January 27, 2014

Opening Toronto's Streets

On November 16, 2013, I attended an Open Streets Summit at Ryerson University which was hosted by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam. The summit featured two guest speakers – Gil Penalosa (Executive Director of 8-80 Cities) and Dani Simons (Creator of Summer Streets) – both of whom discussed open streets initiatives in Bogota, Colombia and New York City respectively. The summit concluded with a 30-45 minute panel discussion featuring Curt Harnett (Chef de mission for the Pan Am Games), Dr. McKeown (Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health), and Jacqueline White (Toronto’s Director of Transportation).

What is 8-80 Cities? It is a not for profit organization operating in 130 cities on all continents and got its name from the idea of designing cities to accommodate children (8-year-olds) and seniors (80-year-olds).

While open streets could be associated with street festivals such as Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, they are usually annual special events. The focus of this summit was on a weekly open streets concept called Ciclovia, which involves the closure of streets for cyclists, pedestrians, and other physical activities. While in existence since the 1970’s, Ciclovia did not become popularized until Penalosa – then director of Parks, Sport, and Recreation for Bogota – significantly restructured the program in 1995, which was only 13 km long at the time. Today, the Bogota Ciclovia is 121 km long with free aerobics classes along the routes and over one million residents participate every Sunday. For those without bicycles, they could use one free of charge. Not only did the Ciclovia provide Bogota residents a safe place to perform physical activity, but also the opportunity to connect with fellow residents and contribute to a healthier and happier city.

Since the revival of the Bogota Ciclovia, cities around the world adopted this idea, including Guadalajara, Mexico. Per Penalosa, Mexico had one of the highest obesity rates in the world and Guadalajara only had one physical activity event in 2004; a half marathon attended by 3000 runners. Today, Guadalajara’s Via Recreativa is 63 km long and more than four hundred thousand residents participate weekly.

During his presentation, Penalosa cited the need to bring people together, regardless of income, race, age, and gender. He also believed cities need to be designed for people instead of cars; the reverse of which has been the reality for much of the 20th century. In order to address this reality, elected officials need to overcome the obstacle of not being rewarded for taking risks. They also need to co-ordinate with city staff and community members in order to develop public spaces.

Penalosa’s experiences in Bogota and Guadalajara were confirmed by Simons, who discussed the Summer Streets experience in New York City. It is small in comparison with only 11 km (7 miles) of streets from Central Park to Brooklyn Bridge closed for physical activity and operational for three Saturdays in August. Still, Summer Streets attracted three hundred thousand participants and it served as a catalyst for installing a separated bike lane network starting with 8th Avenue. Simons cited similar issues Toronto experiences such as clogged roads and crowded subway lines, which lead to the thinking Toronto can also benefit from a Ciclovia.

A Toronto Perspective

Councillor Wong-Tam’s inspiration to advocate for a Toronto Ciclovia stemmed from a trip she took to Guadalajara, where she found the residents to be happy, active, and engaged. At the start of the summit, she asked participants what they thought about Toronto’s streets and mentioned residents usually viewed them as basic, functional, and utilitarian. She mentioned how parks were underused as evident by broken bottles, needles, and poor lighting, and how a Toronto Ciclovia could serve as a new playground and dance studio.

Councillor Wong-Tam mentioned the target date for launching a Toronto Ciclovia is Summer 2014 for 4 – 6 Sundays, with the hope of extending it to every Sunday from Victoria Day to Labour Day in 2015. A report will be due at the Economic Development Committee, though the date has yet to be determined. In advance of this report, I encourage you to contact your councillor and the Economic Development Committee at edc@toronto.ca to show your support. To learn more about Open Streets, I would suggest contacting 8-80 Cities at info@8-80cities.org or Councillor Wong-Tam at councillor_wongtam@toronto.ca. As per 8-80 Cities, a website will be online by the end of January (or early February) for those interested in volunteering to sign up.

NOTE: As of February 4, 2014, The Open Streets TO website is now live. You can check it out at http://www.openstreetsto.org.

I will close this post with a video from Streetfilms discussing the Ciclovia experience in Bogota.
Stay active!
Rob Z (e-mail)

1 comment:

  1. With respect for everyone, I'm unsure about the actual merits of doing Bloor/Danforth as opposed to all sorts of other roads, though of course there's a subway under B/D. Part of it is the fractured grid; part of it is wanting to see roadicalism expressed on other carterials like the Gardiner, where an option for drivers exists below it.