Streets are a big problem in Toronto lately, and not just because they’re so riddled with potholes that they rate among the worst in the province. Beyond simple maintenance issues, they’ve become the battleground in an increasingly divisive struggle to define how their space is allocated and used: are streets primarily for cars to get from A to B unimpeded, or are they for the use of people, whether in cars or not? It’s a worthwhile discussion, but ultimately, it’s counterproductive to have the discussion every single time paint is laid to asphalt. Jarvis, Queens Quay, Bloor, Annette, The Kingsway, St. Clair, Cherry, Lawrence, Roncesvalles—these are just some of the roads where the same questions have been asked over and over and over again: should we accommodate bikes, should we have nice sidewalks, should we prioritize transit. But during any road rebuilding or redesign, the question shouldn’t be whether we’re going to accommodate any of the above, it should be how we’re going to accommodate all of them. Enter complete streets, the idea that roadways should be designed “for everyone, whether young or old, motorist or bicyclist, walker or wheelchair user, bus rider or shopkeeper.”
Having complete streets doesn’t mean that every road must come equipped with bike lanes, ten-metre sidewalks, speed humps, and no parking. Complete streets don’t all conform to a single uniform design throughout the city. Requiring complete streets simply means that designers must consider all users of a road when planning and building it. The consideration could be something as simple as ensuring that automated signals can properly detect cyclists, allowing pedestrians to cross a road safely mid-block [PDF], or putting a crown on a sidewalk so that rain, snow, and ice drain off rather than onto it. And yes, it may even include slowing down cars. The idea is that roads shouldn’t be dangerous for anybody, no matter what kind of vehicle (or lack thereof) someone is using. It’s certainly true that many roads are dangerous for kids and seniors to get around on, but it’s pretty difficult to argue that any roads should be dangerous. So why do we continue to make them that way except for a handful of special streets that get special attention and are allowed to be used by people not in cars?
No one—not even cyclist or pedestrian advocates—ever questions whether we should include space for cars when we’re redesigning or constructing streets: accommodating private motor vehicle use in any road construction is a given. Yet the private automobile is the only method of transportation that is routinely given a bye past the first round of design; everything else has to be studied and justified or is relegated to the margins as an afterthought. Even the way that streets are designed and funded is stacked in favour of the car: design most frequently begins with vehicle lanes—how many and how wide—and then tries to squeeze all other users into whatever space remains. Sorry, we need four wide lanes for cars. But sidewalks? Benches? Bike lanes? Crosswalks? Those are frills and we can’t afford them. Some suggest that we’d arrive at a more equitable division of space if we designed from the edges in: start with sidewalks, buffers, and space for cyclists, and then squeeze cars into whatever space is left in the middle.
Unfortunately, the political climate in Toronto has been poisoned in recent months by a meaningless catchphrase: the war on the car. But to latch onto such huff- and puffery is to ignore the fact that some of the most desirable communities in the GTA, from Unionville to Port Credit, are built on complete streets. Only we don’t label them that way: instead we call them “small towns,” “historic,” and other code words for “really nice non-car-centric places to live where you can also drive if you want to.” Complete streets are about people and neighbourhoods and, yes, not planning public infrastructure exclusively around two-tonne mobile metal boxes.
Toronto has actually made some progress on implementing complete streets. The makeover of St. George Street through the University of Toronto in the 1990s and the upcoming reconstructions of Jarvis Street, Queens Quay, and Roncesvalles Avenue are good examples of what can happen when planners take everyone into account before the construction equipment moves in. Waterfront Toronto has paid attention to all modes of transportation throughout most of its planning and the TTC is considering more than just LRT and cars on the Transit City routes. In contrast, stumbles on the current reconstruction projects on Bloor and St. Clair offer lessons about the risks of omitting entire groups of users entirely, intentionally or not. But all of these are still one-off projects, with no broad requirement to meet the spirit, never mind the letter, of the city’s own Pedestrian Charter or Bike Plan. What’s really needed is clear and formal policy that that makes complete streets the rule, not the exception.
Val Dodge is a volunteer on the newly-created Complete Streets Campaign committee, a joint initiative of the Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation and Toronto Cyclists Union.