Scaled-back ActiveTO undermines city’s promises for the pandemic recovery, advocates say
June 14, 2021
To many transportation advocates, the sight of thousands of cyclists, pedestrians and joggers taking over Lake Shore Boulevard on weekends last summer signalled that, faced with the crisis of COVID-19, Toronto was prepared to take bold action.
The closures of the waterfront thoroughfare to car traffic were part of ActiveTO, the popular program designed to give Torontonians more space to be active outdoors during the pandemic, and which Mayor John Tory and city staff have declared a resounding success.
But this year the program has been dramatically scaled back. And as Toronto emerges from lockdown for hopefully the last time, some advocates warn ActiveTO’s diminished state undermines municipal leaders’ promises they would use pandemic recovery to create a more equitable and environmentally friendly city.
“It felt like Toronto made a breakthrough last year,” said Dylan Reid, co-founder of the pedestrian advocacy group Walk Toronto. “Suddenly Toronto accepted that you could use streets for more than just moving cars, and … people wanted that.”
But now it appears ActiveTO is “being neglected” and “left to wither away,” he said.
ActiveTO road closures took place on weekends between May and October last year, and usually included at least 10 kilometres on Bayview Avenue and eastbound lanes of parts of Lake Shore Boulevards East and West. On a typical weekend the program, which emulated similar initiatives in cities like Ottawa and Bogota, Colombia, attracted an average of more than 36,000 cyclists and pedestrians over a 15-hour period.
The closures returned this spring, at an anticipated cost of $2.8 million this year, but on a smaller scale. This weekend’s edition will feature just two kilometres of major road closures on Lake Shore East, while cars will also be barred from quiet roads in High Park.
Lake Shore West, by far the largest and most popular closure, has been left out on most weekends this year because staff say construction on the parallel Queensway-Queen-King route risks serious traffic congestion.
However, council voted in April to ask staff to explore full or partial closures of Lake Shore West on at least some weekends. The six-kilometre stretch of road between Windermere Avenue and Stadium Road was opened to cyclists and pedestrians on just two weekends in May.
Coun. Mark Grimes (Ward 3, Etobicoke Lakeshore) has asked the Lake Shore West installation not be repeated. In a letter to city transportation staff after the May closure, he said he had been “inundated” by complaints from residents in the Humber Bay Shores neighbourhood who were “literally trapped by the gridlock.”
He described “massive backups” on the nearby Gardiner Expressway, and said the city hadn’t done enough to address the negative impacts of the closure.
But while the Lake Shore West part of the program has caused at least some pushback, the city has also decided to discontinue the less controversial two-kilometre closure on Bayview, between Front Street and Rosedale Valley Road, from the rest of the year.
Transportation services concluded it was no longer necessary because of the extension of Bayview’s cycle path south to Mill Street.
But Reid argued closing roads to cars provides benefits that a path doesn’t, like allowing cyclists and pedestrians to travel in groups, and letting wheelchair users move safely at their own pace.
Staff received almost no negative feedback about the Bayview closure last year, and its discontinuation “is really a sign of the lack of commitment” to the program, Reid said.
In statement to the Star, transportation services spokesperson Eric Holmes said the city “promised a more flexible approach to ActiveTO locations in 2021” and is still “committed to delivering the Lake Shore West closure on select weekends,” subject to traffic data, construction impacts and feedback from the local communities.
Don Peat, a spokesperson for Mayor Tory, said he was expecting a briefing from city staff in the coming days on the impact of recent closures and schedule for the rest of this year, and it would be premature to comment about effects of this year’s ActiveTO “without the data.”
He said ActiveTO has been a “tremendous success” and pointed out that Allen Road was included in the program for the first time last weekend. He also noted that in addition to road closures ActiveTO included a historic expansion of bike lanes last year on major streets like Bloor Street East, Danforth Avenue and University Avenue.
Gil Meslin, an urban planner, said those cycling projects are positive steps. But he said the watering down of the weekend street closures is a disappointing sign of how difficult it can be to shift entrenched attitudes at city hall.
“They may say ‘build back better,’ but at the end of the day, once the pandemic passes, there will be a lot of people looking to get back to normal,” he said, arguing that in Toronto that means “getting back to that mindset where a minute extra in a car trumps all other considerations.”
That would be to the city’s detriment, he argued, because in terms of health, environmental and mobility benefits, “there’s so much to be said for creating safe spaces for cyclists and pedestrians.”
Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation for the Star. Reach him by email at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr