In Toronto’s wars over traffic and transit, Dylan Reid is a foot soldier.
The 45 year-old walking activist is fighting to reverse our century-long love affair with the car and to return us to our natural mode of transportation.
Reid says he’s doing it because, first, it’s healthy for people, the city and the environment and second because it can be fun and social. By walking, you can de-stress, bump into friends and neighbours, get to know your local merchants as well as attract more amenities to the area because you’re not speeding past them on your way to work or the mall.
All this is why this year he co-founded Walk Toronto with fellow alumni of the city’s now-defunct Toronto Pedestrian Committee which he used to co-chair. Along with walking advocates Roger Brook and Sean Marshall, as well as cycling activist Michael Black, Reid held the first meeting, attended by nearly 100, at Metro Hall in February.
One of the first things on their agenda? Ensuring that sidewalks are navigable after storms that too often leave people slipping, falling or climbing over snowbanks at the curb.
Over tea in a Danforth café not far from his Riverdale home, he shares his enthusiasm for walking: “When you go to a city, any city, as a tourist, what are you going to do? How are you going to get to know a city? You’re going to walk around.
“If it’s a great place to walk around, you’re going to have a really great impression of it. And if it’s not a great place to walk around, you’re not going to have a great impression. That really is the gold standard for a city. It’s how you experience a city. If you drive through a city, you don’t really know it. You might see little bits of it but you don’t see how those bits connect. Walking is how you connect to a city.”
That’s the main reason why Reid doesn’t want anybody to think that hoofing it is a pedestrian concern, not worthy of ranking up with more high profile battles over cars, bike lanes and trains. There are many issues connected with walking, everything from safety because of bad lighting or deadly driving to sidewalk width (assuming there are sidewalks!) to street furniture that obstructs walkers.
“Sometimes people have good reasons for not walking,” he admits. “The stores nearby may be walkable in terms of distance but it’s a really ugly walk or there are spots that are dangerous. So what you want to do is get the city to a place where people want to walk, where there’s an invitation to walk. It’s sort of a virtuous circle, so that once people start walking and proving that it’s OK to walk, then more people walk.”
Reid says he was always a walker, although he either mostly bikes or takes the subway to his job at the University of Toronto’s law school where he is the faculty’s web communications officer.
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Born in Scarborough, he spent part of his childhood in Paris, where everybody walks everywhere.
“Maybe that’s where I began to love walking,” he muses.
That love became political a decade ago when he co-founded Spacing, the multi-award-winning magazine and website dedicated to Canadian urbanism and public spaces. For its second issue Everyone is a Pedestrian — subtitled “It took us millions of years to learn how to walk and only 100 to forget” — Reid wrote “The Right Foot Forward,” in which he examined what it would take to make the GTA a great pedestrian city.
Not only did he outline problems faced by downtown walkers, he also worried about the suburbs. Originally built for two-car families, they are now increasingly home to lower-income and newer-immigrant households which may not be able to afford the wheels needed to get groceries or get to work. People there rely on walking and transit, but are poorly served.
“It’s an equity issue,” he insists, pointing to health studies that show alarming rates of diabetes in these areas. That’s one reason why one of Walk Toronto’s aims is to get more sidewalks built in places where there are none.
Reid, in making walking an urban issue, has long been ahead of the curve.
Now an increasing number of people want to live within walking distance of their work and play. An estimated 45 per cent of those who live in the Toronto core already do walk and, with every new condo built, that percentage will increase.
In fact, a big selling point in local real estate listings — at least in the more walkable parts of town — is the “walk score,” a grading system devised by a Seattle-based web company which allows users to enter an address and see how it rates for access to stores, schools and transit.
“The concept is great; it’s a sign of what people want now,” Reid says. “In the 10 years that I have been thinking about walking issues and advocating for walking there’s been a huge change.
“All across North America, people are walking and people are realizing that better walkability is the way to go. In 2004, I was really trying to get this into people’s heads. Now everybody accepts it.”