Entering The Future

While going through some old North York papers last week, I stumbled upon a document labelled “Vision 2020”, written 25 years ago, about the need to plan ahead for the year we’re now in. I couldn’t remember anything coming of it, so I searched Google.  Not even a mention.

That year, when opportunity came knocking, nobody was home. But next month at Council, we have a rare chance to shape Willowdale’s future in a way that will improve the lives of those who will live and work here for the rest of this century.

Transform Yonge is a City staff proposal to change Yonge Street from a highway to a main street between Finch and Sheppard. It will have wide sidewalks, outdoor cafes, flower plantings, and likely a bike lane separated from both the road and the sidewalk. It will become a place to stroll, to shop, to linger – a destination point to meet a friend for dinner or a drink.

Yonge’s pavement is overdue for reconstruction. We can lay new concrete down in place of the old concrete that’s been there since the ’50s. And be locked into that for another 70 years. Or we can move forward.

The current staff report is available at (link). To summarize five years of community consultation and reports, here are a few of the main features:

Highway to Main Street

Transform Yonge will reduce lanes of traffic from six to four, plus turn lanes and bus bays. This provides the extra space needed for pedestrians, outdoor restaurant patios, attractive plantings, and separated bike lanes. It will also reduce the levels of noise, pollution, and most importantly, pedestrian deaths and injury.

When you give motorists a highway, they treat it as such. This year, I asked city staff to measure speeds on our section of Yonge compared to other Toronto four-lane main streets. Not surprisingly, average speeds in Willowdale were 17 km/hour faster. Why in the world would we want to live next to a highway full of speeding cars, 75% of which are travelling to or from the 905? This should be our main street.

A Complete Community

Strong communities have the following characteristics: a variety of housing types; great schools; public open space for all ages; opportunities to work near home; local stores, restaurants, and theatres within walking distance; excellent public transit; safe sidewalks and places to cross busy streets; opportunities for residents to get around easily by public transit, on foot or by bicycle – reducing reliance on automobiles; a strong social fabric with lots of opportunities for residents to come together for shopping, dining, enjoying culture and recreation, or just to enjoy one another’s company.

How fortunate we are to have most of these components already, with Transform Yonge providing the opportunity to greatly enhance them.

Boost for Local Business

By the time this change finally happens, likely in about six years, there will be close to 100,000 people living within walking distance to this part of Yonge – with those in condos living only steps from Yonge. Imagine the boost to local business if that many people saw Yonge as their main street for shopping and dining – as is the case on main streets such as Danforth.

Transform Yonge will not only create more retail jobs, it will also attract more office jobs by creating the type of environment they want to locate in. An increased number of office workers will, in turn, provide more daytime and after-work customers for retail.

Maintaining Driving Options

Other parts of the city are making similar changes to major roadways by reducing lanes of traffic to one in each direction. Not only are we keeping two lanes each way on our section of Yonge, we have four lanes running north-south on Doris Ave one block to the east, and four more one block to the west on Beecroft. So, within, a two block stretch, we’ll be keeping 12 lanes of traffic between Sheppard and Finch.

In addition, Transform won’t happen until after Doris Avenue is connected to Yonge via Avondale. This will allow residents living east of Yonge to bypass the Yonge/Sheppard intersection entirely. On the west side, we are looking at improvements to the Yonge/401 interchange, and other changes to make it easier for residents to get to and from home.

If there are any noticeable traffic delays – and the city’s Transportation staff are saying there won’t be – it will be for 905 commuters, not Willowdale residents.

The last time I was involved in a change I believed in as strongly as Transform Yonge, I was Chair of the Board of Health eliminating smoking in bars and restaurants. At the time, many people didn’t like that change; imagine how few people would want to change it back now.

This year, more than any other in our lifetimes, it’s easy to get mired in the present. But it’s really a time to plan our post-pandemic future. As Fleetwood Mac put it, “It’ll be, better than before. Yesterday’s gone. Yesterday’s gone.”

– John