In 2018, New York City permanently closed roads inside Central Park to car traffic.
The park predates the car, but motor vehicles had been driving amid the urban greenery since they were invented. The 1960s saw a few restrictions, with roads going car-free on weekends. In 2015, then-mayor Bill de Blasio moved to fully close some of the park’s roads to cars and three years later made the ban parkwide.
“Our parks are for people, not cars,” the mayor declared. “For more than a century, cars have turned parts of the world’s most iconic park into a highway. Today, we take it back.”
Then the pandemic happened – and other cities started thinking such heretical thoughts. Even in Canada. The dominance of the car cracked, just a little. Cities carved out new public spaces for pedestrians and cyclists – reclaiming that space from streets previously reserved for the car.
Toronto was among those cities. But with life returning to a semblance of normal, Toronto has been reverting to form. A popular program that made a handful of roads car-free on summer weekends, ActiveTO, has been largely gutted. In the purported war on the car, the car is faring pretty well.
And then there’s High Park. At the start of the pandemic, roads in High Park were closed to cars on weekends. Remarkably, this remains the case. The city now has to decide whether it wants to do more – or, as is usually the safe political decision in Toronto, less.
What it should do is take a cue from New York, and get cars out of High Park.
The park, in Toronto’s west end, is 1.6 square kilometres – much smaller than Mount Royal Park in Montreal or Stanley Park in Vancouver. It’s one of central Toronto’s too-rare green spaces, visited by more than one million people each year. A subway runs along its northern boundary, with a streetcar line on the southern edge and another that enters the park from the east.
Like the best urban parks, it offers a green escape from city life. Like the worst urban parks, it has five kilometres of roads, and almost 600 parking spots.
High Park has been in the news of late, and it’s a very Toronto sort of story.
Cyclists using the park’s roads are accused of pedalling with too much vigour. Some exceed the park’s 20 kilometre an hour speed limit; some do not come to full stops at stop signs. Police have been devoting resources to ticketing the two-wheel scofflaws. This in a city where over the past decade more than a hundred pedestrians are killed or seriously injured each year by cars.
The cycling imbroglio, however, does spotlight at the question of how to best use the only big green space anywhere close to the heart of Canada’s biggest city. The city is working through questions about the park’s future, the “High Park Movement Strategy.”
Because it’s Toronto, everything is happening in super slow mo. A final decision is set for early 2023. Options include improving transit in the park, keeping cars off its roads, and creating pedestrian-only areas.
The big theme behind talk about closing High Park to cars – and the rush of cyclists on the park’s roads when they are car-free – is the lack of space in dense urban environments like Toronto for anything other than driving. On rare occasions when a bit of pavement is turned over to something not centred on cars, it proves to be extremely popular. Consider the tens of thousands of people who biked and walked on Lake Shore Boulevard West on weekends when the (now largely deceased) ActiveTO made it car-free.
More green space, more space for people on foot, and more space for bikes is exactly what cities need. Montreal, for example, has been far more ambitious about dedicated bike lanes, and pedestrian-only streets in summer.
Banning cars from High Park should be an obvious choice. Another easy win would be University Park – a linear park downtown, running from Queen’s Park south past Queen Street, created solely by redesigning University Avenue. Think Barcelona’s La Rambla.
People and cyclists are crowding into High Park, and competing over scarce space, because green space for walking and safe roads for cycling are both so rare in Toronto. Why not – crazy idea – make them less rare?
Cars are everywhere. They don’t need to be inside a park.
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