How a Bike Lane is Born #1: A Street is Born

How a Bike Lane is Born #1: A Street is Born

In this investigative series, we will try to understand, and then explain, how a bike lane is born. From the earliest line on a map to the final flexipost, no stone will be left unturned.

Our first edition aims to establish our main character by understanding its past.

(An aerial photo of the neighbourhood in 1947. Image: City of Toronto Archives)


So where do we begin?

Portland Street is a 1.5 km, two-way street that runs from Queen Street West all the way south to Lake Ontario. The southern half of Portland Street was renamed Dan Leckie Way in 2002. In this series, however, we will refer to the entire street as “Portland Street”. The street sees moderate car traffic, plenty of pedestrian activity, and high cycling rates. It’s a mixed use street, with a variety of large residential buildings, offices, retail and restaurants, some older row houses, and a small park called Victoria Memorial Square.

(Portland Street in 2023. Image: Google Streetview.)

Let’s go back in time for a moment to see how it ended up this way.

We begin our story in 1818, when our neighbourhood was nothing more than a humble swamp on the outskirts of the British military outpost of Fort York.

(The trendy West Queen West neighbourhood in 1818. Image: ArcGIS)

Portland Street began to take its shape in the mid-19th century as the areas west of Fort York began to be settled. By the early 20th century, due to its convenient location in between Queen Street and the railyards and harbour, it was fairly urbanized with residential and industrial uses.

(Left: A map featuring Portland Street in 1903. Image: ArcGIS. Right: A shop on Portland Street in the early-20th century. Image: City of Toronto Archives)

By the 1980s, industrialization’s grey hue had tinted the city, and the street was like many in that era of Toronto’s history: quiet and auto-oriented.

(Portland street looking south (left) and north (right) in the 1980s. Image: City of Toronto Archives)

Things started to change on and around Portland Street in the 1990s, however, as the shift from industrial to mixed-use land use accelerated in most neighbourhoods adjacent to Toronto’s downtown core. Residential projects began to appear and began to revitalize the vibrancy and streetlife of the neighbourhood.

The city’s first bike plan, published in 2001, does not identify Portland as a priority cycling corridor which isn’t too surprising - the land where City Place would be built was still a golf course and the Puente de Luz bridge hadn’t been built yet.


(A small golf course that used to operate where City Place was built. Images: Getty Images)

It should be noted that around this time, the southern segment of Portland had been renamed Dan Leckie Way. Dan Leckie was a former Toronto city councillor who represented Ward 5 in the mid-1990s.

(The late Jack Layton, Mayor Olivia Chow, and associates celebrate the street naming. Images: Getty Images)

Portland does not appear in the 2012 network plan, either. However, by that year, the first phases of Toronto’s largest residential development ever were wrapping up south of the rail corridor. City Place, a mixed-use highrise community home to 20,000 people, was still isolated from its surrounding neighbourhoods due to a lack of pedestrian and cycling connectivity. The Puente de Luz, completed that year, would help respond to those criticisms and would bridge the two halves of Portland Street, creating at least the possibility of cycling infrastructure that could span the entire route.

(The Puente de Luz under construction in 2012. Image: Urban Toronto)

Four years later, in 2016, potential Portland Street cycling infrastructure finally made its first official appearance in City of Toronto literature as a proposed “quiet street”. Quiet Streets were defined in 2016 as, “Signed routes that may be upgraded with the addition of wayfinding, shared-lane pavement markings, or with additional traffic calming or traffic operational interventions to slow down or reduce the motor vehicle traffic.”

(The 2016 10 Year Cycling Plan. Image: City of Toronto)

At long last, Portland Street had the honour of appearing on a Cycling Network Plan map in the 2022 - 2024 Cycling Network Plan.

(The 2022 - 2024 Cycling Network Plan. Image: City of Toronto)

But why 2022? Aside from the predominant goal of addressing another gap in the city’s growing network, City of Toronto staff cite population densification, increasing congestion, and public transit expansion in their report on the project.

In our next edition of How a Bike Lane is Born, our project will enter community consultation(s). There, we will delve further into the why of the Portland Street cycle track project, discuss the challenges it faces, and find out if there are any community concerns about this alteration to the neighbourhood’s streetscape. (Spoiler alert: There are)

See you next time!

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