How a Battle Over a Stop Sign Becomes a Symbol of Everything That's Wrong in a City

Richard Florida

Richard Florida, who usually thinks macro, gets very micro.

Richard Florida is a macro kind of guy, writing about the big picture in books like The New Urban Crisis, teaching the big picture as Director of Cities at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute. So it is fascinating to read about him getting seriously micro, tweeting and writing about a single stop sign near where he lives in Toronto’s Rosedale district, perhaps the wealthiest neighbourhood in Canada. Or perhaps it isn’t so micro, because the story of this stop sign is part of a much bigger picture -- about how Toronto is run and how, as his headline in the Star says, Toronto’s car-first policies create a war on the people.

The controversial stop sign is on Glen Road, a long straight road in a neighbourhood of relatively narrow and windy streets, so people naturally speed on it. It’s not too far from where Roger du Toit was killed going through another intersection that didn’t have a stop sign (covered in TreeHugger here).

Stop sign

Intersection of Binscarth and Glen Road/Screen capture

The signs were installed at the request of the neighbourhood association after the usual Toronto consultations. According to Florida, “a survey showed broad support for them — 68 pro versus four opposed.”

But then a backlash occurred. A handful of neighbours complained that buses and cars made too much noise in front of their houses when they stopped and started. They applied pressure to the neighbourhood association, which caved and asked the city to remove the signs. Despite our pleas and protests, they will be taken down later this month. When it comes to the safety of our local streets, politics are being allowed to trump basic public safety.

Roger's ghost bike

Installing Roger du Toit's Ghost bike, a few blocks away from the stop sign/CC BY 2.0

Florida says he has seen several near-collisions between bikes and cars at the intersection. Sadly, he notes: “Though I am an avid biker, I made a personal decision a year or so ago to stop cycling to my office at the University of Toronto; the risk just isn’t worth it.”

At first, I thought that was an over-reaction (and I am not alone); the cycling is pretty safe and it is not too far from U of T. But he has to ride part of it on major streets with fast traffic and no bike lanes, streets that I avoid on my bike because they make me very nervous. (See why we need a Bloor bike lane.) Florida concludes:

The late Rob Ford’s rallying cry of the “war on the car” mobilized the support of frustrated drivers across the city and region, who were legitimately tired of being stuck in its horrendous traffic. But the reality is that Toronto’s inability to cope with cars and their speed has unleashed a deadly “war on the people.”

This is all very painful to read. Richard Florida was attracted to Toronto because it seemed like a modern, progressive city, a centre of his Creative Class. He was a major catch for the city. And now it has come down to this, a fight over a stop sign that is a symbol for the lack of vision, the loss of will, the sort of urban ennui that has overtaken Toronto.

Writing in the Star, Chris Hume explains the roots of the problem -- the governance model forced on the city that gives huge powers to suburban politicians who hate the bike riding commies downtown and hate paying for anything.

Dominated by city-deniers like the late Rob Ford and his dubious older brother, Doug, Toronto has grown so suspicious of its own urbanity that it can’t build a six-storey condo, or install a bike lane or a traffic light without the sky falling in. Little wonder Toronto remains dependent on infrastructural investments made between the 1950s and ’80s.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the city loses Richard Florida at some point soon; he goes to where the urban action is, and that is not in Toronto anymore. It will be a loss not only because he is a great asset to the University and the city, but because it is such a good indicator of how far the city has fallen.

Update: The battle may actually be over, thanks to all the publicity.