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Tory's Toronto

Metro's Matt Elliott, formerly of Ford For Toronto, keeps the light shining on Mayor John Tory's city hall.

Streets are for people: Toronto deserves a permanent pedestrian street

Open Streets Toronto, summer festivals are proof that people are ready to carve out space for more than just cars.

Pedestrians walk along Danforth, which was closed for traffic for the Taste of the Danforth festival, on Sunday.

Eduardo Lima / Metro

Pedestrians walk along Danforth, which was closed for traffic for the Taste of the Danforth festival, on Sunday.

This Sunday, Toronto will do something bold: the city will close large parts of two downtown streets to car traffic, turning them over to pedestrians.

This bold move will last for about four hours.

After that, once this month’s edition of the Open Streets Toronto festival comes to an end, Yonge and Bloor will return to normal operation. Cars will regain exclusive access to the vast majority of the roadway. Pedestrians, as always, will get the scraps.

Open Streets – in addition to running this Sunday, it will also return on September 17 – is a fantastic event, bringing hundreds of people out to play on streets that are otherwise packed with cars. But it’s also a stark reminder that Toronto has fallen behind when it comes to giving streets over to pedestrians on a more permanent basis.

Aside from the cobblestone streets of the Distillery District and small stretches of street on campus at Ryerson University and the University of Toronto, there are no significant car-free streets in the downtown core.  

Other cities, meanwhile, have made car-free moves that are both bold and permanent. In New York City, sections of Broadway through Times Square were closed to car traffic years ago, honking yellow cabs replaced with chairs and tables — and people.

In Canada, Ottawa has their pedestrian-only Sparks Street. There are, in an amazing bit of coincidence, car-free Granville Malls in both Halifax and Vancouver. And Montreal is striding way ahead of everyone else, with 12 seasonal car-free areas in the city – with more to come.

And then there’s poor Toronto. A city that, aside from a few Sundays a year, hasn’t even closed the narrow and crowded streets of Kensington Market — a destination only the dopey and delusional dare to drive.

If there is any doubt about the desire for car-free areas, Torontonians are voting with their feet. In addition to Open Streets – now in its fourth year -- festivals and events that close roads are routinely packed with people.

People took over Danforth Avenue last weekend for Taste of the Danforth. They go to Church Street for Pride festivities. They dance on. St. Clair for Salsa on St. Clair and hang on Parliament Street for the Cabbagetown Festival.

But all this street life is temporary. The roads close, the people come, then the cars return. Why not a more permanent car-free destination?

It’s easy to come up with a short-list of potential car-free streets or areas. Kensington Market is obvious. Parts of Danforth and Bloor, already busy with events and with a subway underneath, could also fit the bill.

And then there’s Yonge, forever Toronto’s most famous street. A street where, at its busiest point, the number of pedestrians going through intersections is triple the number of vehicles.  

Drivers, of course, will inevitably complain if streets get closed to traffic. But I’ve got good news for them: even if a few sections of street are closed to cars, drivers will still have preferential access to the nearly 15,000 kilometres of road lanes in the city.

It’s not a lot to ask. Give the people their streets for more than four hours. Let the streets come alive – and stay alive.

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