A proposal that would bar vehicular traffic on long stretches of Bloor, Yonge, and Church streets on four Sundays this summer was recently debated at the city’s economic development committee. Naturally, Open Streets TO’s idea to turn all that open asphalt into a pedestrian playground had some politicians and journalists fuming. “We need our streets open,” Rob Ford told reporters. “It will be chaos.” The Toronto Sun’s editorial board wrote, “We have a city in which far too many politicians regard motorists as an afterthought.”
The reality that anything from a new bike lane to a light rail line is going to be assessed based on how it will impact cars is hardly surprising. Toronto does have a gridlock problem, after all, and the Board of Trade estimates that it’s costing the Toronto region $6 billion a year. With festivals blocking off streets for everything from salsa dancing to bike riding, it’s easy to blame them for the problem, even if the root causes of gridlock aren’t meat-on-a-stick vendors.
But events like Open Streets don’t rob people of road space as much as they redistribute it. The city doesn’t have an exact count on the number, but staff say Toronto’s BIAs are involved in 160 community events and street festivals annually. And of the 7.4 million attendees at these events, at least a few must be motorists. Besides, Toronto has ample evidence of the benefits these events could bring: The organizers of Taste of the Danforth found that, in 2010, the festival generated $32 million in economic activity; Pride estimates that its 2013 festivities sparked $286 million in spending; and Ryerson researchers found that 2009’s Caribana created 6,800 jobs.
So, yes: Street festivals can be a pain, and with the city planning to resurface 185 kilometres of road this year, don’t expect the traffic to move any quicker. But wouldn’t politicians prefer that citizens be out in the street, getting exercise, socializing, and maybe spending money, rather than being stuck in traffic? On second thought, wouldn’t we all?