When I first moved to toronto, I worked for a year at a call centre at the end of a dead-end street overlooking a railway line. The area had plenty of stores - across the tracks - but for those without a car, breaks meant raiding the office's overpriced junk food machine.
Wallace Avenue pedestrian bridge
The boundaries blurred once I discovered the secret passage, a well-worn path through a hole in the fence that allowed workers and locals to cross.
Unmarked railway crossings are illegal, so we engaged in an ongoing game of cat and mouse with railway security, who ticketed anyone unlucky enough to get caught. Once in a while the holes in the fence were patched, only to mysteriously reappear the next day. This band-aid solution was clearly not addressing the issue.
Over the years, one level crossing after another has been barricaded, replaced by bridges and tunnels over and under tracks, forcing pedestrians to trespass.
The insistence on a lofty 7-metre height clearance (in case the railways ever get around to converting from diesel to overhead electric) dooms walkers and cyclists to climbing up and down a hundred stairs or following winding, fenced ramps like rats in a maze.
Convenient, safe crossings between communities along our railway corridors are more important than ever, given the need for smart growth contemplated by our Official Plan.
News reports have recently highlighted the difficulties riders face trying to squeeze onto the overcrowded King streetcar, but for those in Liberty Village, just getting to King is half the battle, thanks to the tracks. Forget the less crowded Harbourfront or Bathurst streetcars they're blocked by yet another rail line.
Local councillor Joe Pantalone says he's determined to make Liberty Village "a place where people walk back and forth like any other community." To this end, he recently asked for a study on creating a link across the tracks to King West.
But Zip's construction crane is clearly influencing planning for the proposed connection, likely from Pirandello to Shaw. Pantalone doesn't think it should be a pedestrian bridge; he worries that that kind of crossing would interfere with views from new condos, asking, "Who wants a bridge outside their second-floor balcony?"
The good news is that the city is looking at some kind of crossing, the bad that background reports discuss only one option: a tunnel. Apparently, when pedestrians and cyclists intrude on views of the railway corridor, the response is to sweep people underground.
We treat our ubiquitous train tracks like sewers that must be hidden behind a series of Berlin Walls and that pedestrians and cyclists can only cross using claustrophobic tunnels or exhausting stairs.
This is true at the same time the city is promising to knit our rail corridors back into the urban framework with projects like the West Toronto Railpath (from Dupont and Dundas West to downtown) that will allow cyclists and joggers to wave at GO passengers from beside the tracks.
But there is another option: level crossings, if only the city would build them. Gary Welsh, Toronto's director of transportation services (east district) says, "We try to avoid adding new [level] crossings for safety reasons." Yet neither the city nor Transport Canada has bothered to classify pedestrian casualties by crossing type.
If level crossings are so dangerous, why hasn't anyone spent money on adding safety features to the two-thirds of Canada's 19,700 level crossings that lack crossing arms, bells or lights? A total of four pedestrian deaths occurred at these (mostly unsignalled) level crossings across Canada in 2004, far fewer than died riding bikes.
Quebec City changed its strategy after the installation of railway fencing caused pedestrians to detour across a highway, with fatal results. It finally provided a pedestrian crossing with traffic signals. According to Quebec transport planner Benoit Andrews, since this change in the summer of 1997, "no incidents have recurred at this location."
Welsh offers another safety-related explanation for Toronto's reluctance to build street-level pedestrian connections: "We try to promote [railway] crossings next to roadways, which are safer for pedestrians because they're better illuminated, discouraging criminal activity."
But if protection from trolls who rob unwary travellers is a concern, then why the insistence on claustrophobic chain-link bridges and pedestrian tunnels?
Architect David Olson is part of a group pushing for a pedestrian crossing as part of the proposed Wabash Community Centre in Sorauren Park. "A small investment could link many destinations, amenities such as the park and future community centre to those on the other side of the tracks,' he says.
" It could also add convenient access to the Lansdowne bus, the new pharmacy, grocery store and proposed Railpath, all visible just across the tracks."
Even law-abiding Torontonians, I discovered, have their breaking point when it comes to pedestrian bridges. Watching the west-end Wallace Avenue Bridge one day, I noticed that while most pedestrians accepted the gruelling 60-stair climb, over a hundred others scampered across the rails on illegal paths located just below.
An elderly woman told me she could no longer use the two-and-a-half-storey bridge because of her arthritis. No need to ask the young man with a shopping cart full of groceries why he didn't take the stairs.
Even the city's director of transport planning, Rod McPhail, acknowledges that "the only way to get people to use a pedestrian bridge is if you fence out all other options."
Some, like Councillor Gord Perks, say that level crossings may have been okay in the past, but not with today's rail traffic. "In an ideal world, rail lines would not chop up the city. Trains don't stop the way cars do, and we have to be careful and make sure that intersections are well controlled."
But rail traffic was actually much heavier in the past. Toronto was filled with trains travelling in many directions on many twisting spurs and sometimes parking on the tracks for hours. For better or worse, rail-based industry in the 416 is in full retreat. The only signs of local rail expansion are in passenger service, namely GO.
The railways, which have been known to fight all types of crossings, aren't interested in discussing these issues. CN never responded to my calls and CP sent me to the Railway Association of Canada. The RAC referred me to Transport Canada, which directed me to the Transportation Safety Board. The TSB, which only investigates a few chosen accidents a year, sent me back to Transport Canada.
There are some signs that councillors understand what's at stake here. New chair of works and infrastructure Glenn De Baeremaeker agrees level crossings deserve to be investigated.
At a time of growing gridlock and pollution, it's time to re-examine policies that create pedestrian barriers.