Now is the time for cities to be bold. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned everything – behaviour, expectations, budgets – upside down, and in that chaos there is the opportunity to make better choices than we have in the past.
Specifically, the pandemic offers Toronto the opportunity to make new policy on transportation, housing and (a bigger category) resilience.
On transportation, the process has already begun. Last Wednesday, the city announced activeTO, a set of measures to reorganize street space in favour of pedestrians and cyclists. The promises – including 50 kilometres of residential streets being turned into low-traffic, “slow streets” – sound very good. The questions now are about execution: Where will these places be? Will they create a coherent network for transportation?
The answer needs to be decisive, and programs should inform a permanent rethinking of space within the city. During the pandemic, everyone has been able to see just how much urban space is devoted to, or dominated by, cars. The near-total lack of bike infrastructure and the miserable state of the city’s public realm have never made real sense.
They make even less sense now that public transit is in crisis: Some people who can afford to reject transit will do so, in order to avoid catching the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Cycling and walking will be critically important to the recovery. This is why the British government has announced £2-billion ($3.45-billion) in spending on active transportation. And when it comes to sidewalks and bike lanes, that money goes a very long way.
The logic for spending money and space disproportionately on car travel has always been shaky. It’s time to embrace what will actually work.
The same is true on housing. Toronto’s housing shortage, which is enormous, is not likely to improve in the coming years. A huge economic downturn and increased inequality will create even more need. The good news is that Toronto has begun to move on that front, using prefabricated components to provide 250 units of supportive housing.
That’s good. Much more housing at all income levels is needed, and much more is possible. All three levels of government should be planning to build, and quickly. This has been much too difficult for a variety of cultural and quasi-aesthetic reasons. Government won’t even maximize the opportunity on the land it owns. These things can change, with enough political will.
The basic agenda should be a city that has more places to live and more ways to safely get around – with ruthless attention to what’s possible and what’s efficient, which means dense housing and lots of (very space-efficient) bike lanes.
Given that Toronto’s government is heading into very difficult financial straits, it can no longer afford to let political expediency shape its future.
And that future is going to be bumpy. Even when the pandemic is behind us, we know that climate change is going to bring a variety of shocks (yes, even here). It’s time to work harder toward a city less dependent on vehicles, with less air pollution, with more varied neighbourhoods, with more efficient and well-insulated buildings. Never mind the global moral imperative of reducing greenhouse gas emissions; all these things are matters of public health and economic survival.
All these imperatives were easy to ignore, in the before times. There is customarily a large gap between a city’s policy aspirations and its practice. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi likes to talk about the “say-do gap.” Some things are seen as just not possible, just not practical. We can’t just turn our economic and social lives upside down to make a better world.
But now we have. And before we put everything back to normal – if that is even possible – it’s time to attack the biggest problems in front of us with the same sense of solidarity and purpose that is, right now, keeping us healthy.
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