Public Works: Where (Almost) No Cars Go
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Public Works: Where (Almost) No Cars Go

Parts of Toronto have experimented with car-free days, but Madrid hopes to get vehicles out of its city centre by 2020.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo by End User, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by End User, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

There are four neighbourhoods, or barrios, in the heart of Madrid, in which non-local cars are banned. On January 1, 2015, the City went one step further and added two more barrios that ban cars outright—part of a growing city-planning trend to prioritize non-vehicular traffic.

Called the Priority Residential Area, the 3.5-square-kilometre district comprises 13 enclosed parking lots that non-local drivers can use. Any non-local drivers in the area whose cars are somewhere other than designated parking lots will be fined 90 euros.

There are some exceptions. Motorcycles can enter the areas for free between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., and delivery vans carrying goods to local businesses can drive through on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Madrid’s city council says its aim is to reduce vehicle traffic by more than a third in the restricted areas.

It’s part of a broader goal to make central Madrid car-free by 2020—a strategy summed up in City documents as “Madrid is for people, not vehicles.”

This real-life “war on the car” also includes plans to widen sidewalks, create more bike and motorcycle parking spaces, integrate car sharing with public transportation, and further restrict delivery vehicles in the city centre.

In July 2014, Madrid also instituted a system of “smart” parking meters that charge different rates depending on a vehicle’s engine type and age.

Toronto has flirted with car-free streets, but only in tiny increments. Between 1971 and ’75 the City turned a stretch of Yonge Street into a pedestrian mall for several short periods in springs and summers.

In 2014, the Open Streets TO program shut traffic out of Yonge Street from Queen to Bloor, and along Bloor from Spadina to Parliament, on two Sundays in August.

Permanently pedestrianizing major arteries, like Bloor and Yonge, is an admirable idea, but one that probably isn’t practical in a city like Toronto. Madrid might be able to rid its streets of cars by 2020, but Madrid is a concentrated city, even by European standards. Toronto sprawls. Our transit system is embattled as it is, never mind how it would handle the added responsibility of existing in a car-free city.

A more replicable model might be Kensington Market’s Pedestrian Sundays, in which the labyrinthine streets are blocked off for shoppers, buskers, and wanderers. It’s a little more akin to what Madrid has right now—a small, specific traffic-free area. But we don’t have to stop at just one.

There are plenty of pockets around Toronto readymade for pedestrian-only restrictions: Baldwin Village, Yorkville, Cabbagetown, and whatever Mirvish Village ends up becoming.

So, no, an entirely car-free downtown is probably not a sensible idea. But a Priority Residential Area? That could suit us just fine.