A tall tale of a telephone pole, or why pedestrians can't have a nice place to walk

hydro pole
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter/ new pole installed on Davenport Road

On this National Walking Day, a look at the excuses cities use to make it difficult to do so.

The first Wednesday of every April is National Walking Day, sponsored by the American Heart Association to promote the benefits of walking for health. But on TreeHugger, we celebrate it to promote the benefits of walking in cities as a mode of transportation, and to promote investment in proper walking infrastructure so that people are encouraged to to it without getting killed in the process. Coincidentally, I have a little story about walking infrastructure in Toronto.

Our family has been walking from home to the Davenport Branch of the Toronto Public Library, on a stretch of Toronto's Davenport road, since our children were little. I have always complained about how narrow the sidewalk is because of hydro (electric utility) and telephone poles that are planted right in the sidewalk; two people can't walk side by side past them. But hey, they have been there forever, these things last 50 years so maybe they will fix them on the next cycle.

new pole and oldLloyd Alter/ new pole and old pole/CC BY 2.0

So imagine my surprise this past weekend to find Toronto Hydro, the local utility, installing new bigger poles that constrict the sidewalk even more. It's down to 35 inches at the narrowest, barely enough for people in wheelchairs or with big strollers to get by and not enough for two people, or even a mom walking with a toddler.


I tweeted about it and it went a bit viral, and I learned that (a) there is a city walking policy that says that when new work is being done, an "inter-divisional and inter-agency Walking Strategy Team chaired by the Director of the Public Realm Section [must] ensure city-wide coordination of Strategy projects."


And (b), there is a provincial policy that sets 1200mm (4 feet) as the absolute minimum width, but it is really supposed to be 1500 (5 feet).

Lloyd Alter© Grant Linton/ Lloyd Alter yelling at clouds

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation must have been having a slow news day because they came up to interview me and the pole. (You can watch the video here, 23:05) My daughter thinks I am like the old man yelling at clouds, but I don't think I am; this is serious.

"I think it is a big deal. The city should really be promoting making it comfortable and easy for people to walk, and here they're not," he told CBC Toronto. "We've always had to go single file by it, but now I don't know if someone with a wheelchair or stroller could get by it."

Maayan Ziv© Maayan Ziv Photography

Trevor Dunn and photographer Grant Linton also interviewed Mayaan Ziv , an accessibility activist and founder of Access Now. She tells them that the city should be enforcing accessibility requirements — even if it means creative and more expensive solutions.

"I think it's really problematic that in 2018 we are still creating barriers that stop people like myself with disabilities and many others from navigating public space," Ziv said. "We need to think bigger, and we need to understand that accessibility is integral to every part of our life."

how much space do people need?© Kristin Agnello

The reaction from the City, when asked by the CBC was, essentially, "Get lost."

While some have expressed concerns about the lack of space, according to city staff, in older parts of Toronto where there may not be enough room, sidewalks with hydro poles are exempt from the rule.

Is there enough room on Davenport?

Now this is where it gets interesting, because one has to ask, not enough room for what? If you look at the history of Davenport Road, you find that there is lots of room; they are just being cheap and lazy and using that as an excuse. So please forgive me if I go on a bit here.

Davenport TrailDavenport Trail/Public Domain

Davenport Road doesn't look like much today, but it is, in fact, the oldest road in Toronto. Its history starts way back, like 13,000 years ago, when Lake Ontario was a hundred feet higher than it is now because of a big ice sheet about where the Thousand Islands are today. Davenport Road was at the bottom of the escarpment that was the shore of Lake Iroquois.

a long portageReenactors portaging canoes on Davenport/CC BY 2.0

It became an important portage for First Nations, one of the longest, connecting the Don and Humber Rivers. According to James Bow of Transit Toronto, "When United Empire Loyalists [refugees from the USA after the war of Independence] settled the area, the route became one of the ways of getting from York to Niagara." Re-enactors follow the portage every year.

Streetcars on DavenportToronto Archives/ Davenport Streetcar/Public Domain

It was paved in 1833 and remained an important road, and was widened to accommodate streetcars. Had Hydro been installing new poles in 1930, they could've honestly said there was not enough room.

Davenport at OakwoodToronto Archives/Public Domain

But now the streetcars are gone. The bulk of the car traffic has shifted south or north, to streets that run with the Toronto grid. A few years back, much of Davenport was converted to two driving lanes with parking on both sides (rarely full) and two wide painted bike lanes.

So I won't say that the City is lying when they say there is not enough room, but they are certainly being disingenuous. There is LOTS of room; these poles are relics from another era when the road was shared with streetcars, which are long gone. They could have taken a few feet away from the cars and the parking and been left with plenty of room for everyone. They could have put the poles in the parking lanes and let cars park between them. But they probably didn't even come out to look.

Installing polesLloyd Alter/ Hydro installing poles (and blocking bike lane)/CC BY 2.0

The people who walk on Davenport will suffer with these poles for another couple of generations because, being people who walk, they are ignored. The sidewalk will continue to be almost impassible on garbage days and difficult to shovel in winter, because they didn't even think about WHY these poles were where they were, and whether their replacement shouldn't have been part of a larger redesign of the street that made life better for pedestrians and those needing accessible routes, something that could have been done if they cared, but they don't. They don't even ask the question.

Davenport west of bathurstToronto Archives; lots of room on Davenport west of bathurst/Public Domain

A tall tale of a telephone pole, or why pedestrians can't have a nice place to walk
On this National Walking Day, a look at the excuses cities use to make it difficult to do so.

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