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5 urban innovations Toronto could use right now

Posted by Chris Bateman / August 19, 2014

urban innovations torontoThe Toronto of the future will be bigger, bolder, and (hopefully) smarter. New technologies and ideas are helping cities around the world improve the quality of life for their citizens by way of better transit, more accessible services, and modernized or repurposed infrastructure, and Toronto should be no different. While we're pretty influential (according to Forbes magazine,) there is still plenty the city could learn from the rest of the world.

Here are 5 useful ideas Toronto could use right now.

Reinvented phone booths
Phone booths are a dying breed. More than three quarters of Canadians have cellphones and as a result the telephones on Toronto's streets are increasingly forlorn and underused (most linger due to their applications in an emergency. In the subway, public phones are a vital piece of the Crisis Link suicide prevention program.) New York City is turning 7,000 of its payphones into Wi-Fi hotspots and in other jurisdictions phone booths have become mini libraries, and even public information points.

Better streetcar service inspired by other cities
Despite having one of the largest surface rail networks on the continent, Toronto just can't seem to get streetcars right. The network has never been expanded beyond the central city and in places downtown crowded streetcars are given no advantage over vehicles with just a few occupants. In Melbourne, Australia, which has a tram system two-thirds bigger than Toronto, there are special road rules designed to keep the road clear for public transit, including the famous hook turn. In Vienna, Austria, where "delays are rare," trams always have right of way.

new york parking sign
Simplified parking signs
Street parking in Toronto is a mess. Right now, a typical cluster of signs might read: "No parking 12:01 a.m. - 10:00 a.m. EXCEPT BY PERMIT," "Parking 1 HOUR 8:00 a.m. to 6 p.m. MON-FRI," "SNOW ROUTE," and "NO STANDING," all at the same time. Drivers need to crack the code to find out if it's OK to stop. New York City project "To Park or Not to Park" wants to swap that city's similarly confusing signs for simple, colour-coded schedules a child could understand. Toronto could do with something similar.

Smarter ways to pay
The politics of Presto, Ontario's long awaited transit fare card, are complex. When it finally becomes available on the TTC later this decade, riders will be able to pay fares for both major GTA transit agencies with a single card. That's great, but why stop there? In New Zealand, the country's Snapper card is accepted for coffee, movie tickets, groceries, parking, taxi rides, and bus fares. Here, Presto could pay for bike share rides, Island ferry tickets, road tolls, Green P parking, library payments, essentially any small transaction.

Libraries that lend more than just books
Libraries exist to provide free public access to information, but who says that information has to be printed on sliced pieces of tree? The Toronto Public Library system, like similar institutions in New York City and Chicago, could lend out free Wi-Fi hotspots to people without access to high speed internet, tools such as hammers and screwdrivers like in Berkeley, California, or telescopes as they do in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The TPL is already a world class institution, offering 3D printing, a video streaming service, digital books and magazines, but there's always room for innovation.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Photo of an NYC phone booth converted to WiFi hotspot



well / August 19, 2014 at 02:08 pm
? There is a free WiFi service covering downtown. It is called One, or something like that. Been around for ages. Also, Toronto's Public Library system is acknowledged to be amongst the finest in the world.
realityCheck / August 19, 2014 at 02:13 pm
Urban innovations we could use? How about affordable rapid transit?
James / August 19, 2014 at 02:19 pm
I find those parking signs more confusing. Id rather a sign just tell me when I can park especially when I'm driving downtown past them, instead of trying to figure out the color coding and how long I can park for. Often downtown you don't get a chance to stop the car, get out walk up the sign to figure it out.
lister / August 19, 2014 at 02:40 pm
As long as the text is large enough, those parking signs are dead easy to understand.
J / August 19, 2014 at 03:06 pm
Like the New Zealand example, Hong Kong has "Octopus" cards that are used across transit and in many other places like we'd typically use a debit card. Buy why create another debit card? Now that we have interact flash and the various credit card versions, why not strike up a deal with financial institutions and let riders pay with those instead. I'm sure there are a lot of occasional transit riders who don't walk around with pockets full of change to ride the TTC. Even if you charged a premium to cover the service fees, this would still be a boon for transit riders in a pinch.
Moaz Ahmad / August 19, 2014 at 03:52 pm
About a decade ago the same people that gave us Interac debit created "Dexit" (supposedly "DEbit, Xpress IT...doesn't matter really) which was used for payments in the financial district. At the time RFID tags were a new tech that they wanted to explore. They could have offered to build a system for the TTC or GO...but the problem is that the system had to be close to perfect, able to handle millions of transactions per day.
suicide_boi / August 19, 2014 at 04:16 pm
That is one sexy parking sign.
Amy / August 19, 2014 at 05:46 pm
The parking signs are the work of a New York designer and she's trying to re-imagine and simplify signage—and she's looking for public input.
Liz / August 19, 2014 at 05:46 pm
We do have a tool share library! its just not affiliated with the Toronto Public Library. -
How about a mayor? / August 19, 2014 at 08:12 pm
We could use one.
mm / August 19, 2014 at 08:39 pm
Here's an urban innovation we could use: stop screwing over the poor in favor of the rich.

And never get rid of payphones. Because I need them to buy drugs.
Pablo / August 19, 2014 at 11:22 pm
If you got your drivers license you should now how to read a street sign. We shouldn't have to make it easier.

Obey the rules, understand the signs and communication of being behind the wheel, distractions and bystanders, predict prepare react.
Free Pantyhose For Men / August 19, 2014 at 11:24 pm
In all shades. Warmth in Winter!
@ reality check & Mark / August 20, 2014 at 12:08 am
Here's a reality check for you. Do you realize that public transportation costs about the same, or more in most other cities? What the hell do you want? A fifty cent all day fare?

@Mark. News to me that One Zone isn't free. It always has been every time I've used it.
Kathleen / August 20, 2014 at 07:52 am
We should not be making it ant easier for drivers! People need to start using public transit or cycling. If you can afford a god damn car you can afford a few parking tickets which is a good revenue source as well.We need more signs educating drivers how to get along with cyclists.
PMK / August 20, 2014 at 09:28 am
The Mississauga library system lends out video games
Sasha / August 20, 2014 at 12:35 pm
We just lost the war against the car

Aydin / August 20, 2014 at 12:54 pm
It is a great idea to have the signs visually simplify. Parking signs are already virtually simplified with Toronto Parking Finder android app. You put the time and date as well as the spot where you want to park and it tells you all the free/cheap street and GreenP parking within max. 600 meter radius.
Spike / August 20, 2014 at 01:28 pm
Okay, where to start with this list?

1) Not everybody (including myself) has a cellphone or wants one due to cost.

2)Our streetcar service needs improvement, yes, but we have to be sure that it's NEEDED and NECESSARY improvements as opposed to just getting something because some other city's transit systems have it too (electronic gimcrack fare systems like Presto being a case in point), and said innovations have to work FOR Toronto in a Toronto context-'one size fits all' doesn't always work, and when forced up[on somebody else usually ends up in disaster.

3)Not a bad idea, but again, this has to work within a Toronto context.

4)See what I said in Point #2.

5) Don't libraries already lend out videos and music (and at one of the main ones in downtown Toronto, allow you to create your own parts for things?)
Other Cities: Montreal