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A Look at Permanent Change in Toronto

In August of 2019, the Better Block went international. While we have worked on projects overseas before, this particular project taking place in Toronto, Canada, along a notoriously busy street called Danforth Avenue, had a uniquely powerful impact not only on the city’s current and future infrastructure, but also on the lives of residents, one in particular.

Meet Lanrick Bennett. He is a father of two, living in the east side of the city. His wife, Sabrina, works as a nurse at the Princess Margaret Hospital, about a 25-minute bicycle ride from where they live. For the past six years, she has joined many of her coworkers and friends in bike rallies to raise money and awareness for the fight against cancer.

During her commute to work or after a bike rally, Lanrick would send her a message to ensure that she got to her destination safely after crossing dangerous streets, such as Danforth Avenue. On the occasion of her not replying, Lanrick has gone out after her, desperately scanning the streets for any sign of potential harm

At the time, and even now, this is the reality of being a cyclist from the east side of the city. Even with a vast group of the healthcare community utilizing bike lanes for their commute, many of the bike lane stripes are faded and the dangerous streets have remained unchanged.

There were many tragedies in high-traffic areas that led to the project we took on with 8 80 Cities to transform Danforth Avenue into a safer space. One of these tragedies hit very close to home for Lanrick and his family. There was a point in time when Lanrick and his daughter, Zoë, rode their bikes to her school daily. Living only eight minutes away, this was the ideal form of transportation, until one day, a father was hit and killed by a driver on Lanrick’s exact commute. Since then, Lanrick’s daughter no longer bikes to school, and even went on a bike strike to encourage city hall members to create a plan for meaningful change. The father and daughter were featured in this CBC Toronto's article explaining the real need for safer bike lanes in Toronto.

Altogether in 2018, 46 pedestrians and cyclists lost their lives on these streets, sparking the conversation that created Toronto’s Vision Zero: a project with the aim of reducing those fatalities to zero in the following years. One of these 46 victims had a close friend who sought out the support of 8 80 Cities and our team to take immediate action on this plan, creating Canada’s very first Vision-Zero Pop-Up.

A look at the transformation

Lanrick, an outsider at the time, heard about the project and wanted his 8-year-old son, Jackson, to experience what it was like to ride his bicycle down Danforth Avenue without the fear normally associated with the unprotected street. What did a real protected bike lane even look like? Riding alongside his father, Jackson was able to see and experience it for himself as he cruised through the bike lanes, lined with planters, on a scooter. For Lanrick, this was a truly transformative experience. “Those 36 hours of a couple of blocks of transformation was a game-changer: emotionally and psychologically,” he says. This experience is what drew him to 8 80 Cities. In February of this year, Lanrick transitioned his career, joining the team at 8 80 as their new Managing Director.

Lanricks likes to say that he’s always enjoyed making noise about the infrastructure that makes a difference to the neighborhood, and has an especially strong interest in the retooling of Toronto’s transportation infrastructure. When the Vision Zero Pop-Up introduced him to 8 80 Cities for the first time, Lanrick discovered exactly where he needed to be.

Lanrick believes that the “local experience” lies within less than 20 kilometers (or 6,5616 feet, if you don’t use the metric system) of a person’s home, with their workplace close by. For many of Lanrick’s neighbors, most transportation can be done on bikes, but the city infrastructure itself is what is still holding the community back. By connecting Danforth Avenue to the neighborhood bike lanes, it has become possible for that local experience to include Lanrick’s son Jackson being able to bike to school, as well as allowing his wife to commute to work more safely. For many, the 8 80 Streets demonstration was powerful. From Lanrick’s perspective, it was “the linchpin” to start a city-wide transformation.

The project has sparked greater conversation and the formation of future infrastructure plans for the next 10 years. The City of Toronto has implemented an ActiveTO plan to create more outdoor spaces for the public to access during the COVID-19 pandemic. Barren from lack of travel, the streets seemed like the logical place for citizens to go out into their neighborhoods. 8 80 Cities has been working on some of the elements of ActiveTO including its Quiet Streets initiative. By barricading particularly slow streets, the city has allowed the public a safe place to get outside and walk, play hockey, cycle, and more. Many homes within the city do not have backyards and front yards are often very small. By closing down some of the freeways, people have been given direct access to the lake and other outdoor resources without the need of car-based travel.

For many residents, temporary closures and Quiet Streets were not enough. According to this article, Cycle Toronto board member Robert Zaichkowski created a petition asking for the implementation of 40 kilometers worth bicycle lanes in response to COVID-19 changes. After thousands signed it, and more than 50 community organizations showed their support in an open letter to the mayor, the community’s voices were heard.

At the end of May, Mayor John Tory announced the city’s decision to fast-track a 40-kilometer cycling infrastructure plan to run along Danforth Avenue between Broadview Avenue and Dawes Road as an extended pilot project.

This exciting development works hand-in-hand with the city's CaféTO initiative. CaféTO is taking place right where our initial project began, alongside protected bike lanes stretching across Danforth. The city is helping restaurants and businesses utilize the on-street parking spaces in front of their businesses as outdoor cafés, creating a new type of social infrastructure. “We’ve given this space up to cars, now we’re taking it back,” Lanrick says.

COVID-19 has created much loss within this Toronto neighborhood, and CaféTO has become an opportunity for businesses to survive despite it all. Every day, people walk or bike down Danforth and go to their favorite restaurants where they can safely enjoy their lunch outside in what was once just a parking spot.

All in all, Lanrick did not initially see his future at 8 80 Cities on the horizon, but he is very happy that his career journey has also been transformed by the Vision Zero Pop-Up. He says that every day he can look out his front door and see his community, imagining what else can be built back better.

(Before/after video by Michal Kapral; photo by 8 80 Cities; Danforth video by Lanrick Bennett)


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