In the brisk morning air, Toronto mayoral candidate Gil Penalosa paced Queen Street West on Tuesday, handing out political cards to cyclists on their morning commutes. With the municipal election fast approaching, Penalosa is taking advantage of every moment to canvas the city’s neighbourhoods.
The Oct. 24 election arrives at a critical point in Toronto’s history: In the lead up to an expected national recession and in the wake of the city’s newly acquired “strong mayor powers.”
Penalosa is widely seen as incumbent John Tory’s primary opponent, someone the would-be mayor believes has been failing Toronto since he was first elected in 2014.
“John Tory has been the status quo for the last eight years [as] the city has become less affordable, less equitable and less sustainable,” said Penalosa, “I’m proposing a radically different city — a Toronto for everybody.”
Penalosa, an avid cyclist, makes a point to the bikers he meets that the lanes they use are barely protected from the cars they share the street with.
“Paint isn’t infrastructure,” he said to one man, who stopped on his bike at Queen Street and Spadina Avenue.
“The reality is we don’t have good biking infrastructure anywhere in the city,” he said, “City Hall has failed us here.”
Penalosa says he wants to create a pedestrian-first Toronto. As the former commissioner of parks and recreation in Bogotá, Colombia, who has also worked in over 350 cities worldwide, Penalosa says part of unlocking a city’s potential lies with removing its citizens’ need for cars.
“Every commute starts and ends with walking, yet pedestrians seem to take a back seat to cars in Toronto,” said Penalosa, “Does this sound like a safe system to you?”
His recent Safe Streets for Everyone plan has an ambitious goal of eliminating all road deaths for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. The plan would implement a 30 km/h maximum speed on all residential streets, re-design the city’s top 100 most dangerous intersections, eliminate billboards and right turns on red lights, and implement mandatory sidewalks.
“Looking at recent bike lane projects in a city like Melbourne, there’s no reason why an already world-class city like Toronto can’t shift its focus towards pedestrians,” Penalosa said, “100 years ago we used to be scared of the wolf, now, we are scared of the car.”
Penalosa’s plan to create a less car-centric downtown is also evident from his FastLane plan, which intends to add 62 kilometres “of separate, high-speed bus lanes” and 30 kilometres “of bus-only lanes.”
The system has already been implemented in cities like Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Bogotá and Seoul. Penalosa says it would vastly improve Toronto’s transportation sector, which has caught flack for being overly car-centric.
Toronto’s subway is another sector of transportation that has been denounced by citizens for years. Penalosa’s plan includes alleviating stress on a system that sees 721,900 daily riders by strategically placing bus stations around the city to connect subway stations, creating a high-speed public transportation network.
After speaking to a couple morning commuters, Penalosa walked to a nearby coffee shop for his morning refuel. As he walked, he gestured at sidewalks, then up at the highrise buildings surrounding him. He says has a bone to pick with the looming structures.
“Highrises are part of what takes away from a vibrant, connected downtown,” Penalosa said. “I want to implement a system where building heights can’t exceed the width of the sidewalks they are built on.”
He says he’d like to “Convert city-owned properties like subway stations into affordable housing mid-rise buildings at almost no cost to the public.”
Coffee in hand, Penalosa talked about the importance of improving land use in the city through housing. Particularly, he wants to allow homeowners to split their houses into units for shared housing.
“By encouraging shared housing, mid-rise development and city-owned land development, we can help valuable Toronto residents stay in the city and contribute towards our economy instead of being forced to leave,” he said.
Refueled, Penalosa kept his eye out for more cyclists. He finds many willing to take time out of their commutes to listen. Some are even quick to say, “I’m already voting for you.”
Community outreach is a part of the job of a politician, Penalosa said.
“Much of my campaign is just walking the different wards. I listen, I learn, I share,” said Penalosa, “And what I’ve heard from people is that the city is falling apart.”
He says most of the people he’s spoken with worry about affordable housing, safe streets, and workable public services.
“So many young people I talk to in Toronto have become hopeless about living in the city,” he said, “It doesn’t have to be this way.”