Score one for the cycling community. After an intense and late-breaking campaign, and with a crucial assist from Councillor Kyle Rae, bicycle advocates have successfully introduced bike lanes into a major redevelopment plan for Jarvis Street. Yesterday afternoon the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee (PWIC) voted to remove the centre, reversible-direction lane of traffic, and use the freed-up space to install bicycle lanes in both directions from Bloor to Queen.
It isn’t all rainbows and sunshine among active-transportation advocates though. The stated purpose of the redesign is “to improve Jarvis Street’s public realm in a manner that compliments the area’s existing built form and redevelopment, while recognizing the street as a cultural corridor with an emphasis on its historical significance.” To that end, the original plan [PDF], the one recommended by city staff and endorsed by pedestrian advocates and many local residents, was to widen sidewalks in an attempt to revitalize the neighbourhood and make Jarvis a centre of vibrant street life—an area people want to spend time in rather than simply pass through on their way to someplace else.
That at least some of these improvements have given way to bicycle lanes (which only entered the fray at the final public consultation on the plan in January) has caused some distress. Several of the councillors who voted in favour of the bicycle lanes expressed deep frustration at being forced to choose between pedestrians and cyclists, and many pedestrian and cycling advocates expressed even deeper frustration at being pitted against each other. Automobile advocates, meanwhile, expressed frustration at just about everything and everybody.
Part of city staff’s recommended vision for an enhanced Jarvis streetscape: plenty of space for pedestrians and street life, but no dedicated cycling lanes. Rendering courtesy of the City of Toronto.
As the PWIC began its consideration of this matter several dozen concerned citizens, clad in neon yellow t-shirts emblazoned with “Don’t Jam Jarvis” slogans, were filling many of the seats in Committee Room 1. Their goal? Send the proposed revitalization plan back to the drawing board, or defer it pending further study, or jettison it altogether. Significantly, these were not residents of the section of Jarvis in question but of neighbourhoods to the north, such as Rosedale and Moore Park. They were worried that removing the centre lane from Jarvis—which cyclists and pedestrians alike agreed was necessary to accommodate any of their goals—would slow down traffic to an intolerable extent, rendering their commutes downtown unjustifiably long, costing them millions of dollars in lost wages, and generally making life miserable.
(Let us pause to point out that according to city staff’s best estimate, the commute in question would take two minutes longer: eight to ten minutes instead of six to eight.)
Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, who is neither a member of the PWIC nor the representative of a ward directly affected by the revitalization plan, was particularly distressed by the apparent war being waged on vehicular traffic. Speaking as a guest of the committee, he protested that “every time we put forward a proposal with regards to traffic, we make things worse.” Concerned for the welfare of suburban residents forced by selfish, bicycle/sidewalk-loving downtowners to spend ever-increasing amounts of time in their cars, he claimed that “the suburbs are persona non grata when it comes to dealing with transportation issues” and, moreover, that “we should be finding solutions to our gridlock problems—that’s our job.”
(Another pause, this time to state that last we checked Council’s job is to ensure the well-being of its citizenry as it pertains to a variety of policy areas, not to single-mindedly devote itself to the preferences of car owners who want to reduce congestion, thereby enabling them to drive places faster.)
Indignant commuters notwithstanding, it was fairly clear that the automotive contingent was going to lose this battle: with a generous five lanes, Jarvis is a better candidate than most roads for some reallocation of space. The only real question was who would wind up with the extra room—and that is the great misfortune. Though in theory city staff could have studied the effects of removing two lanes of traffic, taking Jarvis down from five to three, that idea would have required far greater political will to implement than was in evidence yesterday, and never got any real traction. Among those lamenting this situation were Nancy Smith Lea, Program Director at the Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation, and Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker, chair of the PWIC. (For many who felt torn, the deciding factor was that pedestrians at least had some dedicated infrastructure, while cyclists had none as of yet.)
Dylan Reid is co-chair of Toronto’s Pedestrian Committee, and was disappointed that even very pro-active-transport councillors failed to back their rhetoric up with a more sweeping policy initiative. After the vote came down he told us via email that “reducing Jarvis to three lanes would have been a way to really make a stand in favour of transforming Toronto. As several of the committee members pointed out, New York has happily gone ahead and closed down significant chunks of main streets to benefit pedestrians and cyclists. This would have been a great opportunity to do something equally dramatic.”
The fate of Jarvis itself—the streetscape and its impact on the community nearby—remains unclear. Reid continued: “The goal of the project was to make Jarvis a destination, not just a transportation route—one that would benefit all of the thousands of people who live, work or study on the street, and would do justice to the street’s heritage importance.” Whether this can still be done within the confines of the current sidewalk is an open question.
Yvonne Bambrick, Executive Director of the Toronto Cyclists Union, is firmly convinced that the city can still make the necessary enhancements, and told us that “You can make improvement to the pedestrian realm without widening the sidewalks…lots of improvements. Fixing cracks and uneven parts, adding trees, relocating street furniture, adding benches and planters, etc.” can all be done regardless of the sidewalk’s size. In addition, bicycle lanes and the cyclists who use them themselves constitute something of a public space improvement, as they “help to slow the speed of car traffic, and add a ‘friendly’ buffer between pedestrians and cars. They attract physically active, healthy people to the area and provide a positive example of alternatives to the automobile.”
Though not the more ambitious redevelopment we had hoped for, we sincerely hope Jarvis residents will find that they agree, and that it is enough.
All photos of Jarvis Street by Marc Lostracco/Torontoist.