Debate on future of ActiveTO ramps up with city set to review program this week

With most COVID-19 restrictions now in the rearview mirror, the City of Toronto is being forced to re-examine several initiatives brought forward during the pandemic.

The city will review ActiveTO this week amid several voiced frustrations from business owners, residents, and the president of the Toronto Blue Jays.

ActiveTO road closures were introduced in 2020 to help give residents more room for physical activity during the warmer months by shutting down some of the city’s major roads each weekend. Now, some claim the program has overstayed its welcome with the benefits being outweighed by increased congestion as traffic volume returns to more normal levels and in-person events coming back to the city.

“Most Torontonians who don’t have a cottage to escape to on the weekend,” says Keagen Gartz, Executive Director of Cycle Toronto. “Frankly we’ve only got one Lake Ontario, the kind of lakefront experience they’re seeking and they deserve.”

Gartz says she doesn’t believe cyclists and pedestrians have to face the same obstacles as before the pandemic just because things are gradually returning to normal, saying other cities have closed entire highways to give residents more space.

Among the major roads that shut down most weekends, Bayview Avenue from Rosedale Valley to Lawren Harris Square, and Lakeshore Boulevard West from Windermere Avenue to Stadium Road.

Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro penned a letter to city council asking they not extend ActiveTO and the program’s subsequent road closures — specifically on Lakeshore Boulevard West.

He says that the lane closures on that portion of the Lakeshore would be a persistent headache for baseball fans planning to attend games at Rogers Centre, citing “unprecedented levels of construction and other diversions” already posing a challenge.

“Removing one of the only ways into and out of the downtown core would be extremely challenging to our fans, who rely on these routes to attend our games,” writes Shapiro in the letter.

The team president faced some ire online following his statement, which prompted a response from Mayor John Tory who said it is important to listen to both sides.

“I really found it so sad that Mr. Shapiro should write a letter, simply setting out the views of his business and the fact that he has 30, 40, 50,000 people coming to a game, and the abuse he took from people online, said Tory on Saturday.

The letter prompted a response letter from David Shellbutt, a Toronto lawyer and cycling advocate, who is encouraging the city to extend ActiveTO and “prioritize safe streets through the continued use of public space for modes of transportation and exercise that do not involve motor vehicles. ”

“Let us not go down the road of prioritizing summer events,” writes Shellbutt. “If the returning Caribana parade gets in the way of a baseball game, should it be prohibited from using (Lakeshore West)? Should the Pride Parade be diverted off Yonge to keep traffic moving? Acknowledgment and support a plurality of great summer activities in Toronto.”

Cyclists along Lake Shore Boulevard near the CNE grounds on June 12, 2020.

Last year, cycling advocates and other city residents favoring ActiveTO had called on Mayor John Tory and the city to make the program permanent. On weekends in the summer of 2020, the city estimated more than 26,000 cyclists and 10,000 pedestrians used Lake Shore Boulevard West and East and Bayview Avenue during road closures.

Gartz says she believes the Lake Shore West closure is a reasonable request.

“Two lanes on Lake Shore Boulevard which is six to eight lanes wide. It’s next to the Gardiner Expressway, which is also next to the Queensway,” she says.

“Our GO train network is fantastic if you want to go to a Jays game. That’s the way Torontonians travel.”

City Council will review the program during a meeting on Wednesday, specifically looking at the impacts of the closure on Lakeshore Boulevard West.

“My job is to take all the evidence and balance all of that,” said Tory speaking on Saturday. “That is what we’re doing.”

With files from Maleeha Sheikh, Lucas Casaletto and Lucas Spadafora

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