It saddens me to think that the Starbucks cappuccino giveaway the day before created a far greater buzz in Yonge-Dundas Square than the city's underwhelming Car Free Day fest.
But there it is a wimped-out closure of Yonge from Shuter to Dundas, on Friday, September 22, a whopping four midday hours of forgettable displays and token bike stunts.
Yes, some heads actually turn, but most of the lunch-break regulars shuffle on. You can't blame them. A Greyhound contest to win bus tickets and Bombardier information booth do not a party make.
A few folks enjoy the novelty of walking along a block of Yonge without getting hit by a cab, but compared to Bogotá and Brussels, both of which shut down traffic for the day, this isn't exactly global green advocacy.
Scene change: same day, same time, Queen West. Using laws designating bicycles as road-bound vehicles, Streets Are for People activists host parking meter parties. Replacing Buicks with blankets in a half dozen "squatted" parking spots along the street, they deposit the requisite $1.50 in the slot and place the printed stub on the "dash" of parked bikes.
At one end of Queen, the New Kings use their spot to entertain pedestrians in front of Citytv; at the other end, serenity reigns. One spot features yoga lessons, another a picnic.
Leif Harmsen uses his parking space to paint. "There's better light here," he says as he brushes in another square in his "digital" self-portrait, on canvas, which looks like a whole lot of squares from up close and a whole lot of a naked guy from a few metres back.
"The police came by after one lady said all this was inappropriate," Harmsen explains, "but that's just hysteria. Everything here is legal."
At least it's legal until 4 pm, when the parking spots morph into another lane for motorists escaping the downtown core. One of the organizers, Kelsey Carriere, a veteran of Kensington Sundays, notes that one of the difficulties with parking-meter parties is that it's hard to find legitimate parking in the city. "You have to start thinking like a car driver, and it's really frustrating," she says.
Luckily, Trinity Bellwoods is nearby. Here, the Sumkids the folks behind the Om Festival provide the music. Over the thumping bass, Aspa Tzaras points to a bus parked on the street and explains that's where the juice is coming from. "There are four standard-sized solar panels on the top. We can run a full sound system for up to eight hours, and it charges as it plays," she says.
Once the paint has dried on banners, the parade, a riot of flags, colourful posters and a tumult of music, marches out into the street as a few alert drivers speed by before it's too late. The orderly masses stop periodically to let streetcars pass.
Meanwhile yawn back at Yonge and Dundas, someone representing the city is talking from the podium way, way up on the stage while Sierra Club members (the group's been organizing the official Car Free Day with the city for the last six years) hand out info from their tent.
Later, Dan McDermott, the org's Ontario director, acknowledges the city's awareness deficit. "There are still people on council who haven't got the broader message on climate change." For example, he cites Rob Ford's 24/7 love affair with his minivan. Still, he says, "This year's event was clearly the most successful in terms of visibility and scope."
He's referring to the debacle last year, when the city had grand plans to shut down all of Queen and King from Spadina to Church from 6:30 am to 6:30 pm. Unfortunately, the works committee, chaired by Jane Pitfield, chipped away at funding, the size of the zone and the time frame. Then the budget advisory committee killed the whole thing altogether.
Asked what he thought was missing this year, Councillor Kyle Rae, who helped put the day together, points to two things: an uncooperative BIA and poor communication. "I kept on hearing that it wasn't happening that people didn't know it was Car Free Day," explains Rae, figuring it was just an excuse from lazy motorists.
"Intestinal fortitude, that's what's missing at City Hall," says Streets are for People's Yvonne Bambrick. "They've got a machine. If they were serious about communicating the message, they would." Amen.