Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Toronto bylaws: Rebel without a cause

From no dragging dead horses down Yonge Street on Sundays, to no ball playing on the streets, Torontonians have a love-hate relationship with bylaws. All the rules of the city attempt to address the needs of the public. But the origins can be complex.

While some residents complain about specific bylaws, it’s often the constituents themselves who set the municipal rules. Some Torontonians feel a number of bylaws get passed without thorough inspection. 

But Karen Lunn of Toronto’s City Clerk office says that’s not the case.

“They’re not just passed because two people think that they should be passed,” she said. “That does not happen.”

Hockey is Canada’s most celebrated sport, but it’s illegal to play on the road. The rule is rarely enforced, but hockey players could get a $55 fine. Daniel Chisholm plays ball hockey on the cul-de-sac beside his home. He uses a manhole and leftover pavement grooves to mark a goalie line.

Chisholm is surprised to hear about the bylaw, but he says that won’t stop him.

“It’s not fair to me that my sport that I play cannot be played because of a (by)law,” Chisholm said. “It’s silly, I’m not going to be able to break someone’s house with a tennis ball.”

Others can be ruthless ball hockey players, damaging property and trespassing on lawns. Spacing Magazine and public space advocate Matthew Blackett says ball hockey is not the problem, but the disregard that players have. He wants to “decriminalize” ball playing on Toronto streets.

“If people are playing ball hockey on the road, there are already bylaws in place that can be used to deal with people.” Blackett said. “If you hit someone with your car, you get charged with some sort of violation. But it doesn’t mean that driving is illegal.”

Toronto has thousands of bylaws, but some can be confusing to residents. And some of them are more regularly enforced than others.
“Even the city doesn’t know all its bylaws,” Dylan Reid said. “They’re not actually organized by category, so if you’re trying to find a bylaw for a specific thing, it’s actually very difficult to find where it is.” He’s the co-chair of Toronto Pedestrian Committee, one of many advisory groups that help City Hall make decisions, such as creating bylaws.

Jaywalking is a grey Toronto bylaw, but it doesn’t stop many pedestrians from doing it. He says jaywalking in the city is actually legal, if a pedestrian crosses mid-block and doesn’t impede traffic. Crossing near a traffic intersection or forcing vehicles to slow down is illegal.

“There’s a law that says…as you’re crossing the street, you have to give the right of way to cars,” Reid said.  Safely crossing mid-block doesn’t violate the Ontario Highway Traffic Act or the Toronto bylaw. But the surge in pedestrian deaths that affected the GTA , lead to officers issuing more jaywalking tickets. 11 pedestrians were killed just in the month of January.

Bylaws not only can bring misunderstanding, but conflicts of interest.

Recently, City Hall passed a bylaw that prohibits store owners on the second floor or above from planting A-frame signs on the sidewalk. Although the bylaw improves pedestrian movement, store owners use the signs for advertisement.

Laura Schaefer, the Queen West Business Improvement Area coordinator, says the new bylaw has financial impacts.

“A-frame signs are so essential, especially to small business owners,” she said. “This is their livelihood, and it’s really important that there is A-frame signage on the street.”
The new bylaw requires enough clearance for two passing wheelchairs. Portions of Queen Street West, such as the north sidewalk from Spadina Avenue to Peter Street are wide enough. But other parts are narrower.

Schaefer says the BIA is working with councillor Adam Vaughan to find the “Queen Street” solution.

“When you look at the streetscape, of course it’s important to guarantee that there’s safety,” she said. “We’re really just at the beginning of trying to figure this out.”

Most bylaws stem from a complaint-driven letter by a constituent. The councillor requests a staff-written report. The city’s legal department looks at the lawful viability of enforcing that issue. Next, City Hall committees further inspect the report. If it’s feasible, then a public meeting is held. The final step is the city council meeting. If the councillors approve of the new ruling, then it turns into a bylaw.

Banning leaf blowers in Toronto is an example of City Hall’s quality assurance at work. Many residents complained about the noisy leaf blowers. But the proposed bylaw didn’t pass because enforcement was too impractical.

“There’s quite a process to pass a bylaw, especially ones that would apply to everyone who live in the city of Toronto,” Lunn said. 

External Links

City of Toronto bylaws - http://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/municode/index.htm

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