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Should cars be allowed in High Park? Public debate comes to a head

The city of Toronto has made High Park car-free during the course of the cherry blossom bloom. (CTVNews.ca) The city of Toronto has made High Park car-free during the course of the cherry blossom bloom. (CTVNews.ca)
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Cherry blossom season is right around the corner – but will you be able to drive inside the park to see the blooms?

Local politicians, business owners and community advocates have spoken out about this issue, one that’s quickly rising to the forefront of public debate as Toronto’s mayoral race kicks off. Some wish to see cars allowed back into High Park seven days a week in the name of accessibility and business logistics. But others say the park should be a safe place for pedestrians, young children and leisure-seekers to wander freely without the fear of a high-speed vehicle veering down a hill or around the corner.

Now, the city is set to make a decision after months of consultation.

A town hall is scheduled for Monday, where city staff are expected to unveil their “preferred strategy” for High Park with the goal of implementing it by this summer.

The four options being considered are as follows:

Full road closures: No visitor vehicles allowed

Time-based road closures: No visitor vehicles at specific times

Area-based road closures: No visitor vehicles on specific roads

Full road re-opening: Visitor vehicles allowed at all times on all park roads

The city decided to prohibit cars in High Park on weekends and holidays in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and has continued to do so on a temporary basis since then while it’s looked for a permanent solution.

City councillor Gord Perks (Parkdale-High Park) told CP24 this is “more than a yes-no issue.”

“There’s a restaurant that needs to be able to take deliveries. There’s a zoo, so occasionally a trailer has to go down into the park for an animal,” he said in an interview.

“There are voices in the public debate who are trying to say it’s a simple no, cars shouldn’t be allowed, but there are other things we have to think about.”

Perks said city council is looking at a vehicle that “acts as a sort of circulator” within High Park, an upgraded version of the trackless train already installed within the public green space. Council is also considering special hours, including early morning, which might be reserved for high-speed cycling throughout the park.

“We’re looking at a lot of practical stuff,” he said. “Then people won’t need to depend on private automobiles to enjoy the park.”

Some residents say speeding in High Park is an issue

Dave Smedley, a resident and barber shop owner in the High Park area, says the issues needs to be carefully considered before a decision is made, and feels it might be a better use of time and resources to improve vehicular infrastructure like speed bumps inside the park.

“The actual layout of the roads through the park is actually quite well done,” he told CP24. “We all know how bad traffic gets in Toronto during rush hour, but you still don’t see a lot of traffic cutting through the park.”

But according to Smedley, the drivers who do use High Park as a shortcut are often prone to speeding.

“There’s not a lot of speed bumps, and it’s downhill…people fly through there,” he said.

The city has tried to address speeding near High Park through safety measures like electronic signs and speed cameras. But those results have been mixed – the speed camera on Parkside Drive, just south of Algonquin Avenue, made up 10 per cent of the tickets issued in the City of Toronto’s Automated Speed Enforcement (ASE) program in 2022, leading some to believe the camera is unfairly located and marked.

“It’s 100 per cent a money-making venture,” said Smedley. “I don’t think it really slows people down, for the most part. If anything, it’s more of a nuisance – those cameras don’t work all the time.”

Hiccups in traffic management aside, Smedley believes cars need to be allowed inside High Park – it’s imperative for families in particular, he said.

“You’re not going to take two, three, four kids on public transit to go to the park,” he said. “They need to be driven. And you have sports facilities in the park – hockey players aren’t going to lug their hockey gear from Bloor into High Park. You need to be able to drive into that park – if you close it off permanently, the park will suffer for sure.”

Luke Anderson, co-founder of the StopGap Foundation, which aims to raise awareness for the importance of barrier-free spaces, says there are innumerable possible solutions to the problems posed by cars in High Park – solutions which don’t compromise accessibility for the communities who need it. It might not be impossible to create a car-free High Park available for all to enjoy, he says.

“We’re going to have to get a little more granular about what that might look like,” he told CP24. He suggested “some sort of shuttle service,” connected to TTC service, which could bring people using mobility devices (or parents with strollers, for instance) into High Park.

“Certainly the infrastructure that exists in the park to support the current traffic poses a huge challenge to people with disabilities,” he said. He pointed out the interface between the current sidewalks and roads – there are very few ramps, or curb cuts, for mobility device users to safely enter the sidewalk from the road level. And when they do get to the sidewalk, there might be any number of barriers in their way, from hydro poles to chipped concrete.

“There’s real inequity when it comes to infrastructure in that park,” he said. “It would be helpful to add infrastructure so someone with a disability could access the pool, and the forest space, in a safer way. There’s a lot of footpaths that aren’t accessible, and that hold someone who uses a mobility device back from experiencing much of what the park has to offer.”

These barriers to access “take away spontaneity and independence in a way that I like it,” said Anderson.

Faraz Gholizadeh, a member of the Car Free High Park coalition, says the benefits to removing cars from the public space far outweigh the downsides.

“You have all this space that’s being dedicated to people driving their cars through the park,” he told CP24. “When that’s closed, it gives everybody more space, and it’s such a better experience. Cyclists have more space. People with mobility devices have more space. It just becomes that much more pleasant for everyone.” A recent survey conducted by the city revealed a vast majority of respondents experienced a positive impact from High Park’s weekend road closures.

“We don’t have to be far away from a car-free High Park,” he continued. “This isn’t a radical idea. It’s being done everywhere else – New York, Montreal, London, Paris, Germany. The list is ever-growing, and we can get there too. The city is ready for it.”

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