Metro Morning

Toronto could transform its streets by taking a page from New York City: author

With some political courage, Toronto could turn its city streets into friendlier spaces for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers, says a former transportation commissioner who brought rapid street change to New York City.

Former NYC transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan says it takes political will, paint, pilot projects

Janette Sadik-Khan, former New York City transportation commissioner, says what worked in NYC could work on the wide streets of Toronto. (CBC)

With some political courage, Toronto could turn its city streets into friendlier spaces for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers, says the former transportation commissioner who brought rapid street change to New York City.

Janette Sadik-Khan, author of a newly published book, Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, told Metro Morning the potential exists in Toronto for a new streetscape. 

Sadik-Khan, New York City's transportation commissioner for six and a half years, said the city added 640 kilometres of bike lanes, created seven rapid bus lanes, established 60 pedestrian plazas and turned a large part of Times Square into a pedestrian zone with lawn chairs. It also created the largest bike share system in North America.

"I think there's huge potential," she said.

"One of the things that's so great to see is the asphalt that you have to play with. You have wide streets, you have lots of streets, and the opportunities to remake those streets, redesign them, make them people friendly, bike friendly, safe streets, has been basically hidden in plain sight in the city for 50 years."

Sadik-Khan says changing a streetscape involves looking at streets differently.

In New York City, for example, people saw streets simply as roadways to move cars from point A to point B as quickly as possible. 

"People didn't even have any different expectations for how they could be," she said. 

All other possible uses for city streets - bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, rapid bus lanes - were essentially left at the side of the road, she said.

Sadik-Khan said her changes didn't come without a fight but pushing ahead was necessary. After her changes, "traffic moved as well as it had before."

New Yorkers were in disbelief that city streets could be used differently, but they adapted.

"You can do a lot with a can of paint. It just takes the political courage to try," she said.

Worth trying something new

In Toronto, a proposal to temporarily install bike lanes on Bloor Street West, between Shaw Street and Avenue Road, is headed to city council to be debated and voted on next week following a 2-2 vote by the city's public works and infrastructure committee on Monday.

If city council votes in favour of the proposal, the temporary bike lanes could be in place as early as this August.

Known as the queen of the pilot project, Sadik-Khan said pilot projects reduce the anxiety that everybody feels, allowing people to "see, feel and touch" potential changes.

"You can't argue that the street is just perfect and you shouldn't try something new," she said.

"When you think about it, so many cities have huge number of crashes and fatalities. If you looked at it through another lens, this would be seen as a public health crisis. We need to really fix our streets. That means making them safer, building in more choices for getting around."

She said change is imperative given the fragile state of the environment. Also, people are stuck in a "sea of brake lights." 

"We are not going to be able in this century to make our cities grow and thrive by double-decking our roads and double-decking our bridges. We have to make more efficient and more effective use of our streets."

Changing the uses of streets doesn't increase congestion, she said. 

"It's not anti-car to build in more choices. It's really providing options. It's a pro-choice agenda for city streets. It's pro-car to build in transportation options that make it easy and safe for everybody to get around," she said.

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