West Side Story

TEXT Elizabeth Pagliacolo

Standing at the fenced-off train tracks at Lansdowne and Dundas Streets, Scott Dobson, of Friends of West Toronto Railpath, bellows, “Now imagine if you could walk right across to meet your friends on the other side.” Those friends, on bikes, and the rest of us, on foot, have come out to tour the future second phase of the Railpath. Tentatively slated to begin construction in the next two years, it will connect with the existing Railpath to complete a 5.3-kilometre trail adjacent to the downtown core. The path will sync up with various neighbourhoods along the way: ramping up from a community garden squeezed against a fence in Brockton Village, linking to the grounds of the West Lodge apartment towers, and bridging areas currently divided by the railway.

Unlike New York’s High Line, a decommissioned piece of infrastructure begging to be filled with function, the West Toronto Railpath extension–designed by regionalArchitects, with new bridges by Montgomery Sisam Architects, landscaping by Victor Ford and Associates, and artwork by Public Workshop–will muscle its way through dense residential and industrial areas. It will carve out space alongside the expanding GO line and future airport link and meet up with new and existing bike paths on side streets and major arteries. 

The popular first phase of the Railpath opened in 2009. Designed by Brown + Storey Architects with Scott Torrance Landscape Architect, it’s much simpler by comparison, as it reclaims an existing trucking road alongside the rails. The asphalt path celebrates the industrial character of its surroundings through such rugged design elements as oxidized steel street signs and cubic boulders, massive metal-mesh sculptures by John Dickson, and a vibrant graffiti mural. The path currently ends at the high-traffic intersection of Dundas Street West and Sterling Road. 

This dangerous crossroads sets out the extension’s main challenge: to provide seamless transitions–especially at this intersection, and at other locations where the path converges with the street–and bring cyclists and pedestrians safely downtown. 

It’s a formidable challenge at that. “The corridor will be much narrower,” explains Paul Kulig of regionalArchitects, noting it will be about five metres wide, compared to the 15-metre-wide first phase. “Plus, all the pedestrian bridges and ramps will be new, as opposed to existing heritage structures.” 

In cities around the world, similar rail-and-trail and rail-to-trail schemes are flourishing. These plans exist thanks to years of effort by community members, cycling activists, city politicians and transit authorities working together to reclaim infrastructure engineered long ago. At the time the rails were laid, city-builders had no inkling that many of us would be weaving through the urban jungle on our bikes and on foot, and set aside no room to accommodate these uses. Beyond providing transportation alternatives, a dense downtown core benefits from these vibrant detours for relaxing, playing and escaping the density itself. 

While Toronto could still use a cohesive citywide bike plan, the Railpath is a welcome respite from the ceaseless traffic. Since it opened, the first part of the path has hosted movie nights, bike tune-up sessions, and provided small businesses with alternate delivery routes. There’s no doubt that the full stretch–what some are already dubbing, perhaps exaggeratedly, a cyclists’ superhighway–will be a gathering space for all walks of life, while reconnecting and reanimating the working-class neighbourhoods around it. 

Elizabeth Pagliacolo is a Toronto-based architecture and design writer.