Why Toronto Won't Make Room for People Who Walk or Bike: Induced Demand

CC BY 2.0. How do I walk here?/ Lloyd Alter

Some cities are making space for pedestrians. Others, not so much.

Many cities dealing with COVID-19 are converting lanes used for driving or parking cars to space for people who are walking or biking. It makes sense; there are not many cars, there are no rush hours, and there are lots of people who are walking to shop for necessities or to get around without taking transit. Oakland, California has converted 74 miles of city streets so that people can walk and maintain a six-foot social distance.

Not, however, in Toronto, where artist and urban geographer Daniel Rotsztain provided a graphic demonstration of how little space there is on the sidewalks. He found that the only place he could go is on the road. I have complained before about how the City was refusing to make any space, previously having used the excuse that it's too complicated, that "the signage, road barriers, and enforcement required to safely implement a street closure “would divert resources away from where they are most needed.” Many of us thought that it was just our Mayor John Tory and his suburban windshield view.

But last week two Ryerson University professors, Dr. Anne Harris and Dr. Linda Rothman, asked the Mayor and Eileen de Villa, the much-admired Medical Officer of Health, to make more room for walking, and got a different answer.


Letter to Anne Harris and Linda Rothman/Screen capture

Essentially, she is claiming that if the city provides more space, then more people will fill it up.

It's what's known among urbanists and planners as induced demand. The funny thing is that if you asked Mayor Tory about induced demand, he would probably deny that it exists. After all, he pushed a billion-dollar expressway rebuild through because he insisted that demand is inelastic, that if you take away a highway you get more congestion. When it comes to highways, induced demand doesn't exist. As Benjamin Schneider wrote in Citylab,

Economists call this phenomenon induced demand: When you provide more of something, or provide it for a cheaper price, people are more likely to use it. Rather than thinking of traffic as a liquid, which requires a certain volume of space to pass through at a given rate, induced demand demonstrates that traffic is more like a gas, expanding to fill up all the space it is allowed.

Which is exactly what we want pedestrians to do, to act like a gas, where the molecules or people all take up more space and are further apart. Are more people going to be attracted and come out because of it? That depends on whether you think people are walking or biking for transportation, as most of us who walk or bike do, or whether you think people are doing it for recreation, which all the drivers seem to, because the only time they walk or bike is for recreation. But as Drs. Rothman and Harris point out:

We wish to emphasize the role of sidewalk travel (we will shorthand this as "walking" but include people using mobility devices) and bicycling as essential transportation. We understand the tension and complexity in encouraging recreational activity during Stay Home messaging.

The professors conclude by saying, "We emphasize the need to ensure physical distancing is achievable for all residents, not only those who have access to personal motor vehicles."

Evidently the Mayor and the doctor do not agree. Dr. de Villa responds by saying again that "people must stay home as much as possible" and if you cannot stay 6 feet apart, she suggests that they wear "non-medical face coverings like a scarf or bandana."

So everyone who can drive can take up all the room they like, but for people who walk and don't have enough room, let's hope that a non-medical covering will protect you. This is not a comforting response.

I happen to live in a part of town where I can just run down the middle of the road. Others don't have this opportunity, so now we have the walkers hating the joggers more than they used to hate the cyclists because once again, we are all fighting over crumbs, while the people who drive can just zip along in comfort. I wish I hadn't sold my Miata.

Garbage in New York City

Lloyd Alter/ Garbage on sidewalks, New York City/CC BY 2.0

Mayor Tory is not alone in this attitude; in New York City, Mayor de Blasio has refused to give any more space to pedestrians, after a short and pathetic trial. Justin Davidson wrote in New York Magazine.

Even in a depopulated city, and as conscientiously as we try to respect the new, expansive definition of personal space, we are still competing for limited acreage on sidewalks and park paths. Scaffolding and construction hoarding create tight channels. The weekly public art installations of piled garbage bags have become menacing shoals. When I approach these narrows and see another human being coming in my direction, I pause and wait, so that we masked strangers can leave plenty of air between us.

He concludes it's because people might take advantage of this.

Perhaps de Blasio worries that successful closures would set a precedent: Give pedestrians a mile and pretty soon they’ll wrestle vast swaths of the city back from cars. If that were to happen, it would be one benevolent legacy of an awful time.

That's pretty much what's going on here in Toronto, a truly pathetic response to the problem, a windshield view of the city that's not at all surprising from the mayor but from others, I expected better.

As journalist Glyn Bowerman notes, "The city basically admits that the status quo in Toronto discourages walking. If they’re not going to act during the pandemic, let’s remind them when this is over."