In the first weeks of the pandemic, Toronto was slow to think about how it could create more public space for millions of cooped-up people.
Other cities, such as Vancouver, reclaimed a bit of empty road from the car, and offered new room outdoors to safely physically distance during the worst of the lockdown. Toronto? When the cherry blossoms bloomed, it sent police to barricade High Park.
Toronto eventually figured it out.
By mid-May, the first in a series of measures started to appear – car-free weekends on long stretches of Lake Shore Boulevard and Bayview Avenue. It was an instant hit, drawing thousands of cyclists and pedestrians. Thereafter, as in many other cities, Toronto rolled out a minor revolution: hundreds of temporary patios, dozens of parklets, restricted traffic on some local streets and a rush of new (and permanent) bike lanes.
With the arrival of fall, and a second wave of COVID-19, all that progress started to go backward. Last weekend was scheduled to be the end of the Lake Shore and Bayview road closings. After an outcry, the city relented – but, so far, the reprieve is only for one additional weekend.
Taking streets from cars and giving them to people was a fantastic success. On Lake Shore West – where the eastbound lanes were closed to traffic – the city says an average of 18,000 people on bikes and 4,000 pedestrians enjoyed the space over the course of a day on summer weekends.
Those are big numbers, especially when compared with the usual car traffic. The eastbound lanes of Lake Shore West, heading toward downtown, normally see roughly 10,000 cars on a Saturday or Sunday (measured over eight hours).
Vancouver had similar success.
A closing of eastbound lanes on Beach Avenue along English Bay – all week long – saw an average of 8,000 bike trips a day in late summer. That exceeded the 7,300 cars moving eastbound on Beach on a typical summer day in 2019. The city says the high volume of cyclists shows how much demand there is but, for now, Vancouver has not committed to making the change permanent.
Back in Toronto, the good news is Mayor John Tory is enthusiastic about bringing back closed streets, street patios and other changes next spring. But why wait six or seven months? The bolder plan would be to extend current changes as long as possible, and come up with ideas for the colder months. Imagine a heavy snowfall – and cross-country skiing from High Park to downtown, on Lake Shore.
Mr. Tory on Wednesday indicated temporary patios, set to be axed this fall, could stay open this winter. Al fresco dining in December may not work for everyone, but if the city’s restaurant entrepreneurs are given the opportunity, they will figure out how to make it a success.
Among the cities giving restaurants that opportunity is Vancouver. Temporary patios permits were to expire in October, but have been extended for the next year after provincial approval. It’s the right move, even if the usually wet winter will be a damper at times.
In New York, where indoor dining had been fully closed since March until just this Wednesday, outdoor patios have thrived – more than 10,000 of them on sidewalks and streets. The program was to end Oct. 31, but last week the city made it permanent.
In a crowded city, it’s a winning decision. Mayor Bill de Blasio called it “reimagining our public space” and “a new tradition.” This page has repeatedly argued for such reimagining – during the pandemic, and beyond. For Toronto, Vancouver and other Canadian cities, it’s a chance to become better, safer, healthier and more enjoyable places to live.
The pandemic exposed many failings across society. In cities, it became clearer than ever how much space is devoted to cars, and how much planning is about moving them as quickly as possible from A to B. Those choices undermine what makes a great city: vibrant spaces and thriving street life. In Toronto in recent months, people have savoured reimagined public spaces, from new plazas, to street patios previously reserved for parked cars, to a web of new bike lanes, to major roads closed to cars on weekends.
The result is a good city, made better. And much more is still to be done. One day, the pandemic will be long behind us. The bright ideas for making it easier for people to get outside and out of their cars should remain, and be built on.
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