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Fate of pedestrian scramble raises questions about Toronto's priorities

Pedestrians use the all-direction scramble crossing at Bay and Bloor streets on Wednesday. The Bloor-Yorkville Business Improvement Area and transportation staff are recommending that the city revert to a traditional intersection set-up.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Using a scramble crossing can prompt a strangely liberated feeling. With all vehicle traffic stopped, pedestrians take over the intersection, walking freely in every direction.

For a few seconds, pedestrians own the whole road. It's evidence that – at least in that moment and place – cars don't reign supreme. But one of downtown's three scramble intersections is facing cancellation for the very reason that it holds up auto traffic, raising questions about the type of city Toronto wants to be.

The recommendation to kill the scramble at Bloor and Bay streets comes from staff in the transportation services department and is set to be debated Monday by Toronto's public works and infrastructure committee.

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For critics of the scramble it's a simple numbers game: The benefit to pedestrians is too small to warrant its inconvenience to motorists.

"The traffic impacts have been exceptionally negative," said Briar de Lange, head of the Bloor-Yorkville Business Improvement Area.

But to supporters of the scramble, this intersection is emblematic of a bigger question about whether Toronto caters too much to car drivers.

Prominent urbanist Richard Florida said killing the scramble is out of step with the way cities are embracing other forms of transportation. An economist and social scientist, he argues that walkability is one way post-industrial cities can nurture and attract the creative class.

"Why are we locked in this debate when most of the world has moved on?" he said.

"Toronto is putting out a sign that says, 'Talented people do not come here.' It says it wants to be like New York or London, but acts like Houston or Atlanta in the 1990s."

Yorkville is slated for heavy densification, with the population expected to more than double in a decade. And there are three subway stations within a short distance. All of this makes the neighbourhood highly walkable.

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Chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat is among the voices at city hall advocating for walkable neighbourhoods. Earlier this week on Twitter she cited the city's official plan amendment that "the emphasis has to be on using the available space more efficiently to move people instead of vehicles."

As it happens, Ms. Keesmaat was also opining on social media Feb. 13, the day the scramble report appeared, about the best use of roads. "Be wary of talk about 'balancing' the needs of all users," she tweeted that afternoon. "This is code for the status quo."

The chief planner was not available to discuss the scramble. A request for an interview was returned by her office with the suggestion that the deputy city manager believed it better to contact the transportation services department.

Fiona Chapman, manager of pedestrian projections in the transportation department, said she supports scrambles in principle but that this one isn't working.

"I think that perhaps this has become a symbolic measure. And I appreciate that, and they have a role to play, but want to make sure that the tool is used in the right place," she said. "In this instance, given the current geometry of this corner and the current pattern of uses … it's not the right tool in the right intersection and perhaps … at the right time."

Staff found that pedestrians gained an average of only eight seconds, whereas motorists could be backed up several minutes. Mr. Florida argues, though, that the focus only on vehicle speeds misses the point.

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"Bloor should be slow," he said. "Bloor should be a street for pedestrians, for shopping. Bloor should be a signature [street] of a city that cares about its citizens. And it clearly doesn't."

Minor vehicle collisions at the intersection also went up once the scramble was installed. Staff surmised they were due to motorists' frustrations.

What was not measured by staff was the effect of turning vehicles at the intersection.

The advance green signal allows left turns but reduces the time for vehicles coming through in the other direction. One of the main causes of delays, according to the report, was right-turning vehicles waiting for gaps among the pedestrians.

The exact impact of these turning vehicles is not known. And the local BIA is strongly opposed to turn restrictions at the intersection.

"With the number of new residents, the number of new people who actually live in the area – and they don't walk all the time, they do get in their cars, they do drive places – they want to be able to be mobile and not be completely restricted," Ms. de Lange said.

"They're our main thoroughfares, but people who live here are using them."

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