Realigning Default City of Toronto Arterial Streetscape

Street layout from Indianapolis with trees in soil cells and native grass plantings next to curb

This document was prepared as a response to the City’s 5-year Official Plan Review, which in 2019 was reviewing the Urban Design section - specifically the Public Realm subsections.  It is also in response to the City’s Streetscape Design Guidelines, which are silent on the subject of cycling.  The Streetscape Design Guidelines have not yet been updated to recognize the City Council’s adoption of the City’s Complete Street Guidelines on December 9, 2015.

This document proposes that Toronto’s City Planning Division adopt policies for safer and more inclusive street configurations on major arterial roadways and “avenues”.  Retrofitting existing on-street travel lanes and on-street parking to fit cycling facilities may be desirable in many instances.  However, City Planning must also recognize that circumstances will arise where development should introduce cycle tracks or multi-use paths while maintaining travel and parking lanes.  Building a cycling facility, even for a single City block, allows local residents to access shops on arterial roads from connecting side streets.

We believe that City Planning Transportation Planning and Civic Design staff will together be able to craft policies to update designs appropriate for the public realm.  The street types in the Complete Streets Guidelines may be a tool to help planners differentiate between preferred designs.  In some locations, large raised tree planters may be the most appropriate configuration.  However, planters should not be the default and only option available to City planners responding to development pressures on arterial roads.  We recommend recognizing an option which protects for bicycle tracks, separated from the sidewalk by trees in soil cells.

The realization of cycling facilities is not the exclusive responsibility of the Transportation Services Division.  Within its mandate to respond to development, Toronto’s City Planning Division has a significant opportunity to contribute to making the city safer for all people.

Existing Toronto streetscape with in-ground planter.png

Existing Toronto streetscape with in-ground planter
Existing Toronto streetscape with in-ground planter

Streetscape in Waterloo ON.png

Alternative from Waterloo, ON with cycle track and trees in soil cells
Alternative from Waterloo, ON with cycle track and trees in soil cells


  • Cycle tracks (also called bicycle paths) are considered to be the safest form of bicycle infrastructure.  This design introduces protected, sidewalk level bicycle paths on major arterials where otherwise people would be riding bicycles in the curb lane, among automobile traffic or dodging around parked cars.

  • The design retains street trees and plants, but moves them into a well-configured buffer role keeping people away from vehicles.

  • People on bicycles are separated from people walking in a clearly delineated space; this reduces potential conflict and encourages people to ride in a separated space who may otherwise ride their bike on the sidewalk. This conflict can either be reduced by the row of trees or by putting the cycle track at a lower level than the sidewalk.

Existing City Streetscape

The default City of Toronto streetscape for major arterials, largely codified in the Streetscape Design Manual and installed when new developments are approved, consists of three major elements:

  1. A large, raised in-ground concrete planter, usually over 2m in width,
  2. A pedestrian clearway with a width of 2.1m or more, usually located in the middle of the sidewalk, and
  3. A street furniture zone with additional facilities such as patios, etc.

Existing Streetscape diagram.png

Existing City of Toronto Streetscape diagram
Existing City of Toronto Streetscape diagram

Proposed Streetscape

The proposed streetscape replaces the raised in-ground planter with a bicycle track (which is separated from the curb by an edge zone with lamposts and signs), moves the trees away from the curb into a row next to the bicycle track, and leaves the pedestrian clearway closest to the buildings.  In this design the pedestrian clearway is a minimum of 2.1m wide, with a bicycle path of 1.5 to 2m or more.  

The diagram below shows a narrow configuration of such a streetscape.  If additional right-of-way space can be found, then additional space can be allocated to the pedestrian clearway, the bicycle path, and optionally the street tree zone, or even to other street amenities like patios.  In such cases the priority should be to the pedestrian and bicycle space, especially where the volume of people on bicycles or on the sidewalk warrants additional space.

Proposed Streetscape diagram.png

Proposed City of Toronto Streetscape diagram - narrow configuration
Proposed City of Toronto Streetscape diagram - narrow configuration

Proposed Streetscape diagram - wider.png

Proposed City of Toronto Streetscape diagram - wide configuration
Proposed City of Toronto Streetscape diagram - wide configuration

The configuration on the left is a minimal configuration, with narrow widths for the cycle track and sidewalk.  Streets on which more space is available, such as many suburban arterials, could have a different configuration - including wider bicycle paths, wider sidewalks, and a wider generous planting zone or bioswale.  A wider configuration is shown on the right.

Soil Cell Background

Soil cells are an underground tree root cell capable of sustaining the growth of large, healthy street trees. The advantage of soil cells is that:

  • An excessively wide, above-ground raised planter is not necessary
  • The ground opening can be quite narrow resulting in space efficiencies; and flush with the sidewalk, eliminating tripping hazards for pedestrians
  • Underground space for healthy root growth is capacious, especially relative to the size of the ground opening
  • The usable street right-of-way can be considerably wider

One particular industry soil cell product is the Silva Cell, with several implementations in Toronto.  Case studies on Silva Cells on Queen’s Quay, the new Sugar Beach and East Bayfront Promenade, and Queensway in Etobicoke.