Controversial Transform Yonge plan deferred for more study after daylong debate

Toronto city council voted 20-15 Tuesday to defer a plan to transform Yonge Street for more study, a move Willowdale Coun. John Filion keeps the proposal to narrow the road and add bike lanes alive.

Local councillor, mayor at odds on how to rework roadway in Willowdale

A Yonge Street with fewer lanes for cars and raised lanes for bicycles? That's the vision for Willowdale that's being recommended by city staff. (City of Toronto)

Toronto city council voted 20-15 Tuesday to defer a plan to transform Yonge Street for more study, a move Willowdale Coun. John Filion says keeps the proposal to narrow the road and add bike lanes alive.

The deferral calls for the TTC to look at how a redesigned Yonge Street would affect its bus routes in the area and raises the possibility that city council won't make a final decision on the project until after this fall's municipal election. 

"It's only slightly less disappointing than a loss, but the votes weren't there. So it's better to come back at this than to have lost it all," Filion told reporters after the vote.

Councillors spent most of Tuesday's session fighting over what to do with Yonge Street. 

City staff are recommending a plan called Transform Yonge that would narrow the street from six lanes to four between Sheppard and Finch Avenues, while also adding wider sidewalks and bike lanes.

The local councillor, high-profile city-builders and a number of advocacy groups all support the plan. Supporters say its the safest option for pedestrians and has the most community benefits. Those against it warn it would hurt drivers and those who ride TTC buses in the area.

Staff have also identified a viable alternative — preferred by the public works committee and Mayor John Tory — that would maintain the existing lanes of traffic but still widen sidewalks. That plan would cost some $9 million more and move the bike lanes to nearby Beecroft Road.

Tory argues cutting out lanes would cause traffic problems in one of the most congested parts of the city, warning councillors that people will continue to drive cars and it's not something they can ignore.

The Transform Yonge report suggests traffic won't slow down drivers that much.

Transportation staff found removing two lanes of traffic won't have a major effect on car travel times in the area. (City of Toronto)

Tory's critics point to a number of other reasons to push ahead with the original plan.

Coun. Joe Mihevc asked what version of the Yonge Street plan best aligns with the city's Vision Zero goal of eliminating all road deaths. Barbara Gray, the general manager of transportation, says Transform Yonge is tops because it narrows the roadway, making it safer to cross. However, both options offer safety benefits, she says.

Coun. Joe Cressy — who put forward the motion to defer the item, saying "many people need more information" — argued in favour of putting the needs of a growing number of local residents first.

Gregg Lintern, the city's acting chief planner, says there were 56,000 people living in walking distance from the North York Centre as of 2016. In the coming years, that population is expected to grow to 80,000 to 100,000 people.

Outside of the downtown, Willowdale is the fastest and "most intense" growth centre in the city, he said.

Councillors concerned about traffic

Coun. Christin Carmichael Greb and several others recounted driving in the area and encountering bumper-to-bumper traffic. She calls it a "disaster."

Carmichael Greb says she's concerned if Yonge is changed, drivers will wind up cutting through local neighbourhoods.

Transportation officials note there are already 14 car lanes available to drivers in the area, while others would be able to use routes like Bayview Avenue or Bathurst Street.

Several councillors, including Coun. Glenn De Baeremaeker and Coun. John Campbell, asked a TTC official about how the Transform Yonge plan would affect the 1,300 bus trips in and out of the area every day.

A TTC representative warned "transit service will definitely get worse," something she attributed to buses bunching up in traffic.

However, Coun. Gord Perks attacked that point, noting there shouldn't be any more effect on buses than other vehicles. City staff, meanwhile, say additional measures may be taken to keep buses moving in and out of the Finch station.

Local councillor battling for votes

Do we want to build this stretch of Yonge Street for the 1960s? Or do we want to build it for the 21st century? Very simply, that's it.- Ken Greenberg, urban designer

​Willowdale Coun. John Filion says he's "bewildered" by the resistance to Transform Yonge, but that he's fighting to get the votes he needs. 

He argues the changes would create a main street for the booming neighbourhood. That concept has the support of a group of prominent city-builders. 

Urban designer Ken Greenberg says it's "so obvious" and "so clear" that city staff are recommending the best option for the street that he's amazed it's even a debate.

"It's not about bicycle lanes," he told reporters.

"Do we want to build this stretch of Yonge Street for the 1960s? Or do we want to build it for the 21st century? Very simply, that's it."

Tory's alternative attacked

Greenberg took a dim view of Tory's preferred alternative. "There's everything wrong with that proposal," he said, noting it will cost more and won't create the great public space that people in the area deserve.

He says Tory's plan focuses only on moving automobiles.

There's also pressure on city council to get this decision right, as the roadway is nearing the end of its lifespan. Whatever design replaces it is expected to remain for the next 50 to 75 years. 


John Rieti

Senior producer

John started with CBC News in 2008 as a Peter Gzowski intern in Newfoundland, and holds a master of journalism degree from Toronto Metropolitan University. As a reporter, John has covered everything from the Blue Jays to Toronto city hall. He now leads a CBC Toronto digital team that has won multiple Radio Television Digital News Association awards for overall excellence in online reporting. You can reach him at