Despite what some may believe, there was not a moment at the Complete Streets Forum last week when the doors were shut and locked and we all leaned forward, rubbing our hands in glee, as we devised plans to rid Toronto’s roads entirely of cars. This was not a collection of staunch anti-car advocates, bristling with righteous anger. Instead, the room was filled with architects, engineers, planners, journalists, activists, citizens, and politicians who all have a common goal: to make our streets safe and accessible for all forms of transportation. To create streets that aren’t simply thoroughfares, but destinations in themselves.
Presented by both the Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation (TCAT) and the Clean Air Partnership, the forum ran from April 28–29 and was held at the Harry Potter-esque Great Hall at the University of Toronto’s Hart House, where several birds who had found their way inside chirped and flew above the heads of the delegates in a bit of a whimsical distraction.
What’s curious about the political rhetoric that often surrounds discussion of transportation is the fact that we cannot easily separate ourselves into different transportation categories. Many people regularly use a combination of different transportation modes, whether that is walking from the car to the restaurant, biking along the waterfront, or driving to the subway station and then taking the train to work. So shouldn’t we all want complete streets?
This was picked up on in the theme of the event: building alliances. As the forum’s welcome letter stated: “The transportation challenges facing us are multifaceted, transcend municipal boundaries and political factions, and affect all of us, regardless of how we choose to get around—by car, bike, transit, or on our own two feet.” Essentially, a complete streets policy would be one that directs the design and operation of our streets in such a way that makes them accessible to all ages and abilities, while encompassing all forms of transportation.
One of the opening speeches was given by Councillor—and chair of council’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee—Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East), who said streets are not a left- or right-wing issue, but an issue that includes all people. He also brought up his plans for separated bike lanes in the city. “Space in our communities is fixed,” he said, “so we must separate it out together.” While the sentiment was appreciated, the line itself rang slightly hollow, considering that council’s Executive Committee, on which Councillor Minnan-Wong also sits, recently voted to dispose of the citizen advisory committees, like the pedestrian and cycling committee, which allow citizens to be involved in these decisions.
One of the more rousing speakers was Mia Birk, President of Alta Planning + Design, who worked previously with the City of Portland to implement much of their biking and pedestrian infrastructure. Birk encouraged the reforming of the citizen advisory committees, saying that it’s about changing attitudes and getting citizens excited and involved in their streets. “It’s not just about the infrastructure,” she said.
Other speakers, like Janet Lo, who works in Transportation Services at the City, stressed the importance of developing design tools that turn policy into reality. “How can we better design and construct projects to better serve all users?” she asked. This was picked up by the next speaker, Chris Hodgson, Project Manager from the City of Waterloo, who described that city’s progress in adopting a complete streets policy and then actually implementing that policy on the ground through “road diets,” which work to take away road space for cars and give it to transit, pedestrian, and cycling as needed.
At the end of the forum, Torontoist caught up with Nancy Smith Lea, TCAT’s director. When asked if she saw opportunities or challenges in working with the new administration, Smith Lea echoed Councillor Minnan-Wong’s sentiment that the issue of streets is not a left or right issue. “We have a different administration now, and we’ll work with them just like we worked with the last administration.”
“It’s important to form those partnerships that may be a little uncomfortable, to be talking to people that are politically different than we are,” she said. “You might be more aligned than you think you are, rather than just staying entrenched in your positions.”
Our streets have unfortunately become embroiled heavily in the most vindictive, polarizing kind of political debate; we must now work hard to extricate them from it if we are to ever achieve streets that are safe for everyone. What has been constructed, however, is a fictitious war whereby people who drive cars are under attack from left-wing pinko types who want to claim street space inch-by-inch for cyclists and pedestrians—and who won’t stop until every car is squished into a cube and then used to construct a giant memorial to Jane Jacobs.
What is lost in the huffing and puffing of this issue is that complete streets policies work to make streets that include all forms of transportation. A complete street is not one that banishes motorists, but rather is sensitive to the needs of other road users—something that has not always been at the forefront for those who built Toronto’s roads.
As Mayor Ford once infamously said: “Every year we have dozens of people that get hit by cars or trucks. Well no wonder: roads are built for busses, cars and trucks. Not for people on bikes.” Those at the Complete Streets Forum would probably not disagree with that statement—they just hope to do something about it.