Accidental Activist

Toronto Needs More Sidewalk Love

It's tough being a pedestrian in Toronto. When did two feet get such short shrift?

By Ben Bull
Published September 05, 2010

It's Tuesday morning and I'm on my way to work. The traffic is bad today. I'm downtown, staring at the tail lights and breathing in the fumes. Gotta love commuting. Up ahead I see that my route is blocked: 'Get out of the way!'

Where did all these people come from? I wonder. Doesn't anyone stay at home? All of a sudden I see a gap. Go! Go! Go! I speed up and veer left.

"Hey watch it!"


That was close. The balding Dr Phil look-a-like sweeps past me and shoots me a glance. Good morning to you, too.

I zigzag left, right, left-and-right. This is exhausting. The asphalt feels like it's folding itself around me, I can barely breathe...

Now, what's this? I skid to a halt.




I reverse a couple of inches, smack my hand on my forehead and trudge off once again.

Half a block later the lights block my way. I stare at the cars streaming across my path: Green Light Envy.

I'm sure this is a universal condition. The same sort of feeling you get when you're at the doctor and someone else's name gets called.

'It's my turn' their expression says, as they look back at you in mock sympathy.

The lights change. Go!

Holy crap...all these people. What's this bloke doing here? Wait!, What?... Smack!




I rub my elbow and help the old man scoop up his umbrella. He looks a little disoriented.

"Are you OK?"


"OK have a good one."

"You too."

It's tough being a pedestrian in Toronto. I suppose it's a nice problem to have - all those feet on the street certainly make for a lively city - but really, have you seen the space they give us to get around? I often wonder, with all these debates about traffic flow and new bikes lanes - when did two feet get such short shrift?

The sidewalk running through the heart of my neighbourhood - Toronto's Esplanade - is 6-7 feet wide. It's like a promenade. It's a good job too. The strip is always teeming with people, on their way to the St Lawrence Market, the Distillery or one of the co-ops or town houses that run along the side.

But the Esplanade is an exception. Most of Toronto's sidewalks - as in most other cities - are barely four feet across. That's enough room for three people to walk side by side, but not enough space for two couples to pass each other unencumbered.

When I first returned to Toronto, about four and a half years ago now, I found it difficult to get around. Coming from Hamilton I just wasn't used to sidewalk congestion. What's the protocol for avoiding rapidly approaching pedestrians? I wondered. Do I dodge out of the way at the last minute...? Steer gradually to the side? Or stand tall and hold my ground?

I tried all of these approaches and one time of another and could never seem to smooth my ride.

I remember one unfortunate encounter just outside the market. An old woman pushing a shopping cart suddenly steered across my path. I jumped to the side, hoping to avoid the inevitable pain of shin-on-steel contact, just as she herself changed direction once again. She clattered right into me - or rather her cart did.


As I rubbed my ankles the woman shrugged, looked me up and down and flung her cart back across my shins. "Stupid Man."

Our thin sliver sidewalks make no sense to me. Why is it OK to give cars 80% of the roadway while we pedestrians can't even walk two abreast in both directions? On a typical rush hour in Toronto a busy downtown street shifts thousands of pedestrians an hour. Yet we are all fighting for the same limited allotment of asphalt.

Have you ever tried piling out of Union Station at a quarter to nine? I used to do it every day. Huddling at the Front and Yonge crosswalk waiting for 10-20 cars to cruise across while we, 50 to 60 pedestrians crowd along the curb waiting for the little man...

Something is seriously wrong with this picture.

Of course other cities, especially European ones, give walkers a little more loving. Many English towns now feature pedestrianized cores, and I've yet to try out the newly designed Times Square - but it looks great. Plenty of room to jostle around.

Here in Toronto at election time there is little to no talk of pedestrian issues. Bike lanes yes. Car congestion - sure. But walkers woes? Nada.

Maybe it's because we don't complain. Maybe it's because we're too busy massaging our shins, dodging on-coming scooters, or just trying to keep our feet on the ground.

Maybe it's time we walkers got a little more of the asphalt. Hell - I think I might just stroll on up to City Hall right now and complain!

Now - where did I put my helmet...

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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By cd (anonymous) | Posted September 05, 2010 at 10:02:07


why did you return to Toronto (especially the downtown)?

And why don't you use the bike lanes: the more cyclists take to the roads and demand more road space, the less the idiots on the sidewalks you have to negotiate?

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted September 05, 2010 at 12:55:19

Pedestrians are painfully unpredictable. This is the main reason I don't ride on sidewalks, it overshadows every legal and safety concern I have. Pedestrians make random, unpredictable, changes in speed and direction all the time and there's no safe way to navigate a crowd of them once you hit any speed beyond a brisk walk.

Streets and sidewalks are more than transportation infrastructure. They're places to meet, chill, play music, sell your wares, exercise free speech and assembly, or simply sit. In downtown Hamilton, you can be stoppedby the police for any of these activities on "public" sidewalks. We need to build public spaces AS public spaces, where transportation is only one of many integrated uses. But that's only possible as long as they're built FOR people, not as highways (whehter pedestrian, car or bicycle). Busy, crowded sidewalks and other public spaces are annoying, but the crowds are a fair better sign of sucessful street design and management than empty, desolate ones (like Stonechurch Rd, where they even exist).

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By mdruker (registered) - website | Posted September 05, 2010 at 13:49:10

Why are we talking about biking on sidewalks? I'm pretty sure the article was about walking, albeit using car parlance.

The issue is that even streets with very large pedestrian flows devote more of their space to the smaller proportion of traffic using private automobiles, and to parking for a relatively minute number of cars.

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By Dave (anonymous) | Posted September 05, 2010 at 13:54:20

K, sorry bud, now it's official - You're just a winer. You bitched about the city of Hamilton, moved back to Toronto because of your displeasure with our city and now you're bitching about lack of sidewalk space in the largest city in Canada. Seriously? Guess you won't be going to New York.

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted September 05, 2010 at 18:45:23

cd - I moved to Toronto's downtown because I was done with the Hamilon-Toronto commute, and we found an affordable neighbourhood for our large family. I never called Toronto pedestrians 'idiots'. The main point of the article is that sidewalks carry more people than roads and yet they are way more congested.

Dave - "K, sorry bud, now it's official - You're just a winer. You bitched about the city of Hamilton, moved back to Toronto because of your displeasure with our city and now you're bitching about lack of sidewalk space in the largest city in Canada. Seriously? Guess you won't be going to New York"

It took you this long to figure that out?! (I'm assuming you meant whiner btw...:) ). There's a big clue in my signature:

"Ben Bull now lives in downtown Toronto after an interesting six years in the Hammer. He plans to stay there for a few years, complain a lot, and then move on somewhere else."

I certainly have no plans to go to NYC but I would certainly find something to complain about there if I did :)

Thanks for reading!


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By Jason (registered) | Posted September 05, 2010 at 22:48:47

Dude you would hate NY. I was there for a week in June and by the end of it I was ready to come home and not feel like I'm living my life on a Japanese subway 24-7. The revamped Times Square was awesome though. Bike lanes and pedestrian space all the way down Broadway.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted September 06, 2010 at 08:59:53

I haven't spent huge amounts of time in Toronto in the warmer months, bit in winter they have an amazing underground pedestrian walk way.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted September 06, 2010 at 11:12:53

I like Montreal's "Underground City" a lot, but have to concede that Toronto's PATH is a little too much mall-meets-bomb-shelter for my tastes.

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By guar (anonymous) | Posted September 06, 2010 at 15:10:31

This is one reason, among many, for making the decision not to live in Toronto.

Pedestrians in the Toronto Downtown move around pretty similar to the folks driving around in cars - everyone's trying to get from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible, no one is making eye contact, etc. They might as well be wearing little cardboard cars and yelling "honk honk!" instead of just bumping into each other and making demands for movement and space (at least this would be somewhat more amusing). Here's one way in which car culture infiltrates city infrastructure and any possible opportunity for a sense of community. It's extremely isolating and detrimental to any sense of compassion in a city.

The thing that gets me is that it really doesn't make sense to have more roads than sidewalks in a downtown core with cyclists, subways, streetcars AND buses!! There are more than enough ways to get around in downtown T.O without the use of a car.

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By HamiltonFan (registered) | Posted September 06, 2010 at 20:52:59

Ryan, it's Ottawa, my guess is the feds pump a tad more money into that city than others. How about the National Capital Commission for example. Hamilton doesn't have a beast per se, unfortunately but wait, Niagara Falls does. Hmmm....

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By HamiltonFan (registered) | Posted September 06, 2010 at 21:01:28

Ottawa is a different beast funding wise and gets "looked after" but make no mistake, suburbs like Kanata and Gloucester get looked after as well.

There just is money in Ottawa for things. I've lived there.

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