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Hundreds of kilometres of Toronto roads lack sidewalks, and lots of people like it that way
July 22, 2019
Ben Spurr

On a warm summer day, the Humber Valley Village neighbourhood in central Etobicoke can feel a long way from the noise and traffic that define much of Toronto.

Its quiet winding streets slope up and down gentle hills, and are lined with leafy trees and stately old houses. But there’s something else about the neighbourhood that gives it a distinct pastoral feel: its residential streets are among the 800 kilometres of local roads in Toronto that don’t have sidewalks.

Despite warnings from experts that sidewalks are essential for ensuring pedestrian safety, plenty of local residents like the neighbourhood just the way it is.

“I certainly wouldn’t want one on my street,” said Anne Legris Anderson, president of the Humber Valley Village Residents Association, about the possibility of sidewalks coming to the community.

She said she doesn’t oppose sidewalks everywhere, and believes they would make many streets safer. But she lives on Elstree Rd., a side street a little more than 200 metres long that can easily go more than 30 minutes without a driver passing through. With so little traffic, she said she doesn’t see a need for a sidewalk, and worries the city installing one would be intrusive.

“It’s a narrow street, and essentially (a sidewalk) would go across my front lawn,” she argued.

The question of where to build new sidewalks put Humber Valley Village and communities like it at the centre of a city hall debate last week about whether Toronto is doing all it can to make its streets safe.

On Tuesday, council approved Vision Zero 2.0, a reboot of the road safety plan the city launched in 2016 amid mounting concern about traffic fatalities.

Under the new plan, the city will spend $123 million between 2020 and 2024 to lower speed limits, add “zebra” crosswalks, create more mid-block crossings on dangerous arterial roads, institute pedestrian-first traffic signals and take a host of other measures.

But even as Mayor John Tory and others at city hall hailed the plan as a decisive step towards reducing traffic deaths, there was one measure the mayor and a majority of council decided went too far.

Council members rejected a proposal staff made as part of Vision Zero 2.0 that would have granted transportation staff the authority to install new sidewalks on local streets in conjunction with routine road reconstruction, or in order to accommodate a local resident with a disability.

Instead, in a vote of 16 to 10 they approved a motion that will allow councillors to object to new local sidewalk proposals at council’s infrastructure committee, where the projects could be vetoed.

Two Etobicoke councillors teamed up on the motion that sunk the sidewalk proposal, arguing that many residents they represent would oppose new pedestrian infrastructure.

“We’ve just got very old pockets of the city where this is the way roads were built, and, frankly, people are happy,” said Councillor Stephen Holyday (Ward 2, Etobicoke Centre), noting that many communities in his ward were built in the 1950s when sidewalks were an afterthought.

Arguments like those are infuriating for road safety advocates like Gil Penalosa. He’s the founder of 8 80 Cities, a non-profit agency that operates on the philosophy that cities should be designed to accommodate residents aged 8 to 80, and everyone in between.

It should “be mandated that every single street must have sidewalks,” Penalosa said, arguing that separating pedestrians from car traffic is the best way to ensure their safety.

He said the city has an obligation to configure streets for use not just by able-bodied adults, but also by young kids, the elderly and those with mobility issues. There are safety risks of forcing those groups to share the street with motorists under any conditions, but they’re compounded in winter months when snow narrows the roadway and daylight hours are reduced, he said.

“You may end up under the car,” he said.

“If we’re thinking that it’s going to be sunny and dry and 25 degrees on a Sunday morning, with very little traffic, that’s not the norm. Everything that we should do, we should do it based on the worst-case scenarios.”

He said the city can’t claim to be implementing Vision Zero -- a concept pioneered in Sweden that aims to eliminate all traffic deaths -- while leaving “gigantic holes” in its road safety plan like not mandating sidewalks.

“There are some things that should be citywide policy,” he said.

In the report that went to council detailing Vison Zero 2.0, city transportation staff made a forceful case for sidewalks, writing that their provision on “all public streets” was a “fundamental objective” of the plan.

The report said that in addition to providing pedestrians a safe place to walk, sidewalks also contribute to slowing traffic speeds because they narrow the roadway. The report stated that offering a “protected, dedicated space for all pedestrians” was especially important for vulnerable residents, and “providing sidewalks on local roads is vital to enhance safety and accessibility.”

Delegating authority to transportation staff to install sidewalks as part of road work might have helped the city make up ground on filling in missing links in its sidewalk network, of which there remain many, according to city statistics.

About one-quarter of Toronto’s 3,291 kilometres of local roads are without a sidewalk. The figure varies in different parts of town, ranging from just 7 per cent of local roads in the old City of Toronto and East York, to 34 per cent in North York. In Etobicoke, about 26 per cent, or 259 kilometres, of local roads lack dedicated pedestrian rights-of-way.

According to the report, the city has built just 90 kilometres of sidewalks since 2002, most of them on arterial or collector roads.

The city report stated common reasons residents cite in opposing sidewalks include the loss of driveway parking, uprooting of trees, disruption of a neighbourhood’s “rural” character, and the perception that sidewalks will encourage “outsiders” to use the street.

Residents’ opposition to sidewalks doesn’t mean they’re unconcerned about road safety, however.

On Wimbleton Rd., a long two-lane street that cuts through Humber Valley Village, there are clear signs homeowners are worried about traffic. Outside one house on the sidewalk-free street is a small neon-green childlike plastic figure holding a flag and emblazoned with the word “Slow!” Neighbouring houses have orange pylons where their lawns meet the road, warning drivers to slow down.

Frank Lama, a 45-year-old software engineer and father to three young children, said he put the neon figure outside his house “because I want people to understand there’s kids playing around here.”

Lama said his stretch of the street can feel dangerous, especially outside of the summer months when parents in hulking SUVs drive their kids to Kingsway College School at the end of the street, passing other children walking to class or to catch the bus.

His house is at the bottom of a slope and drivers often build up speed as they pass, just metres from the driveway where his kids, ages 5, 7 and 9, like to play.

But despite his safety concerns, Lama said neither he nor many of his neighbours are anxious to see sidewalks installed in the neighbourhood.

“Most of us like the lack of sidewalks” in the area, he said. “It kind of has a cottage feel.”

He said he wouldn’t take a strong stand if the city tried to install sidewalks, but he’s not certain they would be effective because “you’re still going to have kids that are playing around the road” and chasing balls into the street.

He said he would prefer the city install other traffic-calming measures like the “Watch Your Speed” signs that show drivers how fast they’re going in real time.

Mira Stewart, his neighbour a few doors down, said she also worries about the safety of her kids, aged 2 and 7. But she said she sees both sides of the sidewalk debate.

“It would be wonderful to have a sidewalk because people race through here like madmen,” she said.

But on the other hand, “there’s something special about the neighbourhood” the way it is now.

“If people wanted to live in Milton or Mississauga where there’s sidewalks on both sides and there’s all that infrastructure, they would have chosen it. They did choose this area,” she said.