Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Civic Proposal: Feet First on Yonge

When I was in elementary school, I read a brief short story about alien observers over Earth, who studied the shape of civilization and came to the conclusion that the automobile was the dominant life form. When I think about Toronto today, sometimes I feel as if that's literally the case. Whenever anything rises up that could even conceivably threaten the dominance of our internal combustion overlords, there's no shortage of people charging forward to decry it as the next salvo of the "war on the car" - whether it's the prospect of bicycle lanes on Jarvis or speed bumps, which the Toronto Sun suggested with a straight face last year.

If you'd only ever experienced this city and its hinterland, you could be easily forgiven for thinking attitudes like this are universal. Fortunately they're not, and Vancouver - a city that didn't just stop its Spadina Expressway equivalent from crashing through downtown, but never built any kind of municipal expressway system - is at least one place where, next to the mountains and enlivened by a fresh breeze off the mighty Pacific, I understood just how crazy this all is. Personally, I was always of the opinion that cities should be designed around people. Automobiles have had their day in the limelight, but instead of a day it's been seventy years.

Granted, Toronto isn't standing still on this - it's recently created two new pedestrian zones, one along Gould Street within the Ryerson University campus and another on Willcocks Street at the University of Toronto. It's a fair start, but that's all it is - a start. Toronto has a long way to go yet, but there are other cities that have gone this way before. It's easier to go forth when you know you're following a path that others have successfully and safely walked.

Granville Street at Robson

Granville Street is fairly significant in the Vancouver street grid. South of False Creek it supports South Granville Rise, a thriving neighborhood that reminds me of Queen West in many respects, but as it crosses the Granville Street Bridge and makes its way into downtown, its character shifts significantly. Between Smithe Street and West Hastings Street, it becomes Granville Mall, a transit and pedestrian zone to make Toronto's latest offerings look like crude sketchwork. During the day, at least, private vehicles are not allowed on this part of Granville - though they are able to pass through it on all cross streets - and as a result the street has an energy that I've only seen rivalled by Augusta Avenue on Pedestrian Sunday. From messages left in chalk by passers-by to magic shows to a guy rocking out in a Spider-Man mask, this stretch of street really was the province of the people and not the automobile.

What's more, it's been like this since 1974 and yet it has not been reduced to a vacant, smoking ruin. Though I know this may be difficult to believe for the suburban crowd, just because a car cannot go somewhere does not mean that people will not go there. From what I've heard, the recent construction on the Canada Line beneath Granville had more of an effect on businesses than the vehicle restrictions.

There is no reason this concept couldn't be imported to Toronto - nor should there be a reason to keep from doing so. A city, first and foremost, should reflect its people, not its vehicles. In that vein, as a candidate for Mayor of Toronto, this is what I propose - a pilot project for summer 2011 wherein, during daylight hours, Yonge Street between Dundas Street and College Street would be closed off to form a pedestrian mall. Yonge Street is the core of Toronto's identity - it should be given, first and foremost, to the people directly.

Personally, if we can't give five hundred and forty-six meters of roadway directly to the people that make this city possible, I think it just demonstrates the depths of the challenges Toronto will face in the years ahead. We're at a point where we can't keep making the same old decisions anymore.

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