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Taking Our City Back 2

Ryerson University

All Photos by James D. Schwartz / The Urban Country  

Following in the footsteps of the great cities in Europe, Toronto alas has created two (permanent) pedestrian-only streets by closing them off from automobile traffic. This is a significant win for the citizens of Toronto who have been fighting for decades for pedestrian-only streets.

The new pedestrian-only areas reside at Gould/Victoria streets at Ryerson University, and Willcocks street between St. George and Huron at the University of Toronto campus.

Early Saturday morning, workers were setting up the tables and chairs at the new Ryerson University pedestrian-street. With the school year starting imminently, this public space will be bustling in no time.

Ryerson University

Ryerson University

The downward trend of accommodating the automobile at all costs began in 1955 when construction on the Frederick G. Gardiner Expressway first began. The Gardiner Expressway divided neighbourhoods from the lake, tore down hundreds of homes, destroyed park space, an amusement park and even threatened to destroy Toronto’s historic Fort York.

Toronto continued to cater to automobiles in the years – and decades – after the completion of the Gardiner. Luckily a group of protesters led by Jane Jacobs helped prevent the north-south Spadina Expressway from being completed. It’s abominable to imagine how many wonderful neighbourhoods would have been destroyed by the expressway along Spadina Ave.

Despite Toronto’s victory in preventing the Spadina Expressway from being built in 1971, many people still believe that Toronto needs to build more highways to accommodate the growing suburbs.

But I struggle to comprehend the logic in envisioning Toronto to be more like an American city – with vast networks of highways across the city, but a lack of neighbourhoods within the city. Building more highways begets more traffic.

Toronto’s population has steadily grown over the last 30 years (Metro CMA population is more than 5 million people), while the number of highways has virtually stayed the same. When roads approach their capacity, people find other ways to get to the city (public transit, bikes, commuter trains, etc). Similarly, when new roads are built in a large city, they quickly fill up to capacity – as evidenced in big cities like Los Angeles, Beijing, or New York.

Ryerson University

2010 marks a new decade and a new era for Toronto – and other cities in North America. The new trend is to start giving space back to citizens by building Complete Streets and pedestrian-only zones to enhance the urban realm and improve the experience for citizens and visitors alike.

New York drastically improved its Times Square by simply blocking traffic from entering a section of Broadway Ave and throwing up a few tables and chairs. Similarly, one of Montreal’s most thriving streets is the pedestrian-only Prince Arthur street.

Though these pedestrian streets may seem foreign to many North American cities, they are par for the course in European cities. But we have a decades-old addiction to the automobile, and the first step to curing an addiction is to first acknowledge that we have an addiction. Once acknowledged, we can begin to cure it.

The Ryerson pedestrian-only space might be 20 years overdue, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Stay tuned for a follow-up article after the school-year commences and the pedestrian street thrives.

James D. Schwartz is the editor of The Urban Country. You can contact James at

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2 thoughts on “Taking Our City Back

  1. Stephen Da Cambra Sep 1,2010 6:44 pm

    Hi James,

    Great post. We cannot underestimate the impact of the automobile.

    A couple years ago Spacing magazine quite clearly illustrated that air pollution is just one disadvantage of automobiles. The space that is needed for them could be just as big a disadvantage – especially considering all that space must be paved.

    While I can’t find online the article that I recall, Spacing has these images that help make the point:

    Not only does one car use the same space as 42 folding bikes, every car needs many times that space for parking spaces at home, work and the shopping mall.

    In addition, the road space needed to keep car traffic flowing is unbelievable – I believe the Spacing numbers were something like 5,000 sq.ft. of space for a car travelling at 100 km/h – plus shoulder lanes in case of a problem.

    In other words, in a way, every car is the size of a house – and the property around it.

    The pedestrian malls are a great idea that could be repeated in dozens of places throughout the city. Look at the acres of space that we got back just by closing Gould and Victoria around Ryerson.


  2. James D. Schwartz Sep 5,2010 5:37 pm

    When I was in China it was very evident how much space cars take up compared to bikes. I saw a parking lot with about 15 car parking spaces, and about 4 parking spaces assigned to bikes and scooters. Those 4 parking spaces had more than 50 bikes/scooters parked in them. It was probably closer to 70 because they were parked so closely together.

    It’s amazing how much space cars take up – as evidenced by the 100KM traffic jam near Beijing.

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