City Council to Vote on Pedestrian-Only Streets
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City Council to Vote on Pedestrian-Only Streets

Vote will determine whether Willcocks and Gould become permanent car-free zones.

The University of Toronto's pedestrian-only area on Willcocks Street.

On Monday, city council will vote on a series of measures from the Toronto and East York Community Council, including a motion to permanently create two pedestrian-only areas at Ryerson University and the University of Toronto. The vote marks the final step in a project that has been, in Ryerson’s case, more than ten years in the making.

“It’s the last chapter in a very long but successful campaign by a great team of students led by the Ryerson Students’ Union and Ryerson staff,” said Chris James Drew, a former Ryerson student who was active in the Close Gould Street movement. After pressure from the student unions of both universities for more student space on campus, the City of Toronto implemented the closure of Willcocks Street between Huron and St. George and Gould Street between O’Keefe and Bond, along with a portion of Victoria Street, as part of its Toronto Walking Strategy. The plan called for a year-long pilot initiative to examine the effects of the street closures from September 2010 to September 2011. Last fall, the pedestrian areas were granted a six-month extension, and in January, the Community Council approved the motion to keep the areas.

Planner Alan Webb, who works at U of T’s Campus & Facilities Planning office, has witnessed the success of the closed area, now dubbed the “Willcocks Common.” “We’ve conducted a survey with the city to see student feedback, and it has all been very positive. When we first went in, people were pleasantly surprised, and started using it right away.” Among the uses to which the area’s been put: weekly farmer’s markets and the Field to Fork Festival, as well as pick-up basketball and hockey.

Ryerson’s pedestrian-only area has also been a success, hosting student group days and fashion shows. “Gould went from being a shortcut street to a student spirit space,” Drew told us.

Whether the progress at Gould and Willcocks will lead to the growth of pedestrian-only areas elsewhere in the city, however, remains unclear. But Webb is optimistic that Toronto residents can learn from the examples of the two streets. “Once the wider public sees them in action, they can understand the areas and see if there are opportunities for this elsewhere in the city,” he said.

As for Monday’s meeting, Drew isn’t concerned that any councillors will attempt to organize opposition to the pedestrian-only motion. “I haven’t heard or seen any indication that it’s not going to be successful,” he said. While it may be unusual for the mayor’s “War on the Car” rhetoric to jive with the closing of any street for pedestrian-only purposes, Gould and Willcocks present a special case. Because both streets are nestled within university campuses, restricting traffic had a lesser effect than on another road. Also, both Ryerson and U of T have agreed to foot the bill for the maintenance costs of each street. “There’s an economic benefit for the taxpayer and the city, because they can now deploy those resources elsewhere,” said Drew, adding that he’d be happy to give Rob Ford a personalized tour of the Gould area any time.

All that remains now is the go-head from council: if the vote passes, the effect will be to make the streets permanent car-free zones, pending renewal every five years. Drew, for one, thinks the motion will breeze right through: “City council has bigger things to worry about than a good news story.”