Arts and culture writer Steve Fisher explains why he sat down in the middle of a bike lane to protest its removal.
When I left the Jarvis Taskforce‘s emergency meeting this past weekend, I was fairly convinced that I wanted to protest the removal of the Jarvis Street bike lane in some way. It wasn’t until yesterday afternoon, though, when I heard the scrub truck power-washing the lane away through my window, that I realized I was going to take the drastic action of sitting in the street to halt its progress.
Why do Jarvis Street’s bike lanes affect me so personally? I’ve lived in Toronto for 14 years. I’ve commuted primarily by bike for 10 years, and I’ve lived just off Jarvis for five. In all that time, I’ve been hit by cars on my bike three times—and two of those incidents occurred on Jarvis, before the bike lanes were installed. I was doored by a taxi parked outside the National Ballet School on one occasion, and I was hit by a taxi driver making a right on a red at Jarvis Street and Wellesley Avenue on another.
In 2009, an environmental assessment recommended that the reversible fifth/centre lane of Jarvis (a failed 1950’s-era traffic experiment not repeated elsewhere in the city) be removed. Subsequently, city council decided to install bike lanes on the street—something which had an immediate and very positive impact on my safety. Indeed, it did for all users of Jarvis. A City study found a year later that cyclists’ use of the street had increased by more than 300 per cent [PDF]; another showed that accidents had decreased dramatically [PDF], including a remarkable 89 per cent drop in collisions between automobiles and pedestrians. Other evidence made it clear that the street was functioning more effectively for all users. The only negative impact of the new design: driving the length of Jarvis Street by car at rush hour takes about two minutes longer.
It’s for all these reasons—and the fact that every consultant and urban planning expert I’d seen discuss the street endorsed the new street design—that I had faith city council would make the right decision and keep the bike lanes on Jarvis. Local councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) had been advocating for them consistently. And leading up to that final council vote, centrist councillors like Ana Bailão (Ward 18, Davenport) and Josh Colle (Ward 15, Eglinton-Lawrence) made public statements in support of Cycle Toronto’s campaign to keep the lanes.
So when Mayor Rob Ford’s administration reneged on his promise not to waste taxpayer money and decided to remove the lanes, and public works committee chair Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) even reneged on his promise not to remove the Jarvis bike lanes until the new Sherbourne Street bike lanes (which are already having problems) were completed, I felt betrayed. I was shocked that all the jokes about Toronto being the only major city removing bike lanes were being so fully realized. I was dismayed that, in order to score political points with midtown commuters only concerned with using Jarvis as an urban highway, Ford and other councillors were willing to sacrifice the safety of the people who live and work along the street.
And that’s why, for the first time in my life, I became an activist.
As someone who lives and commutes along Jarvis, as a pedestrian, cyclist, and occasional driver, I urge all Torontonians to support the Jarvis Taskforce in their objectives. All Torontonians deserve to have their safety taken into consideration when it comes to major changes to urban planning.
A full environmental assessment was done before the fifth reversible lane was removed. Before council decided to put in bike lanes, it recommended taking out that fifth lane, creating wider sidewalks and wider curb lanes to accommodate cyclists, and re-establishing a sense of place for the people who actually inhabit Jarvis, as opposed to the ones who just use it as a thoroughfare. We shouldn’t reverse course on the bike lanes until the same due diligence is done, incorporating information about how Jarvis is working now, and unless that evidence indicates it is the best course of action. Councillor Doug Ford (Ward 2, Etobicoke North) suggested in an interview that we should count the number of cars “backed up” on Jarvis, and the number of cyclists using the street. I fully agree.
I urge the City of Toronto to properly consult residents along Jarvis, to assess how they’ve been affected by bike lanes. After all, how can Mayor Ford’s administration claim to respect taxpayers if he refuses to take their safety into account; to consult with the councillor whose ward such a decision most affects, or listen to her constituents; and claim that he’s listening to the people?
Steve Fisher is the listings editor for Torontoist. His writing can be found in several local media outlets.
Additional photos of yesterday’s protest are available here.