Bicycle lanes and on-road patios could be coming to a long stretch of Yonge Street this summer after city staff identified the famed street as the best north-south option in central Toronto for a major transformation, sources have told The Globe and Mail.
If the staff conclusion is backed by city council, more than three kilometres of curb lane on Yonge Street – from Bloor Street downtown to Davisville Avenue in midtown – would be remade before summer.
Such a shift would come on the heels of two recent council decisions to transform other sections of Yonge, in the downtown and in North Toronto, to make them more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly. Both were backed by Mayor John Tory. But unlike those changes, which will involve years of construction, temporary installations to this part of Yonge could be in place in a matter of months.
City staff assessed the suitability of putting bicycle lanes and on-street patios on Yonge Street, Mount Pleasant Road and Avenue Road, and, according to three people familiar with the work, a report expected to be tabled next week concludes that Yonge is the best choice. The report will go to a city hall committee and then to council for a vote early next month.
The Globe is not identifying the sources in order to learn information about a report that has not yet been finalized.
Austin Spademan, a board member of the ABC Residents Association, which covers part of the area in which Yonge could be transformed, predicts “a street renaissance” if the idea goes ahead. He said walking and cycling would become more pleasant, helping small businesses hurt by restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You’re going to have more people biking to their local business to pick something up and then biking home,” he said. “And you’re going to have a lot of people, I think in this summer … utilizing outdoor space more than ever before.”
Downtown councillor Mike Layton said Yonge Street could use a transformation similar to the remaking of Danforth Avenue, which last year had bicycle infrastructure added, patio space installed and its public appearance spruced up.
“I think a lot of people in Toronto that don’t know Yonge Street well probably don’t realize that it’s much more than a transportation corridor. It’s a local street. And so, why don’t we treat it like one,” he said.
“We’ve learned some lessons in the pandemic about how the public right of way can be better utilized to support businesses and to support people getting around in a safe way. And if we can accomplish that in an area with a lot of small businesses, and in an area with a lot of pedestrians and a lot of people wanting to get around in more active forms like cycling, then we should be exploring those.”
Such a transformation on Yonge would fulfill a request last May from dozens of neighbourhood, residents and advocacy organizations for bicycle lanes mirroring the city’s main subway lines, offering another option for transit riders concerned about crowding or COVID-19 transmission.
The proposed changes would be done by bringing Yonge into this year’s version of ActiveTO, a program to expand options for walking and cycling, the sources said. It would also make Yonge part of the CaféTO program that turns sections of curb lane into patio space. Both were established last year in response to the pandemic and proved very popular in other parts of the city.
However, even though staff have identified Yonge Street as the best option in that area for inclusion in ActiveTO and CaféTO, the sources said some details remain to be worked out. Public consultations have not begun, and the final recommendation could evolve before it makes it to council.
A potential downside is that Yonge Street is a relatively narrow arterial – only four lanes. Removing space dedicated to automotive traffic could generate pushback from drivers and local merchants.
“If the evidence demonstrates that more people will feel comfortable walking and riding on Yonge to visit those businesses, then the businesses may end up really appreciating [such a change],” midtown councillor Josh Matlow said.
“Rather than arrive at our opinions based on the fear of the unknown, why wouldn’t we – especially given the circumstances that we’re faced with during this pandemic – try something new and see if it works, and base our conclusions on reality rather than what we fear it might be?”