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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

More strut in our walk

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Everyone is a pedestrian. Almost everyone in the city walks somewhere on most days, even if just briefly, and the official definition of "pedestrian" includes people who use wheelchairs to get around as well. So pedestrian issues should speak to everyone.

But walking's ubiquity is also its weakness, politically. If everyone is a pedestrian, then few people specifically identify as a pedestrian. Walking is not a source of identity or community if everyone does it — it doesn't make people feel distinctive. Walking is also so instinctive, so cheap, so easy that people have little money or effort invested in it (in contrast to bikes or cars), and it is hard to be conscious that you are doing something that might require planning and policies on the part of our government. Walkers are amazingly adaptive. If they have to, people will walk in the most inconvenient and unpleasant circumstances to get where they need to go — unlike cyclists and drivers, who need proper infrastructure in order to function at all, and therefore have an incentive to organize and demand it. And, finally, walking is most important to those who are seen as the least influential in society — people who cannot drive, either because of age (children, seniors), or because of poverty.

All of these factors mean that pedestrian issues do not have much of a political constituency and take a back seat in city politics. It's true that walking is a kind of "motherhood" issue — everyone is in favour of it in a general sort of way. The Official Plan says that the City should encourage it. Toronto was the first city in North America to adopt a "Pedestrian Charter," committing the city to being pedestrian-friendly. Ask almost any politician and they'll say they're in favour of encouraging walking.

But while everyone talks the talk, no one walks the walk, so to speak. When it comes to the crunch — to assigning staff and budgets — walking gets short shrift. The massive transportation division, with a budget of $125 million, assigns only half of one manager and one staff position specifically to pedestrians, although walking is a primary mode of transportation for a significant proportion of Toronto's population. In urban planning, the excellent Civic Improvement Program, which takes advantage of street rebuildings to enhance the public walking environment, has a budget of merely $1.6 million and can only implement modest enhancements to a tiny fraction of the potential projects that come up every year. Parks, Forestry and Recreation does not even have a person in charge of the pathways where citizens walk and jog.

Part of the problem is that, just as everyone is a pedestrian, almost everything seems to be pedestrian, too. Just about all of the city government's activities affect pedestrians in one way or another. Transportation deals with sidewalks and crossings. Planning determines street layouts, the mix of uses that ensures nearby destinations, and also building design, such as the location of entrances and the height of ground floors. The parks department forms a key part of the walking network, and forestry provides vital shade. Culture sponsors street closings for festivals, while tourism relies on walking tours. The police affect pedestrian safety, not just in terms of traffic enforcement but also in terms of street security (feeling unsafe is a primary reason why people do not walk, and whether or not cops walk their beats is a fundamental issue). Walking has a significant positive impact on public health, while environmental pollution makes walking more difficult. Litter reduces the appeal of walking, as do the sidewalk obstacles governed by licensing and standards. Residents of public housing walk by necessity, yet often live in inhospitable walking environments. People get to TTC stops and to libraries mostly by walking, while kids need to walk to school for their health, and also to learn the habit of using their feet to get around.

The massive scope of pedestrianism can be paralyzing. Where to start? How to coordinate? When this scope is combined with the lack of a strong political constituency, the result is a haphazard approach to encouraging people to use their feet. Often, the interests of walkers simply fall through the cracks. An instructive example is the campaign by the Harbord Village Resident's Association (HVRA) to turn the sidewalks of College Street between Spadina and Bathurst — a matter of just a few blocks — into an attractive walking space in conjunction with the planned rebuilding of the roadway in the first years of this century. They found there was no single person at the City they could work through. Sidewalks are built and managed by the transportation division, but expanding them also affects the TTC and Hydro. Making them pretty is managed by planning, while their trees are managed by forestry, and the things that obstruct pedestrians are managed by municipal licensing and several other departments. It took the HVRA several years of time-consuming effort, working with over a dozen different entities, departments, and individual staff members before the transformation was in place. Few other groups would be able to call on the time, resources, and expertise available to the HVRA in order to implement the kind of transformation that should be routine if the City is to implement its goal of becoming pedestrian-friendly.

Fortunately, there is hope. Toronto City Council has recently committed to developing a Pedestrian Master Plan for the city, something similar to the Bike Plan that already exists. This process provides an opportunity to bring all of the City divisions together to identify gaps in pedestrian policies and opportunities to make a real improvement to the walking environment in the city. As part of this process, the City of Toronto will host the international Walk21 conference in 2007, which means that Toronto had better have something serious in the works or it will be embarrassed in front of the world.

There are still some concerns about what the pedestrian plan can accomplish, however. One fear is that the plan will focus on infrastructure — more sidewalks — and thus miss the many related issues, such as urban planning, that are equally important to encouraging walking. If the plan is indeed sufficiently ambitious, on the other hand, there must be concern about whether the City is assigning sufficient resources to do it properly. Finally, even if the plan turns out to be fully realized, there is a great danger that it will, as always, be good talk with no walk to back it up. The example of the Bike Plan, already years behind and underfunded, is a chilling model.

In fact, in recent years, planners have begun to bundle walking and cycling (and any other human-powered transport such as rollerblading and jogging) — together under the term "active transportation." The pedestrian plan will need to stand beside the Bike Plan to put active transportation on equal terms with private vehicles and with public transit in the City's transportation policies and priorities.

Such treatment would mean that pedestrians would have a larger number of staff dedicated to walking environment and infrastructure. It would mean that the City would collect detailed statistics on walking, as it does with driving. All planning and development would include a pedestrian plan, as it already includes a plan for cars. When roads are rebuilt as part of their regular cycle, they would be examined as a matter of routine to see how they can be redesigned to improve the pedestrian experience.

But, as we have seen, the impact of walking extends beyond the work of the transportation division into every part of city life. So pedestrian issues need to be addressed in all aspects of the City's work. There needs to be some form of pedestrian-based coordination between all divisions of the City. The HVRA has proposed a kind of "walking czar" — HVRA member and urban planner Richard Gilbert harks back to the first municipal official in Toronto, the "Pathmaster," who was in charge of making sure all walking paths were kept in good shape. As an alternative, the coordinating committee from relevant divisions that will guide the pedestrian plan could be made permanent once the plan is complete. However it is conceived, the plan will be a failure unless it creates some way for pedestrian issues to be coordinated and moved forward between all sections of the City government.

A good way for such coordination to manifest itself would be a "Walking Week" in the fall, parallel to Bike Week in the spring. All of the various, scattered walking initiatives and policies of the City could be brought together in a celebration of walking. Streets could be closed for local celebrations. Communities could audit local walking conditions and safety. Walking routes in streets and parks could be publicized, and walking tours organized. Public service campaigns and research studies could encourage walking for health. Cops could walk their beats, and kids could walk to school for a week. Ribbon-cutting ceremonies could be held for new and enhanced sidewalks and pathways.

But this idea brings us back to the beginning, to the lack of a constituency for pedestrian issues. Bike Week works because there is already in place a strong network of community bike groups, composed of hundreds of citizens who actively identify as cyclists of one kind or another — commuting, recreational, environmental — and can organize and participate in a variety of different activities for Bike Week. For pedestrians, on the other hand, there are no more than a handful of activists in the city, at best very loosely organized.

A key step that is needed to get the City to take walking seriously has to come from walkers themselves. Whether commuters, joggers, strollers, parents — whether they walk out of necessity, for health, for the environment, for community, or for joy — they need to become conscious of themselves as walkers, organize themselves around whatever cause or service is relevant to them, and make walking part of civic life. Through the pedestrian plan, the Walk21 conference, and a "Walking Week," the City can help serve as a catalyst for this mobilization. Together, these initiatives could finally place walking in its rightful place at the heart of City policies.


PAULA FLETCHER, Toronto-Danforth • If anyone can be said to be a pedestrian champion on City Council, it is Fletcher. She is the one who kick-started the development of a Pedestrian Plan for Toronto. This initiative could end up being the single most important pedestrian initiative in the city since the pedestrian charter. She also played an important role in keeping Segway scooters off Toronto's sidewalks. Finally, she moved the amendments to the DIPS (Development Infrastructure Policy and Standards) proposals for new residential streets that pushed city staff to seriously address the pedestrian concerns with these standards. GRADE: honour roll

BILL SAUNDERCOOK, Parkdale-High Park • He is the only councillor who is currently a member of the Toronto Pedestrian Committee. He attends quite regularly, participates actively, and clearly cares about pedestrian issues. Unfortunately, he was seduced by the glitz of the Segway scooter and became the main proponent of allowing these motorized vehicles to travel on city sidewalks. GRADE: C-student at best

CITY COUNCIL • No councillor is ever opposed to pedestrians, per se, but somehow pedestrian issues always end up on the back burner. Pedestrian initiatives such as P.S. Kensington and Car Free Day start off with enthusiasm, then are gradually whittled down until Council gives support in theory, but no money. Everyone likes pedestrians, but some other issue or interest group is always more important. GRADE: fail