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ActiveTO: First impressions of Toronto’s latest mobility initiative

By June 9, 2020 No Comments

ActiveTO is the City of Toronto’s new plan to provide space on streets to help residents get outside and get around safely while respecting physical distancing, as part of the City’s broader COVID-19 recovery and rebuilding efforts. After advocates voiced concerns over road safety and essential travel during pandemic response and recovery, the City announced ActiveTO on May 6th with plans to implement rapidly over the coming weeks and months.

With its announcement, Toronto joined cities around the globe in recognizing the critical importance of a safe, efficient, and connected active transportation network in COVID-19 recovery, and with hope, into the future.

Location of ActiveTO Quiet Streets in Toronto

Cycling Network Expansions announced May 28

The three-pronged ActiveTO plan includes a network of neighbourhood quiet streets, major road closures near recreational attractions on weekends and holidays, and an expanded cycling network that prioritizes connections to key destinations and routes that mirror major transit lines.

On June 4th, the Ryerson City Building Institute hosted a webinar to delve into the roll out of ActiveTO: how it stacks up to Toronto’s needs and to what’s possible. Hosted by Toronto Star columnist Matt Elliott and featuring Dr. Raktim Mitra (Ryerson School of Urban and Regional Planning), Barbara Gray (City of Toronto Transportation Services), Michael Longfield (Cycle Toronto) and Amanda O’Rourke (8 80 Cities), the conversation examined ActiveTO–including the expansions to the bicycle network made official on May 28-and potential future investments in active transportation as part of an equitable COVID-19 recovery strategy. We asked: is ActiveTO enough?

Here we are providing a quick recap, in case you missed this session.

Mobility data from Apple.com

To kick off the webinar, panelists discussed whether ActiveTO strikes the right balance between supporting the recreation and transportation functions of streets. Most panelists agreed that the combination of cycling routes that mirror subway lines to accommodate riders seeking an alternative to transit and weekend road closures and quiet streets makes for a solid plan that offers safety to those seeking some exercise and recreation as well as those using active transportation for essential travel. The priority to ensure the safety of the most vulnerable road users was emphasized — regardless of how they are using the street.

“Talking about balance is a little bit of a false dichotomy in a way, positioning it as transportation versus recreation…it is really about both, and I think that what we would love to see the conversation really focus on is how to prioritize the most vulnerable road users on our streets, and think about how that really intersects with both transportation and recreation.” – Amanda O’Rourke, Executive Director, 8 80 Cities

Impact of COVID-19 on Toronto neighbourhoods, May 2020

Over the past months, it has become clear that COVID-19 has revealed and exacerbated many racial and socioeconomic inequities in Toronto, and many other cities across the globe. Panelists discussed ActiveTO’s potential to address these challenges by connecting communities and supporting safety for all road users, and about the need to centre equity as a guiding principle as the plan continues to be rolled out and revised over the coming months.

“In the peripheries of Toronto, there are people who are low-income, working precarious jobs, who cannot work from home…and at the same time, the dependence on transit amongst those communities [is] higher than what we would expect in other, more inner-city communities. So I think a good question now would be: how do we strike a balance where communities who would be captive users of transit in the post-COVID recovery time would still benefit from programs like ActiveTO?” – Raktim Mitra, Associate Professor, School of Urban and Regional Planning, Ryerson University

Before & After the Bloor Street Bikeway: Key Statistics

Main street recovery has been a significant concern here in Toronto, as the small businesses that line our commercial avenues continue to face significant operating challenges. Panelists discussed the potential of ActiveTO to support main street recovery, drawing connections to earlier evidence of the positive impacts of bike lanes on business gleaned from the 2015-2016 Bloor Street bike lane pilot and the 2019 Danforth Complete Streets pop-up.

“A lot of people will be working from home for the foreseeable future, a lot of people will be exploring and living within their local neighbourhoods a little bit more, and a network that provides safe active transportation really encourages people to shop at local businesses, to support their favourite restaurants, to go to cafes…it can really be a very powerful economic engine to help stimulate our recovery.” – Michael Longfield, Interim Executive Director, Cycle Toronto

To close out the discussion, panelists discussed the long-term outlook for ActiveTO: in the next two or three or ten years, what elements of the plan could be made permanent, and what could we build on or expand? Panelists drew inspiration from efforts underway in other cities around the globe, and noted the potential for Toronto to learn from these examples. Because rapid implementation is a key focus on ActiveTO, the plan will need to leave room for modifications, informed by on-the-ground evidence. There is optimism that the plan’s future iterations will offer significant benefits to residents across the city, and play a central role in Toronto’s COVID-19 recovery and rebuilding efforts.

“There are cities that are ahead of us in the pandemic response and there are cities that are still to follow, so I think we have an ongoing role and responsibility to continue to stay connected and to learn from what they’re seeing on the ground and adapt as we can.” – Barbara Gray, Manager, Transportation Services, City of Toronto

Ryerson CBI thanks this webinar’s panelists and moderator for their thoughtful ideas and insights, and our audience for their participation and questions.

The recording of “Hacking the Streets: Rolling Out ActiveTO” is also available on our YouTube channel. Watch it now!