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cityscape

History, Culture, and Bike Lanes at Jarvis Town Hall

Cyclists were all fired up and all in agreement as bike lanes dominated a public discussion last night.

Town hall meeting held last night at Jarvis Collegiate Institute.

In July of last year, councillors passed a motion calling for the removal of the recently installed bike lanes on Jarvis Street, in favour of reintroducing a fifth lane of traffic, by a vote of 31–14. It was a resounding victory for motorists, and a dismal defeat for both cyclists and the local councillor, Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale), who hadn’t been consulted before Ford allies introduced the motion into council’s agenda (via the Public Works committee). Yet Andrea Garcia of the Toronto Cyclists Union (TCU) remained calm, asserting at the time that Council’s decision to delay the removal of the bike lanes by one year offered hope to her fellow two-wheelers. “This isn’t over,” she proclaimed.

Nine months later, that sentiment still resonates with cyclists from across the city, who showed up in droves to a town-hall meeting held last night to discuss the future of Jarvis—a strikingly well-timed discussion, given yesterday’s announcement by the bike union that it had received a legal opinion stating that the City couldn’t go ahead with the removal of the Jarvis bike lane until it completed an environmental assessment.

The meeting—held in the auditorium of Jarvis Collegiate Institute, hosted by Wong-Tam, and featuring a panel of four speakers—was billed as an opportunity to discuss the history and heritage of Jarvis Street, as well as its status as a major “cultural corridor” of the city. Yet it was clear from the preponderance of bicycle helmets among audience members that Jarvis’ status as a cycling corridor was the more pressing issue.

The presence of so many concerned cyclists, some of whom had been mobilized by the TCU, was not lost on Wong-Tam, who in her opening remarks stressed that the topic of bike lanes is merely “one segment of a bigger conversation” about Jarvis, before introducing the first speaker of the evening.

Gary Miedema, chief historian and associate director of Heritage Toronto, recounted the thoroughfare’s long and storied history, from its late-Victorian peak as the most exclusive neighbourhood in town to its unfortunate transformation into what the Globe and Mail in 1946 rather amusingly called “the heart of the city’s tenderloin district.”

Miedema was followed by Lori Martin, Toronto’s senior cultural affairs officer, who presented a brief and banal slideshow of recent developments and long-standing cultural assets that illustrate the importance of Jarvis to the future of the city. Michael McClelland of ERA Architects then discussed the possibility of creating an annual temporary art installation at Allan Gardens, while Mary MacDonald of Heritage Preservation Services spoke about the importance of focusing not only on the protection of individual cherished buildings, but also on the “cultural landscape” that makes Jarvis unique.

As the last guest speaker’s presentation concluded, eager audience members lined up five deep behind microphones set up at the front of the auditorium for a question-and-answer period.

Kristyn Wong-Tam speaking to town hall participants.

As expected, bike lanes and the added safety they afford to cyclists was the most frequently discussed topic during this lengthy final segment of the town hall. “Part of making a successful street…is feeling like you’re safe on the street,” said one man who lives on Jarvis. “And for me that includes keeping the bike lanes.”

His sentiment was echoed by another audience member who has cycled along Jarvis to work every day for several years. Just two days after the bike lanes were created, he told the audience, he spotted a mother, father, and their young daughter cycling on Jarvis—something he’d never seen before. “They felt welcome and safe, probably for the first time,” he said. “Every city street should be safe to walk or cycle.”

While the bike lanes have undoubtedly made Jarvis safer to cycle on, they have not been a panacea for the road’s numerous other problems. A Ryerson planning student noted that when she volunteered on a walking tour of Jarvis last year, the tour guide’s voice was often drowned out by snarling traffic. A number of audience members complained that motorists on Jarvis drive too fast, and show a disregard for cyclists and pedestrians. Wong-Tam agreed, and added that Jarvis can sometimes feel more like a highway than an urban artery.

To those residents who asked what they might do to ensure the bike lanes are protected, Wong-Tam offered this advice: “If you want to keep those bike lanes, then use them. Make your presence felt.”

She went on to say that “any modern city in the world should be investing in cycling infrastructure,” and suggested that instead of getting rid of the bike lanes on Jarvis, the City should in fact extend them south to the waterfront. This was met, as you might expect, with applause.

In fact, with no dissenters in attendance, the entire meeting was a relatively benign affair—a slightly dull but decidedly positive break from the often enervating drama that is Toronto politics. Indeed, the realization that Rob Ford’s name had not been mentioned once during the proceedings–despite the fact that it was he who championed the removal of the Jarvis bike lanes in the first place–was oddly encouraging to many that were there.

But as the meeting drew to a close, a suddenly impassioned Wong-Tam asked the audience a few inadvertently answerable rhetorical questions.

“Who doesn’t support art? Who doesn’t support culture? Who doesn’t support bike lanes?”

When the inevitable answer rippled through the audience, Wong-Tam replied with a smile, “You don’t have to say that word out loud.”

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