ActiveTO should be expanded as Toronto emerges from lockdown, activists say in response to councillor’s comments
Aug. 3, 2021
The first long weekend under Step 3 of Ontario’s reopening plan has a Toronto city councillor questioning whether the ActiveTO program, which opens up major roads and thoroughfares for cyclists and pedestrians only, should operate at its current level.
ActiveTO was launched in spring 2020 and took place on weekends until the fall to provide more space for the public to be active safely during the pandemic, as an antidote to the isolation many have faced indoors.
But while one councillor is calling on the city to re-examine the extent of the program to free up more space for cars coming and going as Toronto emerges from over a year of lockdowns, others are emphasizing the need for public space free of cars and allowing the urban landscape to transition to active transportation.
“As our city continues to open up ... restaurants, bars and all that stuff, it’s becoming more of a challenge to shut down the biggest arterial roads in the city,” said Michael Ford, councillor for Etobicoke North in an interview with the Star.
“So I definitely think it’s time for council to reconsider and to work at which roadways we are closing,” he said, specifically pointing to Lake Shore Boulevard closures and the congestion heading into the city on Saturday.
Ford appeared on CP24 Sunday morning to express his opinion about the popular program and the increased traffic he has noticed due to closed roads. After his appearance, Coun. Joe Cressy for Spadina-Fort York tweeted the program should be made permanent and expanded to improve Toronto.
In a press release on June 30, the city said that ActiveTO remains a popular program and approximately 16,700 to 34,000 cyclists and 2,800 to 5,000 pedestrians were counted over a 15-hour period at Lake Shore Boulevard West and Ontario Drive in May.
The city noted that measuring that data against weekends with no closures in place, it’s clear it’s a popular program. But they also noted that when the Lake Shore Boulevard West closure was in place, traffic data on the Gardiner Expressway and The Queensway showed travel times up to two and three times longer compared to weekends with no closures.
This year the program is set to cost $2.8 million and it was significantly scaled back compared to 2020, with Lake Shore West being left out on several weekends so far due to simultaneous construction that would jam traffic further.
Ford said Toronto has some of the best trails in the world meant for the public and now that the downtown core is bustling again, closing down major roads may make the reopening challenging.
Kevin Rupasinghe, the campaign manager at Cycle Toronto, a charity focused on making cycling accessible, said calls to cancel or cut back the ActiveTO program are “misguided,” as pedestrians and cyclists still need a safe space to be out, especially as the pandemic isn’t over.
“Some people might suggest that Toronto’s great trail network is enough space. But anyone who’s out there knows it’s insufficient. ActiveTO was introduced because our trails are too crowded,” he said.
The popularity of ActiveTO shows that the public is shifting to engaging in more active transportation and many have picked up more outdoor hobbies like cycling due to COVID-19, he added.
“We should not be too quick to try to go back to the way things were. There is a very strong appetite for more public space, more green space and more active transportation,” he said.
Monitoring and adjusting the program to fit the public’s needs is fine, but to cut out major roads from the program would be a mistake, Rupasinghe said.
The time of those in vehicles is not more valuable than thousands who use other methods, said Jessica Spieker, a spokesperson for advocacy group Friends and Families for Safe Streets.
Not only do street closures keep pedestrians and cyclists safe, an expanded ActiveTO program to those who live outside the core could make the city more accessible, especially for those who don’t own a vehicle, she said.
“A program like ActiveTO should be expanded widely ... and not be constantly whittled away by people who only care about convenience for car drivers,” Spieker said.“This is an issue of quality of life for residents of Toronto, and quality of life should come before convenience for driving,” she said.