Could Toronto Realistically Become Car-free?

Oslo, Norway made headlines around the world last month when city officials announced a surprisingly ambitious plan: they would make the city centre completely car-free by 2019.

An initiative under a newly formed city council, and more specifically a multilateral alliance involving councillors from the Labour, Socialist Left and Green parties, the ban – which is a first of its kind in a major global city – is intended as part of a broader national move to reduce emissions by 2020. The move, however, isn’t viewed by proponents as strictly an environmental initiative.

The same initiative contains other ambitious and bold moves including divesting fossil fuels from all city pension funds, building more bicycle infrastructure and subsidizing purchases of electric bicycles.

“We want to make it better for pedestrians, cyclists. It will be better for shops and everyone.” said Lan Marie Nguyen Berg, a negotiator for the Green Party. Naturally, not everyone agrees with this appraisal.

Local business owners note that Oslo has 57 shopping centres, 11 of which are located in the proposed car-free zone. Reducing car traffic has businesses of all sizes concerned with the potential impact on revenue.

The inevitable question is could Toronto do something like this in the downtown core?

Firstly, let’s look at how many cars are in Toronto. A University of Toronto’s Data Management Group did a survey in 2011 of Toronto and surrounding suburbs. It found that Toronto as a whole was slightly below the Canadian average of 1.5 vehicles per household, at 1.3. Approximately 1.1 million cars as of summer 2014.

The highest proportions of vehicles were in Etobicoke and Scarborough, while the lowest rate of ownership (0.9 vehicles per household) was in the old City of Toronto. While no more recent figures exist for comparison, it is almost certain that this number has increased citywide amidst a hot Canadian auto-buying market; the only question is by how much has the chasm in car ownership between the city and the suburbs widened.

Regardless, the pattern is that residents of the downtown core, on average, own fewer cars, while the suburbs own more. As such, traffic on Toronto roads, by implication, is disproportionately suburban, even in the downtown core. So the question becomes: why, in a time where residential infill development is the norm in Toronto’s core, are we still using downtown as a traffic conduit for predominantly suburban cross-city traffic?

Toronto has dabbled in going car-free via Open Streets Toronto. Started in 2014 with support from Ward 27 Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, the event closes down Yonge Street from Bloor to College Street, as well as a section of Bloor Street through Yorkville, permitting only pedestrian and cycle traffic through the areas for 4 hours. The reception among participants was mostly positive, with impromptu yoga and dance lessons, street performers and even a street hockey game or two, Open Streets painted Yonge Street in a brand new light; no longer dominated by engine noise, honking, and verbal exchanges, that stretch of Toronto’s longest street became a surprisingly peaceful and vibrant space.

Realistically, Yonge Street – between Bloor and Queen Streets – hasn’t been the most efficient vehicle corridor in quite some time. Between service/delivery vehicles, the large amount of pedestrian traffic and the number of restricted turns, Yonge through much of downtown has become a bottleneck. With dozens of new developments in their pre-build phase along the Yonge Street strip, the pedestrian crowds will only increase; as cars are already outnumbered by people among residents, it is all but inevitable that Yonge will need to become car-free just to ensure pedestrian safety for residents and visitors.

Oslo’s population of approximately 620,000 is obviously a far cry from the size of Toronto, but a city centre is a city centre. Being the oldest part of Toronto, there is no space to widen roadways, and even if there were, some of the city’s oldest and most iconic architecture resides in the core, meaning that most of the hard footprint of downtown Toronto is already firmly established.

With increased emphasis on promoting cycling around Toronto, and with so many who work in the core opting to either take up residence there permanently, or at the very least opting to take transit into the core, Yonge Street between Bloor and Front Streets has become too outdated/dense to effectively handle north-south traffic as a primary auto corridor. However, it presents a unique opportunity as a pedestrian corridor, while still allowing east-west flow along high-use roads like Dundas, King and Queen (aided by the streetcar lines running along those streets).

With a newly-minted Prime Minister with a mind for the urban agenda, as well as an amicable relationship among the three levels of governments, it’s likely that the stars have aligned for Toronto for the next few years in terms of big-picture spending. Now is the time when we should be willing to ask ourselves ‘what if?’, and to be willing to hear out some outrageous-sounding, but logically sound ideas intended to evolve Toronto.