The Intersection of Advocacy and Ad Hoc Traffic Counts in Toronto

Urban planning is one of the few policy areas that invites community members to participate in the process, and offer insights and criticism on city plans. This is what drew me to the field to start with – I am really intrigued by the way community members can use the tools at their disposal to participate in planning their cities.  During my graduate degree I was introduced to other facets of planning I hadn’t previously considered, including the critical role of data.  Through an internship with New York City government and a Capstone consulting project for IBM City Forward, I’ve come to appreciate good data, and have become surprisingly sensitive (even offended!) by bad data.

As city governments around the world are trying to create more livable cities, in part through redesigning streetscapes, they need to do so in a way that values data. And if they don’t, citizens are increasingly equipped with planning methods that will call them out on it.

The “John Street Corridor Improvements,” a joint project between the City of Toronto and the local Entertainment District Business Improvement Area (BIA),  is a story that illustrates the intersection between advocacy, planning and data. The John Street project is intended to improve the pedestrian realm on a small but central street in Toronto’s Entertainment District and major cultural corridor. Despite having the worthy objectives of making John Street a pedestrian destination and more conducive to outdoor events, the case goes to show that without good data, advocates will take it upon themselves to get it right.

Left: Map of John Street study area. Right: Image of John Street | Photo credit: boldts.net

A second public meeting was held on June 16, 2011 to discuss the design options that are being considered for John Street (Spacing and UrbanToronto.ca both have great synopses of the project), which included design elements such as sidewalk extensions, removing curbs and parking lanes, reducing the street to one traffic lane, as well as the  obligatory “do nothing” option.

One of several design options for John Street | Photo credit: Urban Toronto

Shortly before the meeting, though, local cycling advocate and all-around civic participation champion Dave Meslin pointed out some fishy figures with the City’s baseline survey:

City of Toronto's mode share data.

The numbers begged some obvious questions: First, why was the cycling count so low? Anyone who is familiar with John Street knows that the bike traffic is more substantial than the city’s 2% figure. Second, why are the counts for cycling traffic static, while the counts for other modes shift over the course of the day and throughout the week? After not getting any good answers from the City, Meslin rallied some friends and they held their own tallytwice – and found that the numbers were, as expected, completely off. The chart below compares the City’s data with what Meslin’s ad-hoc transport planners found:

The top row shows the numbers from the City's original survey, the bottom row shows the findings by Meslin's team.

Persuaded, the City of Toronto issued the following statement to Meslin and his group of volunteers:

“On the City’s behalf, I’d like to thank you for the effort that you have put in to supplementing our counts with new material gathered in the past weeks…..We agree it was inappropriate and incorrect to have used the 2% figure for weekday peak hours.”

This redesign is a smart and creative plan, and as a Torontonian who as worked, walked, biked, driven, and certainly partied on John Street I’m looking forward to a new look for the street. But integrity of baseline data is critical, no matter how well-meaning the objectives of any plan – it informs the direction of the project, and helps planners identify unique characteristics of the study area and foresee mitigation measures that may need to be explored.

For example, had the baseline study revealed unusually heavy cycling traffic on John Street that would be displaced by the new design, then perhaps the streets east and west of John should have been included in the study area and proper bike lanes installed there to catch the overflow.  Inaccurate data not only compromises the project and runs the risk of future planning issues, but it also undermines the integrity of the study and potentially the public’s trust in the project – as John Street exemplifies.

Another critical piece here is the role of advocacy in planning.  The planning process is one of the few formalized avenues for public participation.  The requisite public consultations allow members of the community to contribute to plans, and help to revise and refine urban designs.

The story of John Street Corridor Improvements and cycling advocates is a great example of how the intersection of planning and advocacy can be done in a positive way.  To be sure, the goal of the project is to improve the pedestrian realm, so perhaps bike lanes are inappropriate in this case, but I think the actions of both the city and advocate were handled in an ideal way:  Meslin engaged his peers to put the City’s data to the test, and the City responded constructively (at least the second time around). The John Street example serves as case study of positive interaction between cycling advocates and the City.

~Christine Paglialunga

Guest contributor Christine Paglialunga recently graduated from NYU Wagner’s Master of Urban Planning program.  Her interests are in community participation and advocacy in planning.