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Us versus them — the reallocation of public space

On Saturday, Toronto closed a few of its major roads, including Lake Shore Boulevard West, to provide more space for outdoor activities and social distancing. A number of “quiet streets” were also created last week. These now only allow local vehicular traffic. This, of course, isn’t anything novel. Most cities around the world have been reallocating their public space in the wake of this pandemic, with many hoping that some of these changes will stick.

I rode my bike out to the Humber Bay Shores on the weekend (where I took the above photo) and it was clearly the fix that we needed. Our current waterfront trails simply cannot safely accommodate the volume of people who are out right now on the weekends. I reckon that, under normal circumstances, a good percentage of these runners, cyclists, and rollerbladers would probably be on a patio drinking. That’s not possible right now, so demand for outdoor activities is way up. (Entirely unproven theory.)

But as is always the case, changes like this make a lot of people grumpy. Traffic got backed up on Lake Shore and the regular “war against the car” narrative flared up. I’m not sure where all these cars were going, but they were out in the sunshine trying to go places. So we have a situation where the reallocation of public space has flipped the supply and demand imbalance to another user — drivers. Now it’s us versus them: “Isn’t there already more than enough room on those big bike trails?”

I’m frankly tired of this never ending debate, which is why I have argued before that we could use better data and better metrics. How many people are we moving with the decisions we are making? How many people are we accommodating per square meter of space? Where are users of this public space coming from? What performance standards are we trying to meet and/or maintain? What is the most equitable allocation of a finite amount of space?

But perhaps I’m naive to think that people might listen to facts.

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