Can we make streets safer and more pedestrian-friendly by simply doing away with signs, rules and curbs? It would be a huge step in the right direction.
The trip-up? We may encourage insidious gentrification in the process of making our neighbourhoods more pedestrian-friendly.
Dutch engineer Hans Monderman, one of dozens of experts at the international Walk21 conference held here October 1 to 4, argues that removing easy separations and directives from our roads forces people and cars to think as they negotiate their way through space. The more uncertain they feel in their environment, the less risky their behaviour.
Years of experimentation in the Netherlands show that Monderman's "shared streets- philosophy works, reducing speeds and accidents.
But can it work in car-centric T.O.?
City Hall has just embarked on an ambitious project to create a "walking strategy- for our city. Daniel Egan, manager of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, says the goal is to create "an action plan to make Toronto walkable.- T.O. hosted Walk21, he says, to learn from the best examples around the world.
City Hall also wants to hear from us, and released its Steps Towards A Walkable City discussion paper before the conference to prompt citizen input. A few preliminary proposals, including to study Monderman's shared streets idea, were adopted by the Works Committee.
Monderman's vision is compelling. But others at the conference raise practical questions.
Clive Wood of the UK's Guide Dogs for the Blind Association says the lack of definition in the shared streets model creates "no-go- areas for the visually impaired.
Other delegates wonder about the demand of North American fire services for wide, clear roads. And engineers often fear that deviating from accepted standards may open them up to liability. We don't have the luxury of the Netherlands' laws. There, drivers who hit pedestrians are assumed to be liable unless they can prove otherwise.
Thomas Schweizer of the Swiss Pedestrian Association presents a variation on shared streets that may be more easily adapted to Canada.
Like those in the Netherlands, Switzerland's "pedestrian priority zones,- in main shopping areas as well as residential neighbourhoods, remove the curbs that confine pedestrians to the margins, but keep the bollards and street furniture that keep cars at bay. But unlike shared streets, pedestrian priority zones are enforced by some regulations: cars are restricted to 20 kilometres per hour.
Chris Ouellette of the Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation suggests that Cumberland Street in Yorkville would be an ideal place to put the theory to the test.
"It's already only a step away from a shared street,- he notes, "with such a lively pedestrian atmosphere that cars are reduced to a snail's pace and pedestrians have the effective right-of-way. It would be a quick win for the city.-
Starting with posh Yorkville might also circumvent another concern expressed at the conference: pedestrian-oriented street projects promoting gentrification, a consequence of foot-friendly zones being almost too successful.
At a session about making the economic case for walking, Adrian Bell of England's Transport for London notes that pedestrian-friendly streets reliably increase property values and rents on shopping streets. The argument is an important one to make to property owners worried about change, but it's a problem for those concerned about maintaining affordable housing and preserving established communities.
Even Shamez Amlani, one of the organizers of Kensington Market's Pedestrian Sundays, admits at a pre-conference workshop that he no longer favours a permanent pedestrian-only zone in the Market, for fear that it would become no more than a hollow tourist attraction.
One solution offered at the conference is to distribute pedestrian projects across the whole city, both suburbs and downtown, rather than focusing on a small number of central showpiece destinations.
The city's Steps Towards A Walkable Toronto document makes a start in this direction by proposing to target the 13 suburban "priority neighbourhoods- identified as lacking in civic amenities. These areas are for the most part desperately unfriendly to walking, and yet a significant proportion of residents do not own cars.
Perhaps the innovative ideas presented at this conference can be adapted into made-in-Toronto solutions to improve the walkability of these communities.