Toronto can learn a lot about how to improve our streets from cities like Vancouver
When you think of Paris, Copenhagen, or Vancouver, their sprawling, pedestrian and public space-focused, patio-filled sidewalks may come to mind. In these cities, the idea is that their photo-worthy streets are a place for pedestrians to stay a while, as opposed to merely functioning as transportation arteries.
For the most part, the same can’t be said for Toronto. Sure, we have our pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods—like St. Lawrence Market and the Distillery District—but our city streets are generally more a source of daily stress than anything enjoyable.
“Good cities know that streets move people, not just cars,” says Brent Toderian, ex-chief of Vancouver city planning, urban design consultant, and urbanist. “Great cities know that streets are places to linger and enjoy.”
Despite the addition of bike lanes, widespread availability of public bikes (last summer, the City doubled its fleet of public bikes and stations) and the perpetual traffic that makes city driving an ever-frustrating experience, Toronto still lags behind other cities when it comes to multimodal, active modes of transportation (like walking and biking)—modes that consume less precious space and public cost. Going hand-in-hand with prioritizing multimodal forms of transportation, Toronto could make better use of its streets as vibrant public spaces the way other highly livable cities have.
While it seems a different festival closes streets each weekend of the summer—replacing lineups of cars with things like live music, extended patios, food vendors, and interactive art—we need more celebrated streets and sidewalks all the time, not only on a pop-up basis.
As Toderian explains, this begins with a shift in urban planning away from the idea that movement is what defines a street’s success. It involves prioritizing walking, biking, and public transportation, but—equally as important—also a shift from a focus on the movement side of street use to the place-making side.
For Toderian, the most successful cities are the most walkable, but also the most “sticky.” Involving a different definition of success for streets, sticky streets (a term popularized by Toderian) are the types that make you want to linger. It’s a concept that Vancouver has evolved, frankly, by prioritizing the car last.
“For several decades, Vancouver has been an international leader when it comes to prioritizing multimodal transportation, and that has affected everything from street design and space dedication to budgeting,” says Toderian. “In the 1997 transportation plan, we prioritized walking, biking, and transit over the car. We don’t speak about balance, because that’s code for ‘the status quo, only better.’ We prioritize. The more recent plan took it a step further in recognizing that streets are for more than just mobility.”
The resulting difference between Vancouver and Toronto when it comes to the use of breezy outdoor city real estate is impossible to ignore.
“I think Toronto has been making good, impressive moves recently from a placemaking and multimodal perspective, but has a lot of ground to make up compared to Vancouver,” says Toderian. “It’s not always easy because the politics can pull you in a lot of different directions.”
Admittedly, some may be skeptical as to how this would work in Toronto, given the city’s current transportation woes. “I see this working in Toronto the way it does in every other city,” says Toderian. “Toronto, like many cities, has a space problem. It’s been recognizing that most of its space has been taken up moving relatively small amounts of people. So, as it rethinks space, there are two parts. One: How do you move more people? Two: How do you fit more people? When I say move, I am talking multimodal city building, and when I say fit, I’m talking sticky streets. The challenge Toronto has is finding the space to move more people and have more space to fit more people.”
Not surprisingly, some critics see a prioritization of biking, walking, and transit as a war on the car, something Toderian stresses it’s definitely not. But the reality is, it’s impossible to focus on streets from a multimodal and placemaking perspective without inconveniencing the automobile.
“Designing cities for cars fails for everyone, including drivers,” says Toderian. “Designing a multimodal city works better for everyone, including drivers.” As for Toronto, Toderian says the city is trying to have its cake and eat it too.
“You’re trying to create multimodal transportation and sticky streets, but not at the expense of car movement,” says Toderian. “But you can’t find room in dense cities for multimodal infrastructure and placemaking without prioritizing and making tradeoffs. You can move more people in less space with multimodal infrastructure while making the spaces better for people, but not if you refuse to take away any space for cars. Streets can become more successful, even for drivers, if you rethink streets, but you can’t have everyone who wants to drive be able to drive.”
In a time of rampant construction and congestion on Toronto streets, if everyone who wanted to drive did it would be impossible—nobody would move. “As cities get more dense, you’re kind of crazy to drive a car,” says Toderian. Already, a growing number of people I know have become avid walkers or bikers—winter and summer—out of sheer frustration for the city’s maddening traffic situation. Not only is it healthier for you, walking is now the only way you can guarantee you’ll always get somewhere in a defined amount of time.
While our TTC system admittedly leaves a lot to be desired relative other cities, the good news is that we also have the ever-expansive PATH—an often under-recognized element in Toronto’s walkability cause.
It will be interesting to assess the outcome of the upcoming yearlong King Street pilot project. With a focus on prioritizing the streetcar (and, inevitably, frustrating the driver), the plan dramatically changes the driving experience along King Street between Jarvis and Bathurst streets by forcing cars to turn right at every intersection. It also says goodbye to some 180 parking spaces. Critics claim the volume of cars in the city core likely wouldn’t change, they’ll just take alternate routes, while Toderian says that truly prioritizing the streetcar would be to give it its own lane (something he says would be “transformative”).
When it comes to sticky streets, with new, towering condo buildings perpetually in construction and the reality that many Toronto families are now living in small spaces without backyards thanks to sky-high home prices, open outdoor spaces in the city are more essential than ever. Streets can offer these places. Parking spaces should be replaced with public art or patios. Patios don’t have to be seasonal, either. Toderian points to Copenhagen, where patios are open year-round and equip with blankets and heating lamps. But to many, patios are seen as a nuisance rather than something we should celebrate, and restaurant owners remain under a constant threat of steep fees to operate them.
Patios are just one of the ingredients in making a street “sticky.” Others include food trucks, interesting storefronts, interactive public art, street vendors, live music, trees, seating, and considerations like the right combination of sun, shade, and wind protection. It also means more efficient and enjoyable bike lanes, dedicated streetcar and bus lanes, and finding ways to widen the sidewalk. In making a city more walkable, it helps to have colourful neighbourhoods; research shows that neighbourhoods with a variety of uses (interesting places to visit) have significantly more walking than those that don’t.
Of course, the concept of pedestrian-focused urban space is nothing new. Celebrated urbanist Jane Jacobs floated the concept of a pedestrian-friendly, multi-use city around over 60 years ago. Toronto had the right idea back in the early 70s, when a few blocks of Yonge Street were pedestrianized with great success for three consecutive summers. While eventually nixed due to an increase in crime, what was essentially a car-free, outdoor mall attracted 50,000 people to the area each day.
Similarly, 2012’s “Celebrate Yonge” closed down two lanes to traffic on Yonge Street between Queen and Gerrard streets. The project included everything from extended patios and public seating, to Muskoka chairs and a life-size chess game. Last Sunday, the City shut down significant portions of Yonge and Bloor streets for Open Streets TO, opening them up to pedestrians and offering entertainment, food, and activities along the way, with an objective to encourage car-free, healthy recreation.
Unfortunately, media outlets reported on Open Streets from a standpoint of a headache-causer for drivers, complete with headlines warning of “significant road closures,” rather than presenting it as a good thing for the city and people looking to enjoy a Sunday outside.
In 2015, Toronto residents reported that they wanted a more pedestrian-friendly Yonge Street. The positive news is that a plan to make the iconic street more pedestrian-friendly is currently in the works. Led by Jennifer Keesmaat, the City’s soon-to-retire chief planner, and Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale), the project would widen sidewalks and create pedestrian-only areas. The project remains in its discussion phase.
A street is not just a street. We need to start thinking about them as public spaces instead of focusing our attention only on parks and green spaces. If New York City can birth successful pedestrian projects (in Times Square, Broadway, and Gansevoort Market), we should be able to as well.