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ActiveTO is part of building a better city. Let’s keep it
Aug. 9, 2021

Over the last century the car became both our liberator and tyrant.

It unleashed ordinary citizens to explore nooks and crannies of continents. It dictated how budgets would be spent, where highways would be built, how communities developed. It resulted in gridlock and commutes that are the bane of many lives.

It altered landscapes and lives. It made us mobile and efficient. It made us fat, lazy and aggressive, while killing and maiming us in our millions.

It created jobs that contributed to building the middle class. It inspired motels and fast food. It filled the air with carbon emissions and saw Black neighbourhoods razed to build expressways enabling white flight to the suburbs.

In battles over land use and planning primacy, the car rarely loses. Cheering for it in such contests is like cheering for Amazon, rah-rahing for the overdog.

Which brings us to Toronto city councillor Michael Ford, that fogie-before-his-time, who wants the cyclists and pedestrians of ActiveTO off his roads and those urban spaces returned to the automotive traffic he says is its rightful owner.

He is o’er hasty.

Every once in a very blue moon, those who govern hit on a good idea. Often, they are smallish rather than mega. ActiveTO is one of them.

It was established in April 2020 at the start of the pandemic lockdown to close selected Toronto roads and expressways on weekends through summer to provide spaces for citizens to be active while physically distancing.

Participants loved it. Motorists, not so much. Irked, too, are those on secondary routes made busier by arterial road closures.

Still, the subtext of the lockdowns has been taking advantage of an opportunity to make changes and live differently. The point was not, presumably, to get back as quickly as possible to a dubious normal.

As Councillor Joe Cressy said, in defending ActiveTO and calling for its expansion, the task in confronting the pandemic was not just to beat COVID-19 but to “build a new and better city afterwards.”

And with the pandemic not yet defeated, it’s difficult not to agree with Cycle Toronto’s Kevin Rupasinghe that Ford’s call to nix ActiveTO is premature.

The pandemic illuminated inequity. Not everyone had money enough for RVs or cottages. Not everyone had kayaks or canoes or SUP boards.

The crisis exposed the importance to both physical and mental health of access to public spaces. Toronto is blessed with greenery in parks and ravines. Making some roadways available was a welcome addition.

Politics is the business of deciding who gets what. And the most contentious and challenging politics is local.

As a realist once said, “problems and challenges are the bedfellows of progress.” What that sage might have added is that “progress” is often in the eye of the beholder.

Data collected by the city suggests the program has been popular.

An estimated 16,000 to 34,000 cyclists and up to 5,000 pedestrians used the program at Lake Shore Blvd. West in May. The same data acknowledges significant traffic impacts.

For his part, Mayor John Tory delivered a statement that acknowledges competing claims on these most critical of public spaces:

“I am committed to making sure ActiveTO continues in the future while also recognizing we must carefully analyze the extensive traffic data we are collecting and make sure we have a plan which acknowledges the realities of a big city and busy weekends with lots of events.”

Sounds like he’s saying there are reasonable arguments on both sides of this debate, but that ActiveTO was a good idea -- born of crisis -- that should be maintained and developed, tweaked if need be.

And that sounds about right.