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These Canadian cities are making it easier for cyclists and pedestrians to get around this summer

Summer brings the opportunity for more strolls and hikes, and more time on bikes — in some cases, on streets without cars.

A handful of Canadian cities are experimenting with open streets — streets that are temporarily closed to cars, opening up spaces for cyclists and pedestrians.

David Simor, director of The Centre for Active Transportation (TCAT) in Toronto, said cities got a glimpse of what’s possible when they tried out new arrangements earlier in the pandemic — though whether that progress will be sustained long term is unclear.

“I think we’re at a really critical juncture in Canada right now with regards to how we are thinking about mobility and road use,” he said via email.

“Not every approach or program was successful, but overall, the transportation response to COVID-19 proved that cities can act quickly to create more people-centred streets and public spaces.”

Here’s what some of those more open spaces look like today.

Cars vs. bikes in Toronto

There is often debate in Toronto about the heft that cars have in the public space and the safety of the people on two wheels alongside them, as well as nearby pedestrians. 

Two cyclists ride along a path at Toronto's Woodbine Beach.
Two cyclists are seen riding along a path at Toronto’s Woodbine Beach earlier this month. Various cities have seasonal programs that allow pedestrians and cyclists to enjoy more open streets — in some cases where cars are not present — than is the case at other times of year. (Alex Lupul/CBC)

“It still remains quite hazardous to cycle in the city and many people are afraid to do it,” said Beth Savan, an expert in active transportation and senior lecturer emeritus at the University of Toronto’s School of Environment.

Indeed, dozens of people have been killed in Toronto traffic fatalities each year over the past decade. So far, 2023 has claimed the lives of 13 pedestrians and one cyclist.

Yet despite these very real concerns about the need for safer roads, there are still tensions over how Toronto decides to reallocate portions of that space — on a temporary basis — during the summer.

Cyclists are seen riding along Toronto's Lake Shore Boulevard West during a road closure related to ActiveTO.
Cyclists are seen riding along Lake Shore Boulevard West, during an ActiveTO event, back in June 2020. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

The city created ActiveTO in 2020, early in the pandemic, to promote active ways of getting around. Its programs included closing off some streets to cars on certain days. The program was initially hailed as a success by former mayor John Tory,  but city staff suggested reducing certain associated road closures last year, in part because of driver frustration.

Toronto confirmed to CBC News that ActiveTO weekend closures related to Lake Shore Boulevard West, one of the city’s major arteries, will no longer be happening on a regular basis. Rather, they are limited to special events announced well in advance.

“Since street events in Toronto are back to pre-pandemic levels, it is difficult to find weekends where the ActiveTO Lake Shore Boulevard West closure would not conflict with other planned events or add to traffic congestion in the city,” a spokesperson said via email.

Scaling back open streets in Ottawa?

Similar disagreement has emerged in Ottawa, also over a seasonal program shifting where pedestrians, bicycles and cars can roam.

A 2.4-kilometre stretch of Queen Elizabeth Driveway, which winds along the west side of the Rideau Canal, is reserved for active transportation use from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. during the summer. 

Vehicles and cyclists take a scenic parkway.
A 2.4-kilometre stretch of Ottawa’s Queen Elizabeth Driveway is reserved for active transportation use between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. this summer. The image above shows a portion of the road near Fifth Avenue, as seen in September of last year. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

The National Capital Commission (NCC) manages the parkway where the closures are occurring. Its officials support the arrangement.

However, Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe is among the voices calling for that setup to be scaled back. A council colleague, meanwhile, deemed the mayor’s position on the matter “regressive.”

The NCC is collecting public feedback about its active use programs

It also offers weekend bike days, which close portions of Kichi Zībī Mīkan and the Sir George-Étienne Cartier Parkway on weekends and holiday Mondays through early October.

Pedestrian-only streets in Montreal

For the second summer in a row, Montreal has set up 10 pedestrian-only streets.

People are in the middle of the street.
A portion of Wellington Street in Montreal’s Verdun borough has been made a pedestrian-only thoroughfare for a second summer in a row. (Laura Marchand/CBC)

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante believes these conversions — part of a three-year initiative — are good for the businesses that line these streets, and the people strolling along them.

“They also create a sense of community for the people that live in the area,” Plante said earlier this year. “They also become destinations for tourists, visitors and students.”

Savan, the active transportation expert, said open streets can serve as opportunities for people to try out a new way of getting around.

Summertime shift in Edmonton

Edmonton’s Summer Streets have been making more room for cyclists, runners and pedestrians.

This year’s edition has been up and running since May. It grew out of an initiative that started during the first year of the pandemic.

“Active transportation is an important part of how we combat climate change and support a healthy and vibrant city,” said Ali Alou, a senior traffic engineer with the city’s traffic operations department, in an emailed statement.

Cyclist taking advantage of one of Edmonton’s Summer Streets.
A cyclist is seen riding along a section of one of Edmonton’s Summer Streets earlier this week. The seasonal program involves seeing temporary mobility lanes installed along a handful of selected routes, via flex posts that define a separation between traffic and the people engaging in active modes of transportation. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

The seasonal program involves seeing temporary mobility lanes installed, via flex posts that define a separation between traffic and the people engaging in active modes of transportation.

These changes have been made along portions of Victoria Park Hill Road, Saskatchewan Drive and 104 Street.

Alou said the city pays close attention to how the lanes are operating and considers how they can be adjusted in future.

Lower speed limits in Winnipeg

In Winnipeg, the city has reduced speed limits on some streets where more people are out cycling. 

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A lot of Winnipeggers are feeling the pinch from high gas prices. But a recent study found the city has a lot of work to do before people feel safe ditching their car for a bike.

These “neighbourhood greenways” are routes the city says have been set up to move drivers and cyclists through these 19 spaces safely.

The speed limit is set at 30 km/h for these areas — and on a year-round basis for more than half of these routes.

There are also speed reductions in effect on five seasonal bike routes.

Pilot programs in Vancouver and Hamilton, Ont.

Some cities are checking out what more open spaces are like. 

A blue sign in a street says "Yew Open Street Pilot. Pedestrian Zone."
A two-block stretch on Yew Street between Cornwall Avenue and West First Avenue will be pedestrian friendly this summer. (CBC)

In Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood, a two-block stretch of Yew Street has been set up for pedestrian-friendly living this summer. It’s closed to vehicles — with a few exceptions — and is the only open street of its kind there.

The city told CBC News it has been “monitoring and evaluating how people are using the space and collecting feedback from the public and businesses” and making adjustments accordingly.

There are also more time-limited pilots being tested out elsewhere. They include the Open Streets Hamilton event, held in the Ontario city last month.

The one-day event involved blocking vehicles from part of a downtown street for a few hours on a Sunday.

Physical activity stations and various activities were available throughout the “temporary linear urban park.”

Alison Carlyle, a project manager with the city’s sustainable mobility unit, told CBC News that staff will report back to council on the event. She said more events could be held in future, if that’s what council decides.

Simor, the TCAT director, said open streets events are “tantalizing opportunities for cities,” as they provide a lot of payoff without a lot of corresponding cost.

“Open Streets repurpose an existing asset, our streets, which we have already invested money in building, and turns them over to a higher and better use for a few hours each week,” he said.

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