Open Streets project pitched at Rye conference

The Open Streets conference was held at the Atrium in the the George Vari Engineering Building at Ryerson University. (Marissa Dederer / Ryersonian Staff)

The Open Streets conference was held at the Atrium in the the George Vari Engineering Building at Ryerson University. (Marissa Dederer / Ryersonian Staff)

A program that temporarily suspends motor vehicle traffic in favour of pedestrians, cyclists and even dancers may soon come to Toronto.

The Open Streets project aims to cut off vehicle access to certain street routes from early morning to late afternoon several Saturdays or Sundays each year.

“It’s a really fantastic way for people to get active and engaged without even knowing that they’re exercising,” said Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, who is spearheading the effort to introduce the program to Toronto.

The concept is not new. Originating in Bogotá, Colombia, where Open Streets are called Ciclovías, similar programs are being adopted worldwide.

In New York City, for instance, about 11 kilometres of city streets are closed the first three Saturdays in August.

During a summit at Ryerson University Saturday, Wong-Tam said the Open Streets project is an affordable way to boost physical activity in a city where more free recreation facilities would require adding an estimated $30 million to the budget.

The City of Toronto hasn’t approved Open Streets yet, but Wong-Tam said she hopes to start the program in 2014.

Ten-kilometre-long Open Streets events for four Sundays would cost between $500,000 and $1 million, most of which would go toward paying for security guards or Toronto police involvement, according to Wong-Tam.

On a smaller scale, Ryerson University students already experience an “open street” daily in the form of a partially closed-off Gould Street. Wong-Tam said since the project’s route is not yet determined, it’s too early to confirm whether it will connect to any streets near Ryerson’s campus.

Bloor Street, from west to east, is currently the preferred route for Open Streets Toronto. The street can act as a “spine” that connects to smaller roads and neighbourhoods, according to Gil Penalosa, executive director of 8-80 Cities, which advises cities worldwide on how to create accessible spaces for people of all ages.

David McKeown, chief medical officer for the City of Toronto, said Open Streets would be useful because most of the physical activity people get is not organized recreation, but rather routine tasks like getting to and from school or work.

He said the project could benefit low-income neighbourhoods that are plagued with health inequities like diabetes, obesity and little access to physical activity. Some areas in the suburbs, without proper transportation access, he added, also face great health challenges.

“We would definitely want to include those neighbourhoods (on the route),” he said.

Wong-Tam said there are eight potential routes, but she refused to name them to avoid getting people “excited about things that are not real.”

Molly McAlea, a 22-year-old second-year fashion design student at Ryerson, said she went to a similar once-a-month event in Ottawa that closes a long road to allow cycling and rollerblading, among other activities. But she said she’s worried motorists will react negatively to closing busy Toronto streets.

Nadha Hassen, a second-year public health master’s student at the University of Toronto, said Open Streets would fill the void of physical activity-focused events that require no training. She also said priority neighbourhoods facing health inequities should be included in the program.

“I think we need diversity,” Hassen said. “Nobody mentioned Scarborough, Etobicoke, or those sorts of places.”

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