The post-pandemic future: Toronto’s main streets will become European-style pedestrian hubs

The post-pandemic future: Toronto’s main streets will become European-style pedestrian hubs

Kristyn Wong-Tam is the city councillor for Toronto Centre

Yonge Street is Canada’s business pedestrian thoroughfare. Some 180,000 Torontonians live within 10 minutes of the downtown stretch, stacked into the country’s tallest residential towers. There are thousands of people, including my own family, who don’t have backyards where they can stretch their legs or get exercise, who have to use narrow sidewalks to get groceries and run other critical errands. Many low-income renters live in older buildings without balconies, let alone a porch where they can get fresh air. This trend will continue: 94 per cent of new housing today is in buildings taller than five storeys.

Access to high-quality public space was always an equity issue, and the problem has quickly intensified over the past months. In the age of Covid-19, most Toronto sidewalks just aren’t wide enough to accommodate physical distancing. So far, the city has opened up streets to pedestrians and cyclists through a combination of transportation changes: there are signs and temporary barricades on neighbourhood streets, such as Augusta and Nassau in Kensington Market, and in a more dramatic gesture, major roads like Lake Shore or Bayview are closed to cars and trucks on the weekends and open for physical activity. But these incremental moves don’t go far enough. We need to reimagine many of our busiest streets as pedestrian thoroughfares—for our economy, for our happiness and for our health.

Downtown Yonge Street, for example, has extensive experience closing down the street to vehicles and opening it up for active transportation and recreation programming; in Europe and Latin America, this practice is known as “open streets.” In 2012, years before the curbside patios and parklets arrived with the King Street pilot project, I partnered with the Downtown Yonge BIA to temporarily reduce four lanes of Yonge Street’s traffic into two and convert the rest of the roadway into additional space for pedestrians. An average of 221,456 people walked through the area each day—an increase of over 10 per cent from the same period a year earlier—and some restaurants that summer reported doubling their weekend sales.

Illustration by Maria Nguyen

Whenever I’ve suggested reducing traffic lanes or even closing busy streets to cars and opening them up to cyclists and pedestrians, I’ve been met with some political skepticism at city hall. “Where will the cars go?” “Won’t this create congestion?” The naysayers prioritized the experience of drivers above all other road users. But open streets have the benefits of stitching neighbourhoods together and exposing businesses to the thousands of potential new customers walking and cycling past their front doors. They offer far more economic opportunities than closing down Bayview or Lake Shore.

I want to see open streets across the city. This kind of program would allow space for local retail businesses to move their products and services outside into an open-air market with touchless payment, and create new oversized curbside patios for restaurants and cafés. Imagine if we opened up Canada’s streets around the principles of active transportation and local shopping. We can prioritize the millions of people already walking and cycling on the streets during daytime and peak hours, and allow for deliveries and servicing on the side streets and laneways during off-peak hours.

New evidence reveals that when it comes to Covid, many activities—including exercise and dining—are safer to do outdoors. As the City of Toronto continues to develop our recovery strategy, and as we adapt to dense city living without a vaccine, we must think more ambitiously about our public space. We have a chance to support struggling businesses and residents. We have a chance to create the most extraordinary and inclusive public spaces ever—ones that serve individuals and communities of all ages and abilities.

The great news is that work has already started on Yonge Street. Before the pandemic hit, the City of Toronto was undertaking an environmental assessment to consider a permanent redesigning of Yonge to increase sidewalk widths, reduce driving lanes and create a flexible street to allow pedestrian prioritization and seasonal vehicle-free zones. Covid-19 has taught us some critical lessons about the need for spatial equity. Let’s not just build the street we want, but also the healthy and inclusive future we need. Let’s get this done—before another pandemic arrives.

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