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opinion

Cyclists take advantage of the ActiveTO closure of Lakeshore Blvd. in Toronto on June 7, 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

In the mid-20th century, the way of the future was clear: automobiles. Any city that wanted to keep up with the times widened its roads and built highways so that the workers and shoppers could zoom in to do business. And then zoom back out again.

Seventy-five years later, Toronto appears stuck in that same mindset. This week, city council will vote on changing ActiveTO, a program that opens up certain roadways on weekends to cyclists and pedestrians. Mayor John Tory has said he wants to “review” – which means, very likely, “kill” – the program.

He will likely pitch it as a sensible move. In truth, betting on the car is urbanistically backward – and bad business.

ActiveTO is a product of the early period of the pandemic, when nobody was driving anywhere much and people needed some breathing room. Cities around the world reshaped their roadways to adapt to these conditions. Toronto followed suit on large commuter roadways around downtown: Bayview Avenue and Lake Shore Boulevard.

This echoes a 30-year tradition of so-called “open streets” in the Americas. The idea was popularized by Bogota, Colombia and its Ciclovia program: Every Sunday, 121 kilometres of its streets open to cycle and foot traffic. It’s become a key part of that city’s international reputation and its self-image.

In Toronto last summer, you could see why. Lake Shore Boulevard West had the air of a laid-back carnival. On the western expanse of Lake Shore, cyclists and kids on scooters glided along a vast expanse of asphalt. The adjacent Martin Goodman Trail, which is often overloaded with cyclists, was calmer. City data for 2021 suggest as many as 34,000 cyclists and 5,000 pedestrians used Lake Shore in a single day.

Since then, however, ActiveTO has been withering. Now Councillor Mike Layton wants to formalize it, and also redesign Lake Shore – a massively overdesigned commuter route that dates back to the era of roads-at-all-costs.

Toronto Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro waded in, asking council to kill ActiveTO. Mr. Tory sits on the advisory committee that oversees the Rogers family trust and the Jays are owned by Rogers Communications. His spokesperson, Lawvin Hadisi, said the mayor is not in a conflict and will be voting on the issue. Mr. Tory has signalled he has concerns about the program.

The mayor’s position is typical for him and for conservative Toronto: While paying lip service to the importance of recreation and health, he’s calling for “balance.” This means maintaining the car-centric status quo.

Mr. Tory defers to the mainstream position that closing any vehicle lanes, ever, is an unjustifiable inconvenience. That’s certainly a popular view among suburban councillors. If you drive everywhere and listen to talk radio, it’s probably your view as well.

The truth, however, is that cars take up a lot of space. A kilometre-long backup on Lake Shore might contain a few hundred cars and a few hundred people. If a fraction of those are late to a Blue Jays game, or choose not to go out for dinner afterward, this is bad for the city’s economy. But it’s not a disaster. Most Jays fans take transit, anyway.

Alternatively, reshaping the city to be more Bogota-like has its own economic rewards. Toronto’s real economic advantage is as a place where people want to be – where people from all over the world and all walks of life can be comfortable, mix, do business and enjoy themselves.

Toronto’s leadership seems to miss this obvious truth: Cities win when they are city-like. There’s an ethical and political imperative here, yes. But if you don’t care about building an inclusive city, or about the climate, there is also an economic incentive. When Toronto pitched for Amazon’s headquarters, its “bid book” included images of bike lanes. Tourism Toronto promotes the city with images of Pride, the Distillery District and shiny skyscrapers. Not expressways.

The city’s public spaces are dominated by cars. Even shifting a few per cent of street space away from vehicles is enough to transform the experience of the city. That was clear during last year’s ActiveTO.

What if the city went big on creating beautiful, inclusive public space? What if the University Park proposal for downtown, turning asphalt into green space, was a reality? What would that do for Toronto’s sense of itself? How would it help tourism, boost real estate and attract talented workers?

As long as Toronto is stuck in the 20th century, we’ll never know.

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