Car people versus foot people. Driving lanes versus sidewalks. With an average of 20m of space to work with on most city roads, planning can get quite tight. The downtown core of Toronto is growing into a community hub for local citizens and tourists, and with that is a rising number of pedestrians. Many new condo buildings have underground lots that stay empty, save for a few resident cars. New residents complain about having to pay for a parking spot that is not being used, while condos with no parking are selling out. Is Toronto’s downtown core developing into a pedestrian haven? If so, should the city be facilitating that by developing pedestrian-only zones?
On January 26th, 2016, we had a surprisingly contentious hour and a half discussing pedestrian zones in Toronto: Can and should we develop them? If so, where should they go? Joining us on Monday were three of the city’s own experts in the field. Paul Bedford, former Chief City Planner; Janice Solomon, Entertainment District BIA Executive Director; and Fiona Chapman, the city’s manager of pedestrian projects all drew for us the city’s picture of the future.
Toronto, with its ever-growing population that now stands at over 6 million people, is famous for its downtown core. The lifeblood of the city covers a relatively small area south of Bloor street, and its traffic is almost as famous as its energy. As Chapman noted, roads make up a quarter of our land area, and how we design them is key. Our speakers had differing ideas about how to approach a more pedestrian-friendly downtown core – Bedford argued that the city is too timid and needed to take bigger risks with pilot projects for pedestrian zones, and Chapman countered that with the point that sometimes timid steps are necessary to ensure that we are doing what we want to achieve. All three, however, agreed that the city is moving towards a more European model of becoming a walkable cultural hub, versus the ten-story parking garages that has become the American model.
Making Toronto more walkable isn’t a new idea for the city. The Yonge Street Promenade was created in the 1970’s following New York City’s 5th Avenue development. However after the initial buzz, though it served well during rush hour, it stood empty for the majority of the day. Bedford argued that for a pedestrian zone to be viable it must have a “24-hour active cycle of intense density”. In many cases, other options such as multi-use roads and schedules such as the temporary closure of King Street during TIFF might be better suited. The two-day King Street closure during the international film festival has been a huge success, bringing hundreds of tourists to local businesses. The next big plan the city has is for John Street, which connects an incredible amount of Toronto’s art and entertainment venues.
Above all, the discussion illuminated just how complex city building is, and that things take a long time even if all of the players are on your side. In the sense of car people versus foot people, the two may not be at odds. Foot people, often enough, are car people as well. So, as all three speakers pointed out, the issue is not getting cars off of the roads but prioritizing the most vulnerable—i.e. pedestrians—and bringing about a safe and vibrant future for downtown Toronto.