Toronto the green and the clean: not necessarily easy to achieve in a region driven by auto manufacturing especially since much of our street design is still clinging to the 1950s and a few councillors insist on waxing downright Mesozoic.
A remake will take leadership, creative planning and money. And City Hall would very much like to offer those things in the near future.
Sure, council is coming to a slow consensus on the importance of a real transit network. But we're in danger of seeing transit go it alone. Is pedestrian and cycling infrastructure also primed to grow at the same pace?
The city's bike plan calls for 484 kilometres of bike lanes in a 2,074K overall network, including parks and shared lanes. Currently, there are 68.6K of bike lanes. Last year, 5.6K were "installed".
A staff report last year made clear the reasons for delay: no funding, no planning staff, no political support. It called for the bike lane budget to be doubled, to $6 million.
Last week, the budget committee recommended and the executive committee signed off on the status quo: $3 million in capital funding. Enough for just over 25 kilometres.
Makes you wonder why the members of the budget committee and the mayor publicly supported a $6 million budget in last year's election survey by the Toronto Coalition for Active Transport (TCAT).
"The stalling of the Bike Plan hasn't been a money problem," says Gord Perks, who points instead to the lack of planners. "Last year we could have shown up with wheelbarrows of money and no more would've been done."
Should've written that in the survey, Gord there was space for comments. Still, $3 million that gets spent is better than $3 million that doesn't, like last year.
He assures me that more staff will be funded in the coming operating budget, a promise that has temporarily extended the already excessive patience of cycling activists.
In fact, planners may be the piece missing from a number of puzzles, including that of a more walkable city. Public space advocates have rightly cheered (well, nodded vigorously in recognition of) a $3.6 million budget for a series of new pedestrian crossover initiatives on major arterial roads.
And the Civic Improvement Program, which, in the course of development applications, avenue studies, road repairs and similar projects, seeks opportunities for streetscape improvements, gets $3 mil.
But will it grow beyond window-dressing?
"Going gung-ho with better crosswalks is saying, "Thou shalt only cross at crosswalks,'" says Janice Etter of the Pedestrian Planning Network. "Yes, they need to be improved. But we're uncomfortable with that not being balanced with improving the overall pedestrian environment."
With so much of Toronto's layout remember all that stuff north of Lawrence? still car-centric, it's a planning issue, not a transportation issue, adds PPN member Rhona Swarbrick, who with Etter drafted the city's Pedestrian Charter. "We talk about pedestrians as urban travellers," she says. "We can't address that only through their travel needs."
Etter agrees. "I hear people saying, "They just have to build more sidewalks in the suburbs then it will be better,'" she says. "Well, it won't, because there's nowhere to walk to."
Ultimately, pedestrian advocates and cycling activists both sound a similar note: any real, sustainable transportation planning has to be seen in a wider context than mass transit alone.
"They need to go hand in hand," says Martin Koob of TCAT and the Toronto Bike Network. "Transit gets the focus. When the federal government gave Toronto the gas tax, it was called sustainable transportation money. The city said thanks for the transit money."
Koob says cycling has to be seen as an integral part of a transit network. "Transit doesn't have door-to-door access," he points out. "With cycling, you can extend the range of transit. You increase your catchment area."
Etter says such considerations need to be made for pedestrians as well, adding that many stops, especially suburban ones, are not easily accessible by walkers. "What are they doing for those people who live in front of a bus stop but have to walk half a kilometre when they get off the bus [because foot traffic doesn't warrant a crosswalk]?" She stresses a simple mantra: "Transit riders are pedestrians."
The holistic attitude reminds me of a presentation last month by University of British Columbia researcher Lawrence Frank on building walkable communities.
In studying the suburbs of Atlanta, he found that, contrary to the accepted wisdom, a large swath of suburbanites were enthusiastic, if frustrated, pedestrians and cyclists. A third of suburban Atlantans would prefer denser neighbourhoods closer to shops, work, etc. A third living on cul-de-sacs would prefer "the travel options of a connected grid."
Seventy per cent in car-focused neighbourhoods would prefer more space for walking and bikes. This "latent demand," as Frank calls it, indicates that many people moved to the suburbs for something other than, well, suburbs.
Frank's findings also suggested that "environment is a stronger predictor of driving, and preferences are a stronger predictor of walking." As I parse that, it means if the built environment were car-hostile, folks would bike or take transit. The alternative is to feed the transit death spiral.
And the city needs to be an advocate itself. "At least half our [bike] projects face resistance from the community," says Dan Egan, manager of pedestrian and cycling initiatives and author of the previously mentioned report. "If we have a public process, we need to engage the public as a part of that process. We as a city need to increase our efforts to promote the benefits of these things."
Koob agrees. He points out that councillors have too much power to massage the process and slant consultations, as happened with the Dundas East bike lane project.
Thanks to a motion by Perks, the Bike Plan is now official policy. A similar move by Glenn De Baeremaeker means Community Councils are barred from decisions that infringe on that plan. And all agree that, with the planners soon in place to actually implement the budget, the training wheels are ready to come off. So council had better start pedalling.
Five paths to hoof and cycle heaven
Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation’s five-point transportation plan for T.O.
1 Build a continuous cycling and pedestrian network. The city Bike Plan promises that no resident will be more than a five-minute ride from the bike network when it’s completed by 2011. But so far the city’s only built 48 kilometres of the promised 1,074K network.
2 Integrate pedestrian and cycling issues into city planning. City should be including cycling and pedestrian improvements in every road reconstruction or resurfacing.
3 Promote walking and cycling as safe, sustainable modes of transportation. The annual cycling education, safety and promotion budget is a measly $159,000.
4 Protect road users through better policy and design. Many people do not cycle or walk because street design does not adequately protect users from motorized vehicles.
5 Lead by example as a cycling, walking city.
City should be creating car-free clean-air corridors during smog days, as well as a pedestrian plan (we're the first in North America to adopt a Pedestrian Charter) that makes us a truly walkable city.