Posted by: Andrew Pask | January 5, 2012

Field Notes from Toronto, Part 1: trains, bikes, beer and wayfinding

I just got back from visiting family and friends in Toronto.  Always a good time!  In addition to the holiday revelry that took place, I had a chance to take some long walks through the downtown core and some of the old suburbs.

One of the reasons I enjoy my periodic visits out east so much is because it gives me a chance to take a look at some of the new public space happenings in Canada’s biggest city.  I always take a notebook and camera with me and, as is my habit, I used this visit to undertake a bit of public realm documentation while wandering the streets and neighbourhoods.  Over the next week or so I’ll be posting some of the things that caught my eye.  Here’s the first instalment.

An Airport Rail Link. 

I saw this story the night I arrived… and shortly after forking over several bills grab a taxi into town.  The Province of Ontario has announced that it will fund the creation of a train connection between Lester Pearson airport and Union Station in Downtown Toronto.  Currently, travellers out of Pearson are required to drive, take a cab (like I did) or catch a bus ride on one of the worst public transit connections to be had.

Here’s a Canadian Press rendering of one of the new trains:

air-rail link exterior

This isn’t the first time a rail has been proposed. (Most recently, David Collenette, while Transport Minister under the Chrétien government, made a similar announcement that stalled when the federal Liberals were booted from office).  That being said, the current discussion seems to have some traction.  Contracts are already being awarded, and at least part of the motivation is a desire to complete the rail link in time for the arrival of the Pan-Am Games in 2015.

This push, in turn, has launched some opposition to the plan… as the timeline would, according to the government, necessitate the use of ‘clean’ diesel trains versus cleaner electric ones.  And while the Province has said that they will upgrade the trains to electric down the road, they’ve been cagey on specifics.  This, in turn, has led to some push-back from the communities that are adjacent the new rail line… and from residents who are worried about air quality problems that might emerge.

On the other side of that argument experts are predicting the elimination of 1.5 million car-trips to the airport in the train’s first full year of operation.

Bike Racks at the edge of a residential street.

From one transport mode to another… I was walking up Strachan Street (pronounced ‘strawn’) near the Liberty Village neighbourhood and noticed this:

stachan street bike racks

It was the first time that I recall seeing bike-racks on the street-side edge of a grass boulevard.  And though you might not be able to see it in this picture, the bike racks are distributed almost as uniformly as parking spaces.

Stachan is classified as a collector in the City of Toronto’s street classification system – which means that, while not an exclusively a residential street, it has that sort of ‘feel’ (and similarly supports a smaller volume of traffic).  The roll-out of bike racks in this fashion is good news for cyclists as these are often the sorts of streets where one is forced to lock their bike to a dodgy street sign or something less-than-ideal.

The placement is interesting too.  Often times in streets like this, the racks are on the other (pedestrian) side of the boulevard… which increases the likelihood that cyclists will ride onto the sidewalk to get to them.

Street Ads and Wayfinding.

Speaking of pedestrians, check out the new advertising structures – er, “Information Pillars” – that have sprouted up on Toronto streets.


Although the City of Toronto website suggests that “visitors toToronto will now have quick access to information about the city with info pillars,” it seems more likely they will be smacked by the awesome bottlenecking effect that these giants create. The one in the picture takes up about 50% of the sidewalk as you enter into one of the busiest parts of Queen Street West.

And the helpful information?  About 85% of the space available for messaging is devoted to advertising.  In fact you can’t actually even tell that there’s a wayfinding component associated with the pillars unless you stand facing the structure from the side (and take up additional sidewalk space in the process).


It’s not hard to feel sceptical about the new pillars.  Indeed, the main benefit – as Dylan Reid points out in a post on the Spacing Toronto blog – would seem to be that the “design makes the advertising more clearly visible to both pedestrians and drivers, and puts it in a larger, more standard size” (i.e. similar to the format used in other advertising structures).  Reid goes on to suggest that this means both Astral Media (the media firm that holdsToronto’s street furniture contract) and the City would likely make more money off advertising.  I’m not sure if that’s true or not (I don’t have the figures), but at the very least, given the prominence of the ads, it does raise a sizeable question about the City ofToronto’s messaging priorities.

A few positive notes on this item.  First, an update from earlier today: the City’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee, responding to concern about the Info Pillars, has “asked staff to review the feasibility of changing the unpopular pillars’ design.”  Second, our good friends in the Toronto Public Space Initiative have been doing some great advocacy work around this issue.  You can read their thoughts on the Info Pillars here.

A bicyclist’s beer.

My final instalment today carries on with the mobility theme.

Holiday’s being what they are my visit to Ontario presented a good opportunity to try some of the new products from the local microbrews.  Per the norm, this meant I arranged a bit of a beer tasting with friends, raiding the LCBO (Provincial Liquor) stores for the their new craft brew selections and then settling down for a night of animated conversation (mingled with the odd tasting note to keep it ‘official’).

Here’s one that proved to be a pleasant surprise: Brick Brewing Company’s Waterloo Radlermass.  It’s actually more of a shandy, as it mixes lager and lemon soda (which, not fully reading the label, I didn’t actually notice until I took my first sip!)

More than the summery taste – which was a nice antidote to the bitter chill that whipped around outside – was the little story on the side.  I hadn’t had a Radlermass before, but I learned from the label (and later from the German Beer Institute website that the drink is known as “the Cyclists’ Thirst Quencher.”  Very nice indeed!  Apparently, not many breweries outside of Europe produce this stuff (though I suppose it would be easy enough to order in a decent pub).

I’m glad to have had the introduction.  This, along with another new-ish beer called Big Wheel (by Toronto’s Amsterdam Brew Co) suggest that Ontario craft breweries have recognized – via a little friendly branding – the natural linkage between a good bike ride and a nice glass of ale or lager.  For once I don’t feel uncomfortable being part of a target market.

Anyway, here’s the Radlermass ‘creation myth’ as printed on the Waterloo label:

After World War 1, bicycle riding became popular in Germany. A local innkeeper opened his own watering hole and arranged for a bike trail through a forest fromMunichto his alpine meadow, only to find some 13,000 cyclists had descended upon his establishment and almost depleted his fine beer. Quick thinking led him to mix a stock of lemon soda with his remaining beer and he called it Radlermass (Radler means cyclist in German, Mass means a litre of beer), which became a wonderful refreshing summer drink.”

A bike trail and a good pub serving microbrews – kind of gets you thinking ahead a few months doesn’t it?  Oh Seawall, what further possibilities you have.



  1. Hey Andrew – making more money (estimated $1.2 million divided between Astral and the City) was one of the specific justifications given in the staff report that proposed re-designing the info pillars this way.


    • Thanks Dylan, I appreciate the clarification on this. It seemed likely that this might be the case, but good to know that the rationale is actually documented in a staff report. I’m even more glad to hear that Councillors are now issuing a mea culpa over the trade-off that this created.

      – Andrew

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