BY MARK KEAST

This week in Toronto, the city approved an expansion of bike lanes through the downtown core – including one down University Ave., connecting from Danforth Ave. to Bloor St., down to Adelaide St. (25 new kilometres in total). In part that’s so healthcare workers nervous about hopping on a subway or streetcar these days can get to work faster, and no one has an issue with that.

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With the shutdown and self-isolation, though, having lived downtown for 15 years, I am sensing a profound shift in mindset. For many, before the pandemic, being a “car guy” in a traffic snarled, densely packed downtown core, navigating countless condo and office tower construction sites, in part meant never having to say anything positive about cyclists.

Image: John Raddi

We were becoming accustomed to more bike lanes, having to work around them, but the divide between motorists and cyclists was a gaping one. Brick by brick, that wall went up, separating two points of views about where we wanted to see our city evolve. This article from two summers ago highlighted the results of an Angus Reid Institute study that dove into road conflict – 43 % saying there was “quite a bit of conflict”.

That’s not to say the divide couldn’t be breached. A hardcore downtown cycling friend of mine who lives in the Bay St. and Wellesley St. area talked about his frustration at some of his fellow cyclists who weren’t following the rules of the road. I walked up to a police officer last summer to point out the license plate of someone in a Dodge Charger opening up to at least 100 km/h east on King St., on that straightaway underneath the bridge between Atlantic Ave. and Sudbury St.. Both sides were entrenched, but both could also see the idiocies of the other.

This feeling is different, though. Not in a Hallmark Channel movie-of-the-week kind of way, but something more deep-rooted and permanent, and what will emerge is a better city. Pandemic life is at the root of it. The tearing down of walls is something you can hear and see. Mayor John Tory said when announcing the new bike paths that this was not about ideology, it was about need.

Image: John Raddi

One of the benefits of leaving our cars parked for over two months has been cleaner air. A friend of mine walking around the Rogers Centre said to me recently that he felt like he was walking up north. The air was that crisp. He also snapped an image of Lake Ontario off the island, water so clear now you could see the rocks at the bottom.

This emerging mindset is all something Jennifer Keesmaat – Toronto’s former city planner, now running her own consultancy firm, The Keesmaat Group – has noticed as well, self-isolating with her family in the Yonge and Eglinton area.

Her husband was a  “hardcore car guy” too, growing up outside the city core, who over this past winter started cycling more around the city – in large part because of parking restrictions. Necessity pushed him there. Cycling got him around faster. It was more convenient.

Keesmaat talked about Amsterdam in the 1970s, how tighter access channels to oil forced city planners there to create a much more cycling-friendly infrastructure, again out of necessity. Now there is no going back for the people there. Coming out of the pandemic, there is no going back for us either. We have all had a taste of the new life, and frankly, it tastes better.

Keesmaat has long been an advocate of a city that embraces more open, safe spaces for pedestrians, cyclists, joggers, the disabled, more parks and green space. She currently works with more progressive cities on the topic, and previously piloted Toronto’s King St. project while city planner, which has shut down a portion of the street to car traffic, prioritizing transit. Toronto can further build on its strong walkability rating, perhaps now a new city for a new age. Some of us are late to the party, granted, but many of us are there, now, in body and mind.

Image: John Raddi

RL: YOU HAVE BEEN SPEAKING A LOT, ESPECIALLY LATELY, ABOUT URBAN RENEWAL, AND THE NEED FOR MORE PUBLIC SPACES. ARE YOU SENSING THIS CHANGE IN MINDSET MORE TOWARDS WHAT YOU HAVE BEEN TALKING ABOUT?

JK: There is a profound shift taking place right now. I know this because of the response I am getting to my ideas, quite frankly. There was a time when it was like I was speaking in a foreign language, talking about the high quality of life in walkable environments. I live in a walkable neighbourhood, but that’s not the norm for most Torontonians and most Canadians.

In the past ten years, 75 per cent of our new housing has been in car-oriented suburban sprawl, where there is nothing to do within walking distance from home. So across the country, there is this shift taking place right now, a growing realization that living more in our neighbourhoods, not having to put up with a long commute, offers a really high quality of life.

It will only be good for our cities going forward if we embrace that.

Image by John Raddi

RL: HOW MUCH HAS THE PANDEMIC, FORCED SELF-ISOLATION, BEEN A SOURCE FOR THAT CHANGE IN MINDSET?

JK: One of the biggest implications of the lockdown has been the reduction of car traffic in the city. And one of the outcomes of that reduction has been cleaner air, the return of wildlife, and the experience of both nature and quiet. We generally think of cities as inherently noisy places, but in reality they are not. Many people have discovered that this is a way better way to live. It’s better to not be dodging cars. It’s better to be taking deep breaths in the city.

And it’s pretty cool to be hearing the birds in the city, an experience I have had at Yonge and Eglinton. I have been blown away at how I have noticed the birds this spring. I live in a pretty loud neighbourhood, but without the cars, you can hear the birds.

The goal ought to be to create cities that have very little stress, that have really strong, healthy ecological systems. The underpinning factor to allow those ecological systems to thrive is getting rid of cars.

RL: ARE YOU CONFIDENT THIS CHANGE IN MINDSET WILL BE PERMANENT?

JK: I am confident, but not everywhere right away, because change doesn’t happen that way. Good change that offers a better way to live does eventually get embraced by everyone. The example I like to use is recycling. There were cities that early on said wait a minute, why are we throwing away our pop cans, we should be recycling them. It’s ridiculous they are in our landfill in perpetuity. If we do this right, we could even make a bit of revenue by recycling them.

Not every city did it within the first two years. But in a decade, every city was recycling. It reached a tipping point where it made so much sense. It became so deeply irresponsible not to be recycling. Good ideas that enhance the sustainability of our cities and deliver a higher quality of life become irresistible.

And I think the phenomenal learning during lockdown was that we could have that here too. Many people who didn’t believe they could hear the birds in the city or see the bottom of Lake Ontario, that it stood in contradiction to city life, now they are believers. They have now seen it and experienced it with their own eyes.

That’s big. That’s when transformative change happens. Once you breathe clean air, you very quickly become a proponent for that. Most people don’t want to go back.

Looking into the future … it’s about making the city more liveable. Once people catch a sense of the dream, and it becomes something that is conceivable, it shifts our thinking.

We can change our thinking. We change our thinking all the time. Our cities are in a constant state of evolution. And if we are smart they are constantly getting better.

RL: THE CITY SHUT DOWN A PORTION OF KING ST. TO CARS, BUT THERE IS SO MUCH MORE WE CAN DO NOW. MORE STREETS OPENED TO PEDESTRIANS, WIDER PATIOS FOR RESTAURANTS, WINTER FAIRS UP YONGE ST.

JK: I think we will get there. Unfortunately Toronto always needs to be dragged screaming into the future. We still think of ourselves as a small town in the 1950s. We still think of ourselves as having entitlement to cars. As an urban planner, I have been a proponent of all those things for almost 20 years.

On the one hand it’s a little shocking that ideas we have been talking about for 20 years are starting to become part of the mainstream discourse. On the other hand, I go back to the point that good ideas don’t go away.  Eventually they do get implemented. The question is will your city be a leader or a laggard? Will your city get dragged into the future because they watched other cities do it or will your city lead into the future?

It will happen in Toronto. The soil is tilled for change in a way that it never has before. I think being in our neighbourhoods during lockdown, walking a lot, has really inspired many people to look around them and see the city in a way they never have before.

The very first thing we need immediately is a cycling network that extends from north to south and east to west in the city. If cycling is to become a true transportation tool you have to be able to get places safely, even with a child on a bike. Bike lanes on University is a big move. But they stop at Bloor. They should extend on Avenue and go all the way up to Eglinton.

Jennifer Keesmaat

Yonge St? That dream world, from my perspective, and I think it will happen, (would be bike lanes) from Steeles Ave. all the way down to the waterfront. An entire, dedicated lane on either side of the street, or make it a cycling track. In our suburbs there is a profound demand that has risen up as well – Bayview, Leslie, Finch, Sheppard, all should have cycling lanes.

One of the reasons to change is about transitioning the character of the area, no longer having an area which has a highway running through it. It’s about mobility and access to a safer way to get around  the city, and retain some of that air quality and quiet, all of those good things that have come with leaving our cars in our driveway during the lockdown.

RL: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE INTERNATIONAL CITIES YOU HAVE BEEN TO THAT ARE GETTING IT RIGHT, IN THESE AREAS WE ARE DISCUSSING?

JK: There are cities that had it right before COVID-19, and there are cities that are getting it right, right now. London, Milan, Paris, are expediting the building of extensive cycling lanes, and networks, and also adapting public space in the streets for ecological purposes – planting trees and gardens. Creating a green city.  Seoul, South Korea, had already turned an urban expressway into a massive linear park, running through the heart of the city, a phenomenal space.

RL: WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF LUXURY, AND HOW DOES THAT APPLY TO WHAT YOU ARE ADVOCATING?

JK: I would absolutely look at all this through the luxury lens. Is two hours to commute in a car everyday luxurious, or is 15-minutes to get the office luxurious?  What’s your definition? One, you are out, seeing the sites, breathing the air, hearing the sounds, saying hello to your neighbour. The other you are in a car, doing terrible things to your heart, because of the stress of commuting. For me, it’s no questions asked. If you equate luxury with a higher quality of life, being able to live in the neighbourhood where you can walk to do a whole variety of things, is a much higher quality of life. Maybe not the traditional way we define luxury, but how we think about luxury and how we are defining it is going through a fundamental shift.