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Traffic moves along Yonge Street in Toronto on Jan. 14, 2021.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

A piece of Toronto’s past is helping make way for the city’s future.

A cast-iron water main, built in 1889, runs below downtown Yonge Street between College and Queen. Its imminent replacement offered an opening. Yonge is supposedly Toronto’s iconic street, yet much of it is an ugly, cramped mess, at least for pedestrians, with most of the space reserved for cars. The rebuilding of Yonge’s below-ground infrastructure gave the city a shot at reimagining Yonge above ground.

A decade ago, a debate over rebuilding Yonge would have been conscripted by right-wing councillors into a fight against the alleged “war on the car.” The mere suggestion that cars should lose space to transit or cyclists or walkers was enough to unleash caterwauling. But things have changed. The first pandemic wave a year ago presented cities around the world with an urgent need to rethink what their streets could be. The resounding conclusion was to make more room for people.

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Last week at Toronto City Council, before the vote on a proposal to halve traffic on Yonge to two lanes from four, a few voiced the old war-on-car worries, but with none of the pound-the-table angst of years past. One councillor quipped that he was “listening to the gasping death rattle of autosaurus.” The final decision was a landslide: 21-5 in favour.

The change will be dramatic, but not radical. An earlier version had called for a portion of Yonge to become pedestrian-only; the current plan will still see cars up and down the street. But where there are now often tiny, narrow sidewalks, the new Yonge will have sidewalks of a minimum width of four metres, and long stretches of new greenery, as well as bike lanes on part of the street.

It will be, simply put, a much nicer street to walk on.

And walking is what Yonge, even in its current state, is largely used for. City data show pedestrians accounted for at least 50 per cent, and in places upward of 75 per cent, of traffic on Yonge. So the change is about correcting a glaring misallocation. Almost 200,000 people live within 10 minutes of the downtown stretch of Yonge, and many more are expected in the coming decades, with new condos and offices under construction. Making more room for people is obviously the right call.

The vote to rebuild downtown Yonge follows similar support at city council last December to overhaul Yonge further north, in the heart of North York. These votes extend momentum that emerged last year when the city rushed to introduce pandemic changes such as sidewalk and curbside patios (an amazing 801 of them), small parklets, and closing streets for pedestrians and bikes. Those were popular successes. While patios were removed for winter, city council last week endorsed a return of the May-to-November “CafeTO.” Mayor John Tory wants it to be a permanent seasonal fixture. Right on.

Toronto is one of many cities, in Canada and abroad, turning ideas tested last year into lasting change.

In Vancouver, the city last spring closed half of Beach Avenue to traffic. Work to make that permanent is under way. Instead of four lanes for cars along a scenic expanse of English Bay, there will be two for cars, two for bikes, and twice as much space for pedestrians than before.

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In Paris, the city recently concluded that the Champs-Élysées had “lost its splendor” and will be remade to cut space for cars in half and turn the avenue, in the words of Mayor Anne Hidaglo, into “an extraordinary garden.”

In Barcelona, one of every three streets in the core of the city will be changed to favour pedestrians and cyclists instead of cars. Twenty-one intersections will be turned into public squares, so people will never be more than a short walk from a small park.

These shifts are only a beginning. The poverty of the urban realm as it exists today is the deliberate result of decades of decisions to prioritize cars above all else, especially in North America. The few big historical wins against cars – such as defeated proposals for expressways cutting through the cores of Toronto and Vancouver a half-century ago – shaped those cities for the better. Decisions today can do likewise.

Last year’s pandemic measures brought temporary changes to cities, but their legacy is sparking a permanent change of mindset. The suggestion that a city street should be for people will never again be so easily be shouted down by misguided rhetoric about the primacy of the car.

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