a blog written by Brandon Mowat

The Streets Belong To The People

Exploring the impact of removing cars from our streets

Sat Dec 10 2022

In 2020 and 2021, when fewer people were driving into our cities and restaurants struggled to operate when they could no longer invite diners into their spaces, our cities were forced to change. Planners implemented changes to our streets and to our Third Spaces to get more people outside and walking around. Much of what these planners did was repurpose space that was previously being occupied by cars, and turning it it into spaces more focused around people. The city became the lab in which we ran a real life experiment as to what happens when we radically shift the use of our spaces overnight.

Converting parking to usable space

In the summer of 2021, when Toronto finally began to open back up, the city managed to reallocate street space that was previously used as parking, for outdoor dining space. In hoards, people left their apartments in search of a table to dine with their friends and families. Toronto's "Patio Season" is both revered and loathed by locals; revered because of the energy that the city has during the spring and summer is intoxicating, but loathed for the same reasons: it's nearly impossible to find somewhere to eat at peak times, and 2021 was no exception. With less room for cars to drive into the city and park near their favourite restaurants, and an abundance of patio space, how would restaurants survive?

Curbside patios, Toronto

The results were astounding. As published by the City of Toronto and reported on by the Globe and Mail, the CafeTO program brought in a whopping $181M during the summer of 2021; nearly 50 times more revenue than the parking that they replaced, would have. The economic benefits don't stop at the restaurants either. Restaurants spent $25M on new tables, chairs, construction of patio space, and so on, while parking is shown to have very little positive economic impact.

Drivers voices still overpower people and data

Not all of the city's efforts have been as successful. Around the same time as CafeTO was running, a complimentary project was underway, aptly named ActiveTO. The project was designed to literally give the streets back to the people, to encourage people to leave their homes, get active, and enjoy the streets. On certain weekends, the city would close down part of Lakeshore Blvd, a 6-8 lane "road" that runs along the waterfront and serves a nearly identical purpose as the raised highway that runs directly parallel to it, and encourage the community to walk, run, cycle, roller-blade, on the street.

Cyclists enjoying ActiveTO

The road closures allowed more people to move across the city. Over a warm spring weekend, Toronto would see 65,000 people cycling and walking on the closed streets of Lake Shore Boulevard West, while a weekend without closures would see only 18,700 vehicles on that same stretch of road. While being generous and saying that on average there were 2 people per vehicle, that's still only 37,400 people moving in cars. ActiveTO was able to move twice the amount of people using half the space.

The purpose that ActiveTO sought to serve was delivered. The people that participated in the program were more active, began cycling more, and 93% of people were supportive of the program continuing beyond COVID. We also just saw that the program allowed more efficient transport without having to even close the road fully. But even with clear data that demonstrates the abundance of value that the program delivered, the car-first mindset of drivers in the GTA was overwhelming. In June of this year, the city announced that ActiveTO road closures on Lake Shore Blvd W would become "limited special events [...] rather than operated as regular recurring weekend events".

It's incredibly disappointing that the communities in our cities have to fight such steep pushback from drivers who don't live here. Even with overwhelming data that suggests that reduced car access and parking is good for people, our businesses, our environment, and our infrastructure, the car-centric mindset in North Americans is still so prevailing. Drivers are blind to the abundant benefits of these programs and only see that traffic on our roads is up, rather than considering to take up a more efficient method of transportation. Until places like Toronto, and its leaders, can make the hard decisions required to improve our cities, they'll continue to cater to the cars that destroy them, rather than being the lively, safe, and efficient places that we know they can be.


2021 CaféTO Economic Benefits Study

Globe and Mail: New spin on parking spaces during pandemic reaps benefits

ActiveTO: Intercept Survey Evaluation Summary JANUARY 2021

Spring 2021 ActiveTO cycling, pedestrian and traffic data

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Written by Brandon Mowat
building useful things at Ada, in the city of Toronto

made from scratch