review Panel recently saw the plans as they stand so far, had much to say about the initiative, and were unanimously positive in their commentary, offering advice on how to proceed into the subsequent design phases of the project.

All Panel members were in support of the makeover of Yonge Street and of the heavy emphasis on pedestrianization, saying that this change was a long time coming and would be "revolutionary" for the city. They also nearly all agreed that bike lanes were not appropriate on Yonge given the relatively narrow width of the street.

While all Panelists were pleased with what they saw, they noted that the study thus far has focused mainly on the logistics of how the street works—pedestrian and traffic flow and its impact on adjacent streets—and has not yet focused on defining the character of what the street will actually look and feel like. They cautioned that this was an important step that should be established early on, in order to ensure that the transformation of Yonge maintains and creates the appropriate atmosphere to ensure its success. They asked the proponents to expand their thinking beyond Yonge just simply being a street, to instead imagine it as the "space between the buildings", advocating for a holistic vision that extends beyond transit and transportation issues.

Conceptual model of Yonge Street from Dundas Square to Edward Street, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

With that in mind, the Panel strongly recommended that flexibility and adaptability be a key component of the street design. They warned against too much "specificity" in the layout and design of the street, particularly with regards to programming certain areas and with the street furniture buffer zone planned to separate the vehicular right-of-way down the centre of the street from the sidewalk zones. One Panelist felt that parades should be ignored in the design of the street, as their routes are subject to change based on the permit awarded, but another Panelist argued that part of the draw to Yonge was the "carnival atmosphere", and that enough flexibility should be accounted for to allow parades and events to occasionally take over.

Signage and wayfinding was also pointed out as a critical component to be considered. Given that the layout of the street changes from two-way, to one-way, to full pedestrianization, and also given that vehicular access in the pedestrian zones is permitted for certain vehicles during both daylight and nighttime hours, Panel members cautioned that users of the street might be confused as to what is allowed and when if this is not made explicitly clear, both through signage and through the design of the street itself. Making sure accommodations are provided for turning vehicles at the transition of each zone was also highlighted as an issue that could hinder the success of the street.

Conceptual model of Yonge Street from Edward Street to Gerrard Street, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

Other factors the Panel thought should be considered are how the street is used through all four seasons; integrating sustainability and resiliency measures in the design of the street that "go beyond just putting street trees", such as stormwater management and permeable surfaces; considering how the street behaves in extreme weather events, such as snow storms, heavy downpours, and heat waves; and considering lighting as an important component of the design.

The Panel issued one final warning to the design team, highlighting a concern that has plagued other major streets in the city. One Panelist stated: "As the success of Yonge Street grows, there will be more impetus to develop along Yonge. How do you maintain the fine grain and historic character of the street? This has the potential to eventually defeat the street by its own success."

Panel members were very happy with the initiative and issued strong words of encouragement, with one member even suggesting it be extended up to Bloor Street. They ended off with a playful challenge to the City: "It should be unlike any other place in Toronto...We have high expectations."

Conceptual model of Yonge Street from Gerrard Street to College/Carlton Street, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

We will keep you updated as plans for yongeTOmorrow continue to evolve. You can get involved in the project by completing an online questionnaire, found on the City's website here, or by attending the next public consultation scheduled for Thursday, November 21. In the meantime, you can tell us what you think by checking out the associated Forum thread, or by leaving a comment in the space provided on this page.

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