Pedram Rahbari isn't part of any leftist cabal. Nor is he a cyclist. "I'm no left-winger," said the 59-year-old entrepreneur, an engineer with an MBA. "I love cars; I drive stick. And I haven't ridden a bike since I was 14."
Yet Mr. Rahbari lives near North York Centre, and is an enthusiastic supporter of Reimagining Yonge, a proposal from city staff to redesign a section of that road, which will be up for debate at City Hall starting Friday.
It's a sign of Toronto's dysfunction that Mr. Rahbari has to defend his politics even as he argues for a better city. The fact is, both in design and economic-development terms, the proposal is a no-brainer. Any civic leader with a backbone should be behind it.
It would transform a car-choked stretch of Yonge running from Sheppard to north of Finch, removing a lane each way and giving the space over to wider sidewalks and bike lanes. This part of Yonge, which was imagined 40 years ago as North York's downtown, would be safer. It would be more beautiful. Eventually, it could become the sort of place people choose to hang around and shop in – a Danforth of the north.
If Toronto's leaders are serious about creating a more walkable city with a richer array of public spaces and bustling retail strips, this needs to happen yesterday.
And yet, it's controversial – because it might slow the commutes of car drivers in rush hour, 73 per cent of whom don't even live in the City of Toronto.
This area of Yonge Street has never lived up to its urbanistic promise. Imagined in the 1970s as a downtown for the old City of North York, it has a group of public buildings and institutions – a federal building, the Toronto District School Board headquarters, a pool and what was the civic centre and main library for North York. Since the 1990s, it's seen a wave of condominium development; 80,000 people like Mr. Rahbari live within walking distance of Yonge. All this is wrapped by a unusual set of "ring roads" to handle neighbourhood traffic.
Yonge itself should be a great place to walk. But, in fact, it's deeply unpleasant because of the road design, which hasn't been reconstructed since 1975. The sidewalks are narrow and raggedy, lined by a motley mix of retail and parking lots. Six wide lanes of car traffic are crammed during rush hour, roaring fast at other times.
The proposal from city staff, budgeted at $51-million – versus about $29-million for a status-quo rebuild – would create what staff call "a neighbourhood-oriented main street" with wider sidewalks, benches, new and healthy trees and space for restaurant patios. The key is fewer lanes for car traffic.
Local councillor John Filion has championed the plan. "North York Centre is one of the main urban hubs in the city, and it's been completely neglected," he said. "It's a sea of high-rises with a six-lane road down the middle." And, he added, the people who live there deserve better. "They deserve a main street with some atmosphere and some culture," he said. "They deserve sidewalks wide enough to sit down for a glass of wine and lunch with a friend."
Yet Mayor John Tory has already signalled that he will oppose the specific proposal by city staff in favour of a half measure. That decision would put the interests of 905-region drivers ahead of the quality of life of local residents and the business interests of local retailers. It would be a huge failure of civic leadership.
And Mr. Rahbari is having none of it. "I have heard people oppose this project who are hiding behind the interest of business, when their real issue is with cars," he said.
A traffic count supplied by city staff found that, in the peak morning hour, 74 per cent of cars – 1,601 of 2,172 – were coming from north of Steeles Avenue, in York Region. The evening numbers were similar.
They're worth citing because they're so laughably small. This is a huge urban-design decision that will affect the quality of life for tens of thousands of people for decades to come. Yet it might be undermined in order to save a few hundred drivers a few minutes. This at a moment when ride-sharing, autonomous vehicles are reshaping mobility in ways we can't predict, and much more growth is slated for this area.
Sadly, Mr. Tory seems to be ducking his head to avoid an inevitable stream of hot air from his presumptive opponent in 2018, Doug Ford. Imagine the attacks. Moving street parking, and reducing car traffic, will hurt local business. But the city report suggests not, and Mr. Rahbari emphatically agrees with that assessment. "Car traffic is only valuable to retail if it translates into pedestrian traffic," he said. "And that doesn't happen here."
He and his wife have lived in the area for 12 years, owning a café on Yonge Street, near their home, for four. Their data about 50,000 customers during that period – "I like data" – revealed a majority lived within half a mile of the shop; most parked and drove via the "ring roads." How many were Yonge Street drivers who had decided, spontaneously, to stop? One. "That may not be representative," he admitted. "The number might have been 50. But it's nothing, basically."
Mr. Filion cites the 80,000 people within walking distance. "Think of your potential customers if you have a main street that attracts customers like the Danforth does – and they can walk to do their shopping," he said. Yes, think: Imagine if this part of Toronto actually felt like a city, with streets and leadership to match.