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The West Road in High Park on April 27.Tuan Minh Nguyen/The Globe and Mail

Families pushing strollers or walking their dogs took advantage of rare pedestrian access to the wide roads in Toronto’s High Park on a recent afternoon – an image that could one day be permanent, as the city considers eventually banning vehicles from the location.

The city already prohibits vehicle access on weekends and in the spring when cherry blossoms draw tens of thousands of visitors to the 160-hectare park, located west of Toronto’s downtown. During this year’s bloom, large white and orange barriers were placed at the entrance of the park to prevent cars from entering. Two police officers also stood next to a large sign, signalling that vehicles aren’t allowed.

City council is now preparing to consider whether to permanently ban vehicles from High Park, after the infrastructure and environment committee rejected a proposal last week to limit car-free days to Sundays. Instead, the committee voted to open up roads to pedestrians and cyclists full-time, though the change could take years to take effect. The proposal will go to the full city council later this month.

Toronto and other large cities in North America have debated for years about curbing or completely eliminating vehicle access to large parks and public spaces, with the concept gaining steam during the COVID-19 pandemic, as local governments responded to demand for more space to walk and cycle. There have long been tensions in High Park between bikes and vehicles, which boiled over last year when police cracked down on cyclists speeding and disregarding traffic laws.

Last summer, tensions rose in Vancouver over the future of a temporary bike lane in the popular Stanley Park. The Vancouver Park Board voted in February to get rid of most of the temporary lane in favour of vehicles, but discussions will continue on a potential permanent, dedicated bike lane.

Proponents of banning vehicles in Toronto’s High Park have pointed to the examples of New York’s Central Park and Prospect Park, where vehicle access was eliminated in 2018. Meanwhile, opponents argue that a prohibition makes it more difficult for some people, particularly those with disabilities, to access the park.

Faraz Gholizadeh, an organizer with the advocacy group Car Free High Park, said removing vehicles from the location would mean he won’t have to hold the hands of his two children so tightly when they go on their daily adventures. He also worries less when his 12-year-old daughter goes running with the Bisons Track Club on weekends, a non-profit youth running group that trains in the park three days a week.

“You can let them wander off a bit and you feel a lot more comfortable and a lot safer,” Mr. Gholizadeh said in an interview, describing his family’s experience with the car-free weekends. “You don’t have to look over your shoulder to see what’s coming.”

Mr. Gholizadeh’s family lives on Parkside Drive, which borders the park on the east side. They are also involved in the group Safe Parkside, formed to advance safety concerns on the street after two people were killed in a five-vehicle crash in October, 2021.

In addition to making High Park permanently car-free over the long term, the infrastructure and environment committee voted to continue prohibiting vehicles for full weekends and holidays – an initiative that started in March, 2020, at the outset of the pandemic.

This would still need to be approved by the full city council, alongside a proposal to prohibit cars on 65 per cent of park roads, amounting to 1.7 kilometres, in the short term. The city also intends to launch a pilot program this year to allow for sport cycling during some off-peak, early morning hours. The entire plan is estimated to cost up to $15-million over four years.

Mr. Gholizadeh said that while he supports the proposal, he would have preferred “pulling the Band-Aid off” and setting a timeframe for going completely car-free rather than phasing it in over years.

One of the reasons the infrastructure and environment committee cited for not moving faster is the need to accommodate people with disabilities, such as with a year-round shuttle, and deliveries to park amenities such as the zoo and the restaurant.

Some residents have pushed back against making the park car-free because of those mobility and logistical challenges.

Officials with the High Park Little League, running youth baseball programs for more than 500 kids aged 6 to 12, warned that a full closing to vehicles could force them to leave the park altogether – as families and volunteers may drop out because of the added challenges of getting to the diamonds.

League president Peter Paz said there are challenges, including bringing in heavy equipment and ensuring there is a safe way to get young kids to the games. He pointed to an issue the league faced leading up to opening day where volunteers had to lug two large industrial barbecues from the league’s clubhouse to the entrance of the park – about 600 metres away – so they could be picked up for cleaning and then returned for a free weekend cookout for players and their families.

“The operations of our league is at risk based on the current recommendations put forward. It’s just so much harder for volunteers to do their job,” Mr. Paz told the committee.

Parkdale-High Park Councillor Gord Perks said he understands the concerns of user groups and people who will have their routines disrupted with the removal of cars, but said it is the safest and best option for the long term, as more and more people head to the park.

Mr. Perks said there are solutions to tackle the challenges that groups will face, and the task of city staff now will be to look at options before a ban is implemented. This includes planning a shuttle service to run throughout the entire year and figuring out how much it would cost to the city.

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