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Tristan Joseph serves customers seated on the curb-lane patio outside Civil Liberties on Bloor Street West near Ossington Avenue in July 2020.Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail

As a years-long debate about narrowing a stretch of downtown Yonge Street so it works better for pedestrians and cyclists moved toward an overwhelming “yes” vote at city hall this week, Toronto Councillor Gord Perks tweeted that he was hearing “the gasping death rattle of autosaurus.”

It was a bold claim for a city whose previous mayor, Rob Ford, rose to power on a promise to stop the supposed “war on the car,” and later pushed for the removal of bike lanes on downtown Jarvis Street. A city where pedestrian deaths surged in recent years. A city where current Mayor John Tory spent considerable political capital securing council support for a vastly expensive rebuild of a lightly used stretch of the Gardiner Expressway in the eastern downtown.

But advocates for active transportation – walking and cycling - believe they have seen a meaningful shift in attitudes at city hall over the past few years. They point to resounding victories in debates about remaking two parts of Yonge, one downtown and the other in North York, as well as a stretch of Danforth Avenue. In all three cases, the new designs remove space that had been dedicated to drivers.

Mr. Tory’s support for these initiatives has been key to their passage. The mayor, who repeatedly promised to serve only two terms but has since left open the option running next year for a third, cannot whip a vote but can put considerable pressure on councillors.

Before casting his vote on the Yonge remake, Mr. Tory this week explained it by citing successful bike lanes and curb-lane patios installed last summer on Danforth Avenue. He said that some local merchants had given him apocalyptic warnings about the changes ruining their business.

“When I went back a month later and sat with some of the very same people they had to concede that it was a magnet for people, that it drew new life to that place,” he said.

Advocates are tentatively hopeful that a few successful votes in a row means a corner has been turned, with each successful project dedicated to people on foot and bike helping make the case for the next one. But opponents are waging a rearguard fight, galvanized by the fear of just this sort of urban evolution.

“That’s my concern here, is this is the beginning of a significant change downtown,” said Councillor Stephen Holyday, a deputy mayor. “I’m sure some of my colleagues on council will say ‘that’s fantastic, that’s what we’re trying to do,’ but I think this is the beginning of a very big change.”

In a marked difference from the Rob Ford era, though, the Yonge Street debate featured none of the fire-and-brimstone rhetoric once common at city council. Opponents to the change more subtly indicated whose interests they thought were most important.

Mr. Holyday framed his opposition around the need to ensure “downtown remains welcome and open to people,” meaning motorists. And Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, another deputy mayor, equated “travelling downtown” with driving there.

But those views were relegated to the fringe, as councillor after councillor spoke up to defend the project. Even a few of the councillors who voted against the plan praised it conceptually, while voicing concern about the traffic impact or reserving judgement until more details were known. The proposal passed by a vote of 21 to 5.

“Council’s maybe catching up with popular opinion,” said Michael Longfield, interim executive director of the advocacy group Cycle Toronto, though he noted the uncertain outcome that still hangs over every active transportation vote.

“Rethinking our main streets and making them more human-scaled, encouraging people to be outside, to be able to linger, to be able to walk safely, walk and bike while shopping, dining, are just very popular ideas. And it’s good to see these projects land successfully.”

On that front, Toronto has improved. As part of its response to COVID-19, the city installed 40 kilometres of bike lanes last year. Also to help counter the pandemic, Toronto closed curb lanes and in some cases sections of road to allow for patios and more space to move safely on foot and bike.

“There are too many people trying to get around the city to manage it all with cars,” Mr. Perks said. “The facts on the ground just make the case for you, that no, we can’t solve the problem with cars.”

Torontonians enjoy increasing opportunities to walk and cycle safely, despite some hiccups. The distance of bike lanes installed last year was a city record, but it was much less than was managed by cities such as Montreal or London, and one stretch was removed within months after motorists complained.

“I think there’s a consensus that there is a seismic shift occurring in Toronto in our favour,” said Michael Black, who sits on the steering committee of the advocacy group Walk Toronto.

“The car-champions at council see the shift as being rapid and almost like an emergency situation, whereas for us, many of us are complaining about incrementalism and the slowness with which change is occurring in Toronto versus other cities.”

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