Maybe COVID-19 will teach Toronto that a city is worth paying for

OPINION: Affordable housing. Bike lanes. Patio space. Council is finally making moves it should have made decades ago — but will its new attitude outlast the pandemic?
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jun 05, 2020
Toronto city council has voted to expand the Bloor Street bike lane. (Peter Power/CP)

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It’s easy, and mostly justifiable, to be skeptical about the City of Toronto’s response to COVID-19 thus far. The occasional items of good news — for example, the city is finally taking its housing crisis seriously and making real, substantial policy changes — are, well, real and substantial. But, as a meal, they also need to be served with heaping sides of “Why did this take so long?” and “Will this actually survive once the pandemic has passed?”

That said, the real pieces of good news in this city deserve to be highlighted (if for no other reason than that doing so might encourage better behaviour from our elected officials). The news, last week, that Toronto city council had approved a substantial expansion of the city’s bike-lane network is definitely one. I was recording an episode of the #onpoli podcast during the actual vote itself; it was quite refreshing to emerge to find that council had not only approved the bike lanes — and shot down the obvious bad-faith motions from the usual misanthropes — but had also done so with huge majorities.

One particular element of the plan deserves specific praise: the decision to expand the existing Bloor Street bike lane east and west and join it to a new Danforth Avenue bike lane in the city’s east end. This is, of course, overdue: Bloor and Danforth have had subways running beneath them for more than a half-century, and Toronto ought to have started taking space away from cars there a generation ago. But city council is collectively held hostage by reactionary business-improvement associations. Indeed, like clockwork, many BIAs came out against the Bloor and Danforth bike lanes, joined predictably by several equally reactionary residents’ associations.

It’s to council’s credit that the torrent of outrage from the forces of NIMBYism fell on deaf ears (this once). Doubly so, because, unlike the rest of the bike-network plan, the motion passed by council asserts that this isn’t a temporary measure for the pandemic — it is intended to be a permanent, “transformational” approach to Danforth Avenue.

It’s at least a generation late, and the city’s hand was forced by a pandemic that’s going to make public transit risky for the foreseeable future — but, hey, a win is a win.

Perhaps even more radical is the city’s recent announcement that it is going to begin expediting patio and café approvals for bars and restaurants looking to expand their dining space into public spaces — including, potentially, sidewalks and parking spots.

Most astonishingly of all, the city seems open to actually paying for it by waiving its application fees for patio space. This is a big deal: the city has had a program before now to allow businesses to use the parking spaces in front of their premises for patio space, but Toronto insisted on recovering the lost revenue through the patio fees — to the tune of $1,000 a month in the  downtown area. Unsurprisingly, the program has had uneven success: for many businesses, the costs of an application may outweigh the uncertain benefits.

This, of course, represents a choice to subsidize some businesses with preferential use of the public right of way. But, maddeningly, the status quo is the worst possible form of subsidy: it involves letting motorists use public space to store their cars for hours at a time in the name of “helping local business.” We just don’t think of it as a subsidy, because, even in the year 2020, Toronto assumes that motorists having first claim to all public space is the normal, natural state of affairs. Witness the King streetcar project, which spent more on subsidized parking than on improvements to transit itself.

There is a broader lesson here, if Toronto wants to learn it. Public officials love to find “win-win” solutions; failing that, they love to claim they have found such solutions. But municipal policy is hard because it’s primarily about the use of land, and land is zero-sum: if we let motorists have space for parking, we can’t also give it to bars and restaurants. Leaders need to accept that and make the choices the city needs to make anyway: any place where space currently dedicated to cars can be put to better use — that is, almost everywhere — it should be, whether that means bike lanes, cafés, or just humble sidewalks.

But that can’t happen if the city insists on treating the status quo as a property right, if it believes the forces of stasis need to be bought off with someone else’s money before we can ever try anything new. If we’re living in this city together, and we want it to grow together and be an exciting, dynamic place, then we’ll need to pay for it — together.

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