Councillors go against city staff, support alternate Yonge Street redesign

The public works committee voted to go ahead with a more expensive redesign of Yonge Street in Willowdale, going against the recommendations of city staff, the local councillor and dozens of local residents.

Public Works and Infrastructure Committee votes to keep 6 lanes of traffic on Yonge

City staff's vision for Yonge Street reduces the roadway to four lanes and adds bike lanes and wider tree-lined sidewalks, but the public works committee voted for an alternate design on Tuesday. (City of Toronto)

The public works committee voted to go ahead with a more expensive redesign of Yonge Street in Willowdale, going against the recommendations of city staff, the local councillor and dozens of local residents. 

Coun. Stephen Holyday's motion, placed on behalf of Coun. David Shiner, to defer to an alternate plan, which staff also considers viable, will now go to city council for a final vote in March. It's expected to cost at least $9 million more than the Transform Yonge plan city transportation staff support. 

Coun. Jaye Robinson, the committee chair who also heads the city's Vision Zero initiative to eliminate road deaths, missed the vote.

The majority of speakers at Tuesday's meeting voiced support for the staff-supported Transform Yonge plan, which includes removing two lanes of traffic to widen sidewalks and add bike lanes to about three kilometres of Yonge, between Florence Avenue and the Finch Hydro Corridor.

Local Coun. John Filion also supports that vision, arguing it will turn what amounts to a highway into a main street anchoring a downtown-like neighbourhood. 

"We have one chance to get this right," a frustrated Filion told reporters after the vote, noting once built this design is expected to last for 50 years. 

"We have such a huge population there. They deserve it. They want it. Why did we do two years of consultation and then ignore the findings of the experts and ignore what the residents want? It makes no sense whatsoever."

Filion is vowing to fight to get the votes he needs to overturn the committee's decision. However, Mayor John Tory's opposition to Transform Yonge, mainly over concerns about traffic congestion, means that will be difficult.

The plan to reimagine Yonge Street has been in the works for years. Here are five key points from the staff report on the matter:

  • This section of Yonge was last rebuilt in 1975 and is now at the end of its lifecycle. Whatever change council approves is expected to last 50 years.
  • As of 2010, more people take transit, walk or cycle to the area than drive.
  • About 55,000 vehicles take Yonge between Sheppard Avenue and Highway 401 every day. An estimated 74 per cent of those drivers come from York Region.
  • The cheapest option, which is not recommended, is rebuilding Yonge as it is now. That would cost up to $29 million.
  • The Transform Yonge plan would remove 255 on-street parking spaces, but staff plan to add 330 new on-street spots on side streets and service roads to offset that.

Alternate plan tweaked to save millions, but cyclists lose protection

The alternate plan, which moves bike lanes to nearby Beecroft Avenue, was expected to cost some $20 million more than Transform Yonge. However, Holyday's recommendation is to reduce that cost to around $9 million by avoiding certain areas the city would have to buy to build a dedicated bike lane.

Holyday recommends doing that by using sharrows — shared lane pavement markings that don't offer the protection of a dedicated cycle track — in those places.

Cycle Toronto's Jared Kolb says the bike lanes should be on Yonge as part of making the street a destination. He blasted the city for planning to spend more money for a less safe alternative. 

"This is $9 million for sharrows? $9 million for paint? If city council embraces this, this is sending a signal that we sure know how to waste money," Kolb said. 

Strong support from locals

Janet Love has lived steps from Yonge Street since 1954, when the area featured more farmland than condo towers. Now, she describes the area as noisy, smelly and dangerous. She told the committee after giving up her car she realized what a "terror" crossing Yonge is. 

"I know I would feel safer if there was more space between me and the cars," she told CBC Toronto. 

Jessica Spieker, of Friends and Families for Safe Streets, says only shrinking the street will keep pedestrians and cyclists safe.

"Road safety is your job. Lives depend on your decisions," she told the committee.

Concerns about removing lanes

Jeff Oulahen, a local resident, realtor and volunteer president of the Yonge At Hearts Childcare Centre, says he's concerned that traffic will be forced into local neighbourhoods. He also suggested the city hasn't done enough to figure out how vehicles will be able to turn across the bike lanes.

Many local restaurants and shops are concerned the project will reduce parking for their customers, according to John Ko, the President of the Korean Canadian Business Association of North Toronto. The Transform Yonge plan would remove 255 on-street parking spaces, but staff plan to add 330 new on-street spots on side streets and service roads to offset that.

Sam Moini, who lives in the area and also represents the taxi industry, says slowing traffic would be declaring war on Willowdale families who rely on their vehicles to get around.

About the Author

John Rieti

John Rieti covers city hall and city issues for CBC Toronto. Born and raised in Newfoundland, John has worked in CBC newsrooms across the country in search of great stories. Outside of work, catch him running or cycling around, often armed with a camera, always in search of excellent coffee.