Promoting Toronto's Pedestrians
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Promoting Toronto’s Pedestrians

A new advocacy group aims to make the city's streetscape more pedestrian-friendly.

In Toronto’s transportation hierarchy, pedestrians have a low ranking. Our public conversations tend to be about roads, transit, and sometimes cycling, but rarely do we stop to discuss the state of things for those who walk—which is to say, just about all of us. That’s not because there’s nothing to discuss though: the list of obstacles facing pedestrians on Toronto’s sidewalks and streets ranges from dangerous crossings to unlit underpasses to poor sidewalk snow removal. The list of missed opportunities—of places that could be inviting for residents on foot but just aren’t—is even longer.

The City of Toronto used to have a Pedestrian Committee, which provided advice to city council on how to improve things. It was one of many citizen advisory bodies that was not established by city council this term, many believe because newly installed Mayor Rob Ford didn’t value the kinds of priorities those committees had.

Now, a new volunteer group is in the process of being formed to fill that void.

About 80 people filled a meeting room at Metro Hall on Wednesday night for that group’s first meeting. Organized by pedestrian activists Michael Black, Roger Brook, and Dylan Reid (former co-chair of the Pedestrian Committee), the session was intended to gauge interest in the volunteer organization, and settle on some particular issues the group could pursue. Attendees also cast ranked ballots for the group’s name, which will be revealed shortly.

Black told the audience that City Hall’s inhospitable attitude to pedestrian issues and the rash of pedestrian deaths last year inspired him to form the organization. One of his goals is to build a broad conversation about how Torontonians move around the city, and he hopes that the new group will work other local advocates: “Strategically, we represent just one branch of sustainable transportation,” he pointed out. If the group presents a united front with organizations like Cycle Toronto and TTC Riders to improve Toronto’s streetscape, he says, hopefully all those advocates together can shed the stigma of being “special interest groups.”

Brook also presented a slide show that called attention to some of daily challenges pedestrians face, and highlighting poor design decisions made with little thought for the convenience of those on foot. Among the examples were the CityPlace pedestrian bridge (whose lengthy access ramps could be eased with the installation of staircases) and recent subdivisions near the Rouge River in Scarborough, where endless barriers make walking anywhere near-impossible.

Grouped around tables, attendees were asked to discuss their pedestrian issues. Among the recurring themes was the notion of sidewalks as social space, where people often display more civility toward each other than in the competitive road space. Lack of adequate sidewalk space was seen as obstacle to stopping to talk while walking, as the narrow paths can induce the pedestrian version of road rage among those in a hurry. Also discussed: providing space for seniors and others with mobility issues, better snow clearance, improved suburban street crossings, avoiding polarization in transit debates, promoting the health benefits of walking, and feeling blamed for causing accidents.

There was a strong sense that “war on the car” rhetoric has placed pedestrians at the bottom of the pecking order. Participants at one table observed that past plans devised by the City and defunct advocacy groups were good but were never acted upon. Obstructions like Astral Media’s poorly placed street furniture also provoked anger. As one attendee put it: “give pedestrians what’s best, as opposed to what’s left.”