high park changes

Toronto's High Park devolves into chaos as protesters clash over changes to limit car traffic

High Park may be one of Toronto's largest and most popular green spaces for getting in touch with nature, but it has been anything but peaceful since it became the setting for ongoing battles between drivers, cyclists, police and locals.

Many who frequent the park have long been demanding that it be made car-free, an idea that the city has tested out on weekends, to mixed reviews.

On one side, there is the push to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety, as well as preserve the park as an escape from the noise and pollution of city life.

On the other, there are accessibility needs and accommodation requirements for visitors who have limited mobility, and for those who are travelling from afar to enjoy the public space.

Now that the city has moved forward with the first part of its new High Park Movement Strategy to ban cars from parts of the park, tensions have become especially heated, with a full-on protest taking place in the area on Wednesday.

As of this week, West Road and portions of Colborne Lodge Drive will be car-free at all times. The entrance at Parkside Drive and High Park Boulevard will serve as the main access point for vehicles, and will only be open Monday to Friday, and closed on weekends and holidays. 

Parking spots are also being reduced, while new pick-up and drop-off areas have been added, along with more dedicated bike lanes and additional signage to better identify pedestrian crossings.

This is all part of "a long-term strategy to close the entire park to vehicles," according to the city, though it has in the past said that "some accommodation for motorized transport is necessary in order to meet accessibility and operational needs" due to the park's layout and amenities.

Naturally, those who don't live within walking distance from the park, don't cycle, are too far on transit and/or have another reason for preferring to drive to use the area are not happy with the changes, and it seems the worst among them chose to show up and protest.

Also present were demonstrators from the other camp, and the afternoon quickly turned into absolute mayhem, with crowds, honking, screaming, people driving into others, shirts inexplicably being removed and police arriving on the scene.

One man caught on video slowly driving into a counter-demonstrator and getting out of his vehicle to confront her has been confirmed as a City Parks, Forestry & Recreation employee, adding more fuel to the drama.

"City staff were not instructed to take enforcement actions related to the gathering at High Park [and] were expected to perform their usual duties as assigned," the city said to news outlets in a statement on the matter, adding that they have launched "an investigation to take appropriate action."

Activists say, though, that this type of dangerous and violent behaviour is an indication of a bigger problem of a common attitude toward cyclists in the city.

"Road violence and driver entitlement leading to dangerous behaviours are prolific and penetrate all levels of society. Cyclists know it," Devid Shellnutt, known as "The Biking Lawyer," said in a statement to local government.

"A clear message must be sent from the city and Toronto Police Service that road violence in any form will not be tolerated."

Along with yesterday's tumult and the ongoing fight between those on both sides of the car issue, High Park has also been the scene of clashes between cyclists and cops that they say are unfairly targeting them with speeding tickets instead of focusing on drivers.

The issue led to more disruptive protests in and around the green space last year.

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