Arushi Nath, Grade 7 Student, Toronto.

On 11 August 2022, I biked to High Park in Toronto to participate in the Ride for Safe Streets” protest called for by the cycling community. The goal of the protest was to ensure that the city’s most vulnerable road users – the cyclists are protected through safer and dedicated bike lanes. It was also a protest against the use of police forces by the city government and officials that targeted cyclists for speeding instead of drivers of cars that speed through the park.

Arushi, 12 years, Participating in protest at High Park for safer streets

The Protest Ride for Safer Streets

Between 600 to 800 cyclists joined the protest. Many people supported from the sidelines of the protest route. The protest started at 6 pm close to the Bloor entrance of the High Park. It started with a short talk delivered by the protest organizers using a megaphone about the reasons behind the protest so that everyone could decide if they wished to be a part of it.

The reasons included increasing risk posed to cyclists by speeding vehicles, lack of speed enforcement for drivers of these vehicles, and ticketing only cyclists going over the speed limit instead of a large number of vehicles going over the speed limit. Vehicles are the major cause of pedestrian and cyclist casualties in Toronto. There have been 18 pedestrian fatalities all caused by drivers of motor vehicles in Toronto between January – July 2022, as per the city records. https://www.toronto.ca/services-payments/streets-parking-transportation/road-safety/vision-zero/vision-zero-dashboard/fatalities-vision-zero/

A long lineup of 600 – 800 cyclists protesting at High Park for safer streets in Toronto

The organisers laid out the rules and route of the protest. We would follow a circular route going through High Park, exiting at Parkside Drive, going north until Bloor Street and then taking a left turn on Bloor Street to return back to the High Park starting point. And there we would all disperse peacefully. The cyclists would do a slow roll along the route and stop at all Stop signs following the traffic rules. Voluntary traffic marshals were provided by the protest hosts to ensure that all protesters stay on the route, abided by the norms, and avoid confrontation with other road users.

It was an amazing experience biking with hundreds of other bikers having similar concerns about road safety, the need to protect vulnerable road users, and the urgency the city needs to display to create protected bike lanes and prevent collisions and casualties caused by motor vehicle drivers.

Diverse Protestors: United for Safer Streets for All

The cyclists represented all age groups and diversity of Toronto. There were youths, adults, seniors, families, kids riding backs, kids in bike trailers and carriers. It was a friendly atmosphere with bells ringing and everyone looking after each other. There were many posters too, advocating for safer streets and car-fee High Park.

The protest provided an opportunity to talk to other people, and learn what brought them to the protest. People had come from everywhere. Some stayed close to High Park and used the park regularly, while others came from far and came to High Park once in a while. Many used all forms of transit, including walking, bikes, public transit and cars. It was clear that safer streets are a priority for everyone, and the city policymakers need to listen to these voices and take action.

Cycling Community: Meeting Fellow Protestors

During the protest, I met the Founder of the 8 80 City Initiative, Gil Penalosa. The initiative is based on a simple idea: if you create a great city for an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old, you will create a successful city for all people. Gil is also a Toronto Mayor Candidate for 2022 elections scheduled for Monday, October 24, 2022. Gil was easy to talk to and he had great ideas on street festivals all around Toronto, public washrooms open in winters, giving higher priority to public transit, housing and safer streets. While young people (less than 18 years) still cannot vote in elections, they do have voices and concerns. And I was happy that a Mayoral Candidate took the time to listen to my concerns about biking on Toronto streets and ideas about safer streets. Policymakers need to hear youths’ voices – they need to act and fulfill the intergenerational responsibilities of any city.

Meeting Gil Penalosa, Founder of 8 80 City Initiative and 2022 Toronto Mayor Candidate

Just when I was about to leave, I spotted one of the protest organizers: Dave Shellnutt. David Shellnutt is the Founder of Bike Brigade that pairs volunteer cyclists with community organizations that serve isolated and vulnerable communities to deliver essentials. The Bike Brigade offers free delivery services for organizations and individuals in need. Recently, I started volunteering with the organization carrying food and vegetable hampers on my bicycle from farmer markets and charity food kitchens to community fridges around Toronto. It was wonderful to meet him in person and learn more about his initiatives and his vision of safer Toronto streets.

Meeting David Shellnutt, one of the Protest Organiser and Founder, Bike Brigade Toronto

Why I Chose to Protest for Safer Streets and Safer Access to Parks? 5 Reasons

Everybody loves parks. Parks are the most basic, universal and essential public services providing open space for current and future generations. Parks are places to enjoy nature, exercise, meet friends, build communities, find happiness, and escape from the everyday schedule of urban life. If a city has to use police force to manage access to parks and their use, it reflects a lack of vision and planning for safer parks for all. It also shows the indifference or ignorance of policymakers on how police encounters in parks could lead to different outcomes for people of colour.

As a park user, I have always been fascinated by local parks. Over the years, I have studied Toronto parks using ground data, city data and satellite data to measure their tree densities and the environmental services they provide in urban areas. See my blog post on the “Monitor My Park” project, where I assess the greenness of my local parks and rank them. These neighbourhood parks have high tree density, shelter urban biodiversity, curb pollution, and provide important environmental services to the city, such as flood control and soil conservation. So what do parks mean for youths, and why did I consider participating in the protest important?

1. Parks: Playground for Kids and Youths

For kids and youths, parks are a fun part of growing up. This is especially true in urban areas where youths often live in tiny houses or multi-storied apartments without private backyards. City parks become their regular go-to place and the great outdoors. Parks are where they gather to play, meet friends, have parties, unwind, gain independence and develop a sense of community. Parks are open to all youths, and you do not have to spend any money to enjoy the benefits offered by parks.

In downtown Toronto, many community centres and swimming pools are accessible through public parks, such as Trinity Bellwoods, Christie Pits, High Park, Regent Park and others. Youths often walk or bike on their own through these parks to access programmes offered at these recreational centers. Some parks also offer skateboarding ramps that are popular with youths. Safe access to parks is an essential issue for youths.

2. COVID-19 Pandemic: Adults rediscover Parks

The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns have re-introduced adults to the parks. Parks are now teeming with so many activities by all age groups, including maintaining social distancing, ball and frisbee sports, exercise groups, dog walking, informal musical groups, office workers having lunch, pollinator gardens, community gardens, farmer fairs, flea fairs, people experiencing homelessness, caregivers, people resting on benches, food couriers taking breaks, or simply people having picnics on the grass. Christie Pits park even has a public piano where people can play music for all.

Youths require safer street access to attend schools, play in the park, or volunteer wiih the community. (Stocking the Community Fridge with Produce from Farmer Markets)

Parks usage has increased, and parks are being used from dawn to dusk. This is a wonderful thing as parks belong to people, and more and more city life is getting organized around the parks. The greatness of a city can be determined by the state of its public services and the vibrancy of its parks. As more people start using parks, they begin to appreciate their benefits and are more willing to support safer access to parks.

3. Parks: A Greener Way to Adapt to Climate Change

Climate change is making parks more important and increasing their use. Each year the city of Toronto is issuing more and more heat alerts due to rising summer temperatures. Parks with their tree shade, water fountains, washrooms and benches are places to find respite during such days. Many Toronto homes do not have cooling, or people do not have the financial means to install air conditioning or pay the additional electricity bills. So investing in local parks and making them accessible to all is a strategy to adapt to climate change.

4. Lack of Planning and Policies: Puts Stress on Parks

The cancellation of progressive events such as Active Toronto (ActiveTO) initiated during COVID-19 lockdowns has put additional stress on parks. During ActiveTO, streets close to the waterfront were made car-free on weekends so people could use them to bike, rollerblade, run, jog or walk to stay physically active. ActiveTO allowed me to explore more parts of this city and was a great incentive to ride to newer places.

A large number of road, subway and condominium construction projects going on in Toronto threaten street trees. Mature roadside trees and replaced them with young saplings. More than ever before, our Toronto parks need to be protected.

5. I feel unsafe as a pedestrian, cyclist and public transit user on Toronto Streets

There are several reasons which make navigating the Toronto streets as a pedestrian, cyclists and transit users unsafe for youths.

  • Cars passing by open streetcar doors put many school students boarding/exiting the street cards at risk. The only thing the streetcar drivers can do is honk their horns.
  • Motor vehicles rushing through a red light. This is very dangerous as pedestrian lights are already Green at that time. Speeding drivers breaking the traffic rules often disregard pedestrians and cyclists as in the event of a collision, the drivers would still be safe.
  • Motor vehicle drivers block the pedestrian crossing, pushing us onto active traffic lanes while crossing streets.
  • Vehicles going the wrong way on one-way streets.
  • Vehicles parked on bike lanes with complete disregard for cyclists. They push cyclists to active traffic lanes and increase the risk of dooring.
  • Vehicles parked on the sides of streets. Every car door could potentially open and cause dooring.
  • Drivers suddenly speed up and overtake you to take a right turn.
  • Badly maintained streets, especially sides of roads close to pavements that are used by cyclists, are often full of potholes, sewer gratings and street rubbish.
  • Longer, higher and big vehicles such as trucks have poor sight lines for pedestrians and cyclists and take up a large part of the bike lane when making a turn.

The 2022 metro area population of Toronto is 6,313,000. It is a city where people raise families, where kids go to school, play in parks, grow up, become a part of the community and volunteer in the community. We need to make safer streets a priority and city officials need to show urgency in action.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s