The epic battle of pedestrian vs. driver rears its ugly head in Toronto
Good and evil. In the media, so many things are reduced to black and white, liberal and conservative, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. It makes for good drama but tends to drive an annoying wedge between two sides, pushing a happy compromise farther from realization. In the past week, the Toronto media has seized upon a specific grudgematch, and they have taken out their biggest wedge. I’m talking about the epic struggle between the “build more roads” crowd and the “tear out roads” crowd. See – isn’t it easy to put them into two boxes? In real life, it’s never that simple.
As far as I can tell, this burst of coverage started with news that downtown councillor Adam Vaughan announced his intention to convert sections of Richmond and Adelaide from one-way traffic to two. The twin streets are known for being more or less extended on-off ramps to the Don Valley Parkway – they shuttle people between the city and the highway. They do so efficiently, but to the detriment of character. There is noticeably less street life on Richmond and Adelaide, partly due to the fact that they were designed to shuttle cars in and out rather than foster sidewalk cafés. At first glance, Vaughan is driving a wedge between the Starbucks crowd and the Canadian Tire crowd.
But that isn’t the case at all. If one looks closely at the Star article (which does a relatively good job), Vaughan only wants to redesign the streets west of University Avenue. Few motorists go past University, and that is precisely the section that would benefit most from calmer traffic. It’s absolutely win-win. Some, however, see an opportunity to fan the flames. In the past year, Toronto has been on a road redesign kick. Notable examples include the demolishing of certain sections of the Gardiner Expressway, and the removal of a lane or so from Jarvis. The city has a lot of pent-up good-versus-evil road debates to work out. As a result, we see news items like “Driving downtown could get uglier“, ”Courage required to fix traffic woes“, “Toronto’s plan to restrict right turns has drivers seeing red“, “Commuters, locals tussle over Jarvis centre lane“, “The posturing in Toronto’s phony war on the car“, and finally, a 40-minute discussion on the topic by public broadcaster TVOntario and a handful of experts. All within a few days! Everyone’s favourite tabloid The Toronto Sun even threw in some of their punchy flair, opening with “The city is about to become more pedestrian-friendly. And that means giving drivers the red light.”
The TVO debate was probably the highlight of the whole affair. In the interest of objectivity, they picked up an expert representing each of the different modes – driving, transit, cycling, and walking. As you may imagine, that turned into a self-serving one-against-three re-hash of the same old points, with very little discussion of the individual merits of the actual projects at hand. At a telling moment, the car guy flat-out derided the proposed changes to Richmond and Adelaide, assuming that they would be modified all the way to the DVP. Transit guru Steve Munro immediately called him on it and that was pretty much the end of substantial discussion of the topic.
Many people make decisions on issues like this based on cues from the media. People rarely have the time or will to read up on every detail of every issue, so if they can find a camp they identify with, they start waving the flag. God knows I’ve done it. But when the media make up the camps, they jerry-rig a defined border into a debate that doesn’t necessarily split in half.
Everyone walks, whether it’s from the parking lot to the Wal-Mart or from home to work. Everyone uses the roads from time to time, whether it’s in a Greyhound or in a Hummer. Both sides have vested interests in good urban design. Making urban environments more friendly to walking and transit means fewer drivers clogging up the roads. Everyone wins either way. So cut it out with the bickering and get down to figuring out what’s best for the city!