If the City of Toronto holds a citizen consultation process but pays no attention to the results, did a consultation really happen? That's the question pedestrian advocates are asking in the wake of the city's new street building standards.
Their overwhelming message during the extensive consultation was that streets should be pedestrian-friendly and have sidewalks on both sides, ample and attractive street lighting, "pinch points" at intersections to slow traffic and landscaped boulevards with trees, among other things, to buffer pedestrians from traffic.
Yet the final standards council adopted in December show few signs of pedestrian advocates' input. Most of the standards remain the same as in the preliminary report, in some cases worse.
Effectively, the city is combining the worst parts of the alienating suburban model (wide streets, missing sidewalks) with the disadvantages of new downtown urban development (insufficient space for tree growth, no sidewalk ploughing).
It's well known that narrow roads reduce vehicle speeds and create a more comfortable walking environment. Yet the final staff report upped widths to 8.5 metres for "major" and "intermediate" local roads, and a full 8 metres for "minor" roads.
The inevitable result will be complaints from residents about speeding traffic, and demands for traffic calming measures.
Councillor Paula Fletcher has asked staff to revisit the issue of street widths. "There's a mindset around roads and streets that they are only for traffic, only for cars," she says. "This report was developed with only the car in mind." Staff have been ordered to go back and develop standards for intersections, which were left out of the report.
Many other parts of the report ignored citizen input. Focus groups showed a consistent desire for sidewalks on both sides of the street, yet the standards allow for streets that are missing a sidewalk on one side. Surely, walking should be encouraged.
Worst of all, the "minor" street option, which applies to the majority of streets, has been designed, the report admits, in such a way that it will "limit tree growth and full development of the tree crown." If there's one thing citizens were unanimous about, it was the need for the design to accommodate the growth of mature trees.
The city's tree advocate, Councillor Joe Pantalone, expressed concern at council about some designs being unable to accommodate trees, but he tells NOW through executive assistant Ryan Merkley that he believes the city can address most of these issues on a site-by-site basis.
The city's project manager, Brian Lee, says pedestrian concerns were taken into consideration - they just weren't paramount in the city's thinking.
"Operational needs will always come before what is desirable," he says. "For example, the need for garbage trucks to be able to go down streets and turn around."
"Emergency vehicle access and long-term maintenance issues have to be met, like having space to replace sewers so we don't have to block the road for a long time."
Operational considerations, however, seem to have been ignored where sidewalks are concerned. The new standards permit the city to build sidewalks that aren't wide enough to be ploughed, even in parts of the city where ploughing is currently done.
The weirdest standards, though, are for rear lanes. They have to be 6 metres wide. The result is that cars will bomb down alleys as if they were streets. Wide alleys benefit no one: fire trucks don't use them, they take space away from development, they cause additional water runoff into sewers, and high vehicle speeds will endanger pedestrians.
During a neighbourhood walkabout, residents and city staff measured several alleys and noted that lanes as narrow as 4 metres were sufficient. More than any other item, this one suggests that the standards simply sailed through due to council's inertia, modified only by internal staff discussion.
Louis Tinker, former public consultation coordinator, says there is some flexibility. "There's very important text in the staff report that talks about context sensitivity."
We can only hope. The citizen consultation process might have been elaborate, but from the pedestrian perspective, it looks like window dressing.
Dylan Reid is an associate editor of Spacing and a member of the Toronto Pedestrian Committee. With files by Kris Sheuer