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Innovative traffic signal in Toronto being re-evaluated

Scramble pedestrian crossing at the intersection of Dundas and Yonge Street in downtown Toronto on Sept. 7, 2011.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

The future of an innovative traffic signal that guides 50,000 shoppers and movie-goers a day through the heart of Toronto's retail sector has been thrown into question after the public works committee passed a surprise motion to evaluate its merits.

The scramble, a traffic-signal system that allows pedestrians to cross diagonally through the bustling intersection of Yonge and Dundas Streets, has been operating without complaint since 2008, according to the local city councillor, Kristyn Wong-Tam.

But Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the public works and infrastructure committee, said concerns about snarled downtown auto traffic prompted him to ask for a review – further evidence of drastically shifting transportation priorities under Mayor Rob Ford.

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"It doesn't work perfectly and there are some negative impacts," Mr. Minnan-Wong said of the Yonge-Dundas scramble, introduced in August, 2008. "During peak rush hour you have cars queued back all the way to Elizabeth Street. So I think we need to examine whether we're improving traffic or actually making it worse along Dundas."

When the configuration was first introduced, city staff warned that it would likely worsen car traffic in the area. Prior to the switch, traffic signals provided automobiles 48 minutes of crossing time at the intersection every hour. After the switch, that window narrowed to 30 minutes, resulting in a 175-per-cent increase in vehicle delays during the afternoon rush, according to a city study.

But the new arrangement was always intended to prioritize walkers over drivers at one of Toronto's busiest pedestrian crossings, so the increased vehicle delays were viewed as an reasonable trade-off.

"It has been very successful," said Gary Welsh, general manager of transportation services. "We were concerned previously that the intersection couldn't handle so many pedestrians. The scramble has really helped that situation."

City staff had recently launched an internal study of its three scrambles – the others are located at the Yonge-Bloor and Bay-Bloor intersections – to ensure they were meeting the goals of prioritizing foot traffic.

But that concept – of giving precedence to shoes over tires – no longer holds much sway under a mayor who was elected on a pledge to end "the war on the car."

Mr. Minnan-Wong insists he has no intention of dismantling the pedestrian-friendly signal and merely wants a consultant's report on the scramble's feasibility. But the method he employed to get that report has many questioning his motivations. Mr. Minnan-Wong's request did not appear on the committee's agenda and he introduced it mid-meeting, appending it to a larger traffic management study that wasn't supposed to consider anything north of Queen Street.

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The full transportation study will cost the city up to $375,000 in consultant fees.

Mr. Minnan-Wong's request follows a pattern at public works whereby last-minute motions have been used to kill a number of projects championed during former mayor David Miller's term, including the Fort York pedestrian bridge and the Jarvis Street bike lanes.

"It's déjà vu," said Ms. Wong-Tam, councillor for Toronto Centre-Rosedale, which includes the Yonge-Dundas intersection. "It seems to be the way this administration is operating: no consultation with myself, no pre-warning this was coming up. There was never any discussion of reviewing the scramble."

The review will likely yield widespread support for the scrambles. In a 2008 on-site survey, 89 per cent of walkers came down in favour of the new signal crossing.

"With tourists, shoppers, businesses, the scramble is extremely popular," said Dylan Reid, former co-chair of the Toronto Pedestrian Committee. "If there is a movement to eliminate the scramble, I think you'll see great opposition. Thousands of people use it every day."

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About the Author
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

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