With the coming of the car, of course, that all changed. Cities shifted from being centered around pedestrians to cars and their passengers. Most cities tore up those streetcar networks, leaving Toronto one of the only North American cities that kept the rails in its streets. People were pushed back to the sidewalks, to the fringes. Plenty of people would, I have no doubt, see this as natural progress - but I can't help but think that the pendulum may yet swing the other way. For decades, modern Western culture has pushed the notion that an old thing is an obsolete thing. What I've come to see recently is that our ancestors may have plenty of answers for the problems we've created through our natural progress.
Take cities. Back in the day, cities were walkable because they had to be. The suburban exodus was the result of multiple social, political, and economic issues intersecting - compare the drastic emptying-out and suburbanization of once-major American cities like Detroit and Cleveland to the patterns of development around Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. There's no absolute reason why cities couldn't still be walkable - it's just that for the last decades, many cities have been catering to the suburban impulse to the exclusion of all others. Go to Mississauga, for example, and unless you spend all of your time in Port Credit or Streetsville you'll find wide, wide roads where cars slash past like shooting stars.
Dependence on cars to sustain a healthy streetlife is like keeping a boa constrictor as a pet - unless you're careful and everything goes absolutely right, sooner or later you're going to get into trouble with it. Witness St. Clair Avenue West, which was in a state of reconstruction for five years between road repair, watermain replacement, and the reinstallation of the streetcar right-of-way. All those conspired to keep traffic away from St. Clair, and while I was there this weekend, I noted no shortage of empty storefronts up for lease. Though it's a shame that so many dreams died in such a way, the real shame, in my mind, is that the cityscape is so dependent on a single mode of transit that its absence can make things fall apart. Brief events like the "Feet First on St. Clair" pedestrian celebration last weekend, where the whole street was closed off between Vaughan and Winona, inject fresh life into the asphalt - it's the sort of energy our streets deserve to always have.
On June 20 this portion of St. Clair Avenue West became a pedestrian mall, and the road a canvas for chalk art
The most dangerous thing we can do is assume that today will always lead smoothly into tomorrow. Nor can we discount the lessons of the past, even if we don't pay that much attention to them. We can't bind our fate to that of the automobile, and we shouldn't let what's convenient for four wheels dictate our destiny.