The great divide: The “Urban vs Suburban” debate misses the point

city hall white background Screen-shot-2011-04-19-at-2.34.42-PM

Illustration by Warren Wheeler

This is the first part of a dandyhorse series that will explore cycling in the "suburbs" of Toronto.


Story by Albert Koehl

If you listen to city council debates, you might be led to believe that inhabitants of Toronto's outer regions are a different species from those who dwell in the core. In transportation decision-making in particular, an "urban-suburban divide" often serves as an explanation for questionable policy decisions instead of what it really is: a simple geographic observation.

We need to challenge councillors to frame issues based on shared values of safety, health and quality of life instead of the number of wheels their constituents rely upon or where they live. Doing so would expose the so-called divide as a dubious proposition. The conversation would turn towards solutions for the whole instead of patchwork policies for "opposing" factions.

In 2012, Ontario’s Chief Coroner — whose motto is “We speak for the dead to protect the living,” — recommended reducing maximum speeds on arterial and residential roads. The reason was simple. A pedestrian or cyclist hit by a car at 50 or 60 km/h will likely die, but under 40km/h the odds turn in the victim’s favour.

The human body is just as vulnerable in Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York as it is downtown. Lower speeds protect everyone.

Toronto Public Health studies highlight the benefits of walking and cycling to avoid chronic health problems like heart disease, obesity and diabetes. The thesis is simple: when people walk and cycle as part of their daily routine — to the transit stop, school, or the store — they get much of the exercise they need for good health.

Lower speeds and road design improvements make active transportation safer and more feasible, which makes it an attractive option. When certain regions remain dangerous to walk and cycle in, the residents are being denied the health benefits of active transportation.

Various expert bodies have proposed funding tools, including road tolls, parking levies and fuel taxes to pay for transit improvements. Affordable, accessible, frequent transit moves people efficiently, reduces harm to the climate and opens up roads for the smooth movement of goods. Good transit also provides a lower cost option to car ownership, allowing all residents to focus on more important household priorities.   

When transportation is framed as a debate about values, it reveals the trade-offs that are being made, like choosing between motor traffic speed and safety. Leaders should be forced to rely on well-reasoned positions over weak assumptions, personal attacks or silly slogans.

After the Toronto Public Health recommendation for lower speed limits, then-chair of the public works committee, Denzil Minnan-Wong (now Deputy Mayor) responded that the Medical Officer in charge of the agency “should stick to his knitting.”

To date, only residential streets in downtown Toronto have had across-the-board speed reductions.

Minnan-Wong’s Ward 34, Don Valley East does have attributes that might justify a car and speed-first mentality: large land areas with detached homes and two-car garages along quiet, leafy roads connected to fast-paced arterials. However, a majority of Ward 34 residents live in apartment buildings, many located along arterial roads. The same is true in many other wards on the suburban regions of the city.

In addition, car ownership, or even a transit pass, is a heavy burden or simply unaffordable for many residents. According to the 2011 National Household Survey, almost 50% of households in Ward 34 have an annual income under $50,000; about 15% of households earn under $20,000.  

Ironically, during the last term of council Minnan-Wong championed separated bike lanes in downtown Toronto — precisely the kind of network that would protect his constituents who cycle, or would cycle, if they felt safe. Ward 34’s high-speed arterials, including Victoria Park, Lawrence, and Don Mills, like other city arterials, continue to exact a tragic toll of death and injury on residents who walk or cycle.

Even though suburban wards are less dense than downtown ones, a high number of car trips in such wards are surprisingly short. According to the 2011 Transportation Tomorrow Survey, the median trip distance in Ward 34 — where 74% of all trips are by car — is 4.5 km for drivers and 3.7 km for their passengers. Many trips can therefore be cycled, or even walked. Converting a short car trip into a 20-minute walk or bike ride also helps people achieve daily exercise requirements for good health, delivering big savings on health care costs.

When we create streets that are safe and pleasant, we treat the local community as more than a convenient thoroughfare for cars and trucks. It is this way of thinking that gets people to use their bikes or feet for everyday transportation needs. This means implementing lower speed limits, school safety zones, protected bike lanes, sidewalk snow clearing, mid-block crossings along arterials, attractive bus shelters and frequent transit service.

When we look at the bigger picture, the urban-suburban divide is exposed as a bogus excuse for questionable voting at City Hall — we gain the potential to make decisions based on values that we all share.

Albert Koehl served on the Chief Coroner’s expert panel on pedestrian safety. He is co-representing a coalition, including United Senior Citizens, calling on the Minister of Transport to implement a Vulnerable Road User Law. He spent five days last year walking 125 km around the periphery of Toronto.


Related on the dandyBLOG:

DJ Barbi: Biking in the 'burbs

Vision Zero: A road safety plan for Toronto

A New Image for Toronto: Pedestrian priority combined with a transit right-of-way

City's new public works chair on cycling

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