“Nobody wants vehicles speeding through their backyard”: Why this road-safety expert is calling for a car-free High Park

Thomas DeVito explains why banning vehicles is the safest, healthiest and most environmentally friendly move

By Mathew Silver| Photography by Yasin Osman
"Nobody wants vehicles speeding through their backyard": Why this road-safety expert is calling for a car-free High Park

In a simpler world, High Park would be a respite from the city, free of turmoil, a tranquil place for Torontonians to get out and experience nature. If only it were that easy. Instead, its 160 hectares of green space often turn into a political battleground where motorists, cyclists and pedestrians duke it out. The latest issue: whether vehicles should be allowed in the park at all. This evening, the city will host an open house to discuss the divisive topic. We chatted with Thomas DeVito, a road safety advocate and volunteer with Car Free High Park, about why he wants to see vehicles vanish.

What’s your connection to High Park?
In 2020, my wife, Danielle, and I moved from New York to Toronto to be closer to family. Nowadays, we live just north of High Park, in the Junction Triangle, with our 15-month-old daughter, Goldie. We visit High Park with her on foot at least a few times a week. We also like to take our four-year-old Korean Jindo, Lenny, to the dog hill and off-leash areas, and we use the public pool in the summer. I work as the director of an American non-profit called Families for Safe Streets, which supports people who have lost loved ones to traffic crashes or who have been injured themselves. We advocate for law changes to make streets safer, so I’m naturally interested in helping with this cause.

How did you get into that line of work?  
I was the senior director of advocacy at an organization called Transportation Alternatives, which advocates for improvements to New York City’s walking, biking and mass transit infrastructure. In 2018, partly because of our work, the city made Central Park and Prospect Park car-free. It was a long process, dating back to the 1960s. It required countless petitions and rallies, lobbying for support from community boards. When the change was made, my family and friends started visiting the parks more often for runs and bike rides because they were guaranteed to be safe, usable spaces. Golden Gate Park in San Francisco also went car-free last year, leading to a spike in foot traffic.

What are the other benefits of getting rid of cars?
Having cars present increases the level of risk for bikers and pedestrians. Far too often, people in parks are hit by vehicles that are going too fast or not paying attention. Parks are a backyard for thousands and thousands of people—nobody wants vehicles speeding through their backyard. In dense urban environments, parks are a refuge, a place you can go for peace and relaxation, to get away from daily stressors. If you can’t go to a park and get away from the safety concerns presented by vehicles on city streets, I think we’re doing something wrong. There are environmental benefits too. The fewer unnecessary single-vehicle trips that are taken, the better. A ban would encourage Torontonians to develop more environmentally friendly transit habits. 

In 2020, when Covid was surging, the city made High Park car-free on weekends. Did you get a chance to experience that?
Yes. Without cars, walking was way more comfortable. It’s a great relief to be able to stroll freely through the park, surrounded by beauty and nature, away from the sounds of traffic, without thinking, Oh no, that car is coming around the corner too quickly. Especially if you’re walking with someone vulnerable, which in our case is our daughter.

Some people have been critical of the car-free approach. They argue that people with disabilities and seniors may need vehicles to access the park. Thoughts? Accessibility is a major issue. In a letter to the city, Car Free High Park outlined how to make the park accessible without vehicles, including the addition of a shuttle-bus or shuttle-train system, the improvement of sidewalk infrastructure and adding benches along main paths to support seniors or park users with disabilities. In Central Park and Prospect Park, there are accommodations for maintenance vehicles, vehicles servicing concession areas and special events, and vehicles approved to facilitate access for individuals with disabilities.

Sure, but what about people with disabilities or mobility issues who would have trouble getting there in the first place? There’s no elevator at High Park station, for example. One solution would be to make accommodations for those with disabilities, allowing them to park in pre-existing lots in High Park. Others should be encouraged to arrive by transit, walking or biking.

Thomas DeVito, a volunteer with Car Free High Park, wants to see vehicles banned from the greenspace.

Tonight, the city is hosting an open house to discuss “preferred strategies” for allowing vehicles. Are you going?
I’ll definitely be there, making my preferences known. They’re looking at four options: full road closures with no vehicles allowed, time-based road closures with no vehicles at specific times, area-based road closures with no vehicles on specific roads, and full road re-opening with vehicles allowed at all times on all roads.

Do you like those options?
If they make exceptions, it should be for accessibility purposes, to accommodate people with disabilities or reasonable access for the various concession areas. Options include creating delivery hours for food or equipment or limiting the speed of delivery vehicles to, say, less than 10 kilometres per hour. But, again, I would like to see a fully car-free High Park. 

What else is on your urban planning wish list? I would like to see more safe routes to—and surrounding—the park. Parkside Drive is overly wide and encourages speeding. It has a fatal track record. My family would love to see a road diet and protected bike lanes implemented along it. The intersection of Bloor and Parkside feels particularly unsafe and could use pedestrian islands and curb extensions. I would also love to see more street configurations like Shaw Street across the city.

The list goes on: for example, allowing right-hand turns at red lights creates a hostile environment for pedestrians. Toronto should take after Montreal and New York by changing that policy as soon as possible. All deaths on Toronto streets are preventable. The policy and infrastructure solutions are well known, but it takes political will to make them happen. It’s always frustrating to see effective solutions—from more bus lanes to pedestrian-friendly road closures—delayedneglected or rolled back.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



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