Get off the Road: Toronto street festivals take the whole city hostage. Jan Wong says that it’s time we learn to say no

Get off the Road: Toronto street festivals take the whole city hostage. Jan Wong says that it’s time we learn to say no

(Image: Jack Dylan) 

One of Toronto’s biggest, most aggravating problems is traffic. In a recent poll about the upcoming mayoral election, Torontonians ranked congestion as one of their most significant concerns, above even the economy. Gridlock costs Toronto untold millions in lost productivity. Then there’s everyone’s wasted time, not to mention missed flights and appointments, and overall frustration. “Our roads and transit systems are strained,” says Julia Deans, CEO of the Toronto City Summit Alliance, who believes efficient roads are critical to our competitiveness and quality of life.

This summer, if getting from one part of the city to another seemed particularly hellish, that’s because it was. The 2010 municipal capital budget is 50 per cent larger than last year. In addition, road repairs ramped up as the city eagerly spent federal infrastructure stimulus funds that will expire at the end of March.

How is city hall addressing congestion? This year, it’s green-lighting about 500 special events that will shut down roads, creating even more gridlock. These days, we treat our roads not as roads, but as a means of expression. Toronto is choked with protest marches, disease-related charity runs, ethnic festivals, holiday parades and car races. We love our street parties: the Taste of Lawrence, Taste of the Danforth, and Salsa on St. Clair. There’s the Beaches Jazz Festival, Luminato and Nuit Blanche—plus not one but two marathons. Woofstock draws tens of thousands of dogs and their owners for such events as the Stupid Dog Tricks show and a Ms. and Mr. Canine Canada Pageant. Unfortunately, the festival also shuts down a key stretch of Front Street for an entire weekend in June. Then Busker­Fest shuts the same stretch down for four days in August.

I have nothing against the Cure. Or Caribana. Or, for that matter, something called Toronto Chinatown Festival 2010, which in late August shuts down much of Spadina Avenue (for two days!). Of course we should raise money for good causes. But can’t we Crochet for the Cure instead? Must we always close our streets? And if we have to use our roads for non-transportation purposes, shouldn’t we set some limits? We appear to have put ourselves at the mercy of every interest group, ethnic group and splinter group. There’s even a parade for Protestants cheering a 17th-century victory over Catholics in Ireland. Every July for the past 190 years, the Orange Association has held a march that typically begins at the Moss Park Armoury and goes up to College and Yonge. Why not march in memory of Genghis Khan, too?

I raised my concerns recently with Gary Welsh, Toronto’s general manager of transportation services and the city’s road-closure czar. “You’ve got all these cultures that want to celebrate their heritage, and council wants to encourage that,” Welsh said. “Other activities like road races and marathons are part of the ‘be healthy’ kick. In general, special events make Toronto an exciting place to be.”

To shut down a road, a city resident fills out a simple form and, if approved, pays $74.19. “We are receptive to requests and try to accommodate permits wherever possible,” Welsh added, noting there was a road-hockey tournament tying up the Esplanade as we spoke. Any limits? “Well,” he said, thinking for a moment. “You can’t have a family get-together on Yonge Street.”

Welsh’s solution to the frustration of roadblock season is publicity: his office issues press releases. A new Web site announces road closures, and he’s quite proud of a new sign: a round, orange alert sign that’s screwed to the top right corner of regular rectangular road-disruption signs. All this, he suggests, will provide enough notice so people can plan to take alternative routes, stay home or get out of town.

“If someone’s going to drive across town on a Saturday morning,” he told me, “they should be aware of road closures and leave enough time.” He added, rather breath­takingly, “If a member of the public is caught in traffic, he should be saying to himself, ‘I should almost be mad at myself.’ ” How Canadian. You step on my foot, I say sorry.

Our city wasn’t always thus. The Santa Claus parade started innocently enough in 1905. The man in red arrived at Union Station by train, was greeted by Mr. and Mrs. Timothy Eaton and then proceeded up Simcoe Street to their department store. Then, somehow, it evolved into the giant six-kilometre, 1,500-participant extravaganza it is today.

Gay Pride, which also began modestly, has spawned triplets: a main parade, a dyke march and a trans parade. Likewise, Ride for Heart, which originally commandeered a few streets, now shuts down both the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway. (The Heart and Stroke Foundation, for the record, does not clog arteries in any other Canadian city.)

Are we getting the world’s biggest outdoor dog festival, the longest-running Santa parade and the charity bike-a-thon with the highest number of participants because we’re Canada’s Number One City? Or is something else at work here? Are we perhaps Canada’s Number One City of Suckers?
Maybe I shouldn’t blame the sorry-you’ve-stepped-on-my-foot reaction on being Canadian. Perhaps Toronto-specific DNA lacks the protest gene. We didn’t call a general strike when the provincial government off-loaded the cost of social services onto us. We voted against amalgamation, then submitted to it. We put up with garbage, literally. For five weeks last summer, we obediently hauled our reeking bags to desig­nated sites.

Then there was the G20. We wanted it to be held at Exhibition Place. When the feds decided instead to shut down the heart of our financial district—thus paralyzing much of the city—they didn’t even bother to consult our mayor. And we swallowed it, just as we’ve swallowed the Harmonized Sales Tax. In British Columbia, opponents have filed a constitutional challenge, and 700,000 people signed an anti-HST petition. No such mobilization here.

Perhaps our meekness is a psychic remnant of our identity as Toronto the Good. This is, after all, the city that drew curtains across shop windows to avoid tempting Sunday shoppers, that still has a street called “Temperance.” Or maybe we’re multicultural cowards, afraid of raining on someone else’s parade. We continually congratulate ourselves for living in harmony, for being a city where even historic enemies like Turks and Armenians, Chinese and Japanese, Pakistanis and Indians get along. No one wants to destabilize this delicate dynamic. If we get our festival, you most certainly can have yours—as long as you pick another weekend this summer.

At least we put our foot down in the mara­thon department—sort of. Until this year, we had duelling races every fall. A city manager had to shuttle back and forth, Middle East peace talks style, until GoodLife Fitness Toronto Marathon finally conceded the coveted autumn slot to Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Starting in 2011, GoodLife will plug up the roads every May instead.

If this keeps up, we’ll become hostages in our own city, glued to Gary Welsh’s Web site, desperately seeking an alternative route.

So I’m putting my foot down. Please don’t ask me to support your charity walk or run. I’ll pledge money for almost any cause—if you’ll weed my lawn. Ten cents a dandelion, as long as you get the root. Or you can rake my leaves. I pledge $2.50 a bag, placed on the curb. It’s good exercise. It eliminates leaf blowers. And it keeps you off my streets.