Steeper Hills, New Momentum
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Steeper Hills, New Momentum

Mike Layton's grassroots cycling committee aims to put progress and a little civility back in Toronto's saddles.

Photo by {a href=""}Benson Kua{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Among the hallmarks of the Miller administration’s twilight years were the introduction of three bike lanes: two in Scarborough and one connecting the docklands with downtown via Jarvis. Jarvis, installed in 2010, would turn out to be a parting gift to progressives, a final endorsement of Toronto’s cycling community.

But earlier this summer, in a vote at City Hall, councillors decided that the Birchmount and Pharmacy bike lanes in Scarborough would be the first to go; that was soon followed by a vote to do the same with Jarvis. For that cycling community, confronted with the sudden chill on hard-won infrastructure, one might have called it a shot across the bow.

Behind closed doors, Rob Ford’s early days at City Hall had already undone much of the advocacy work not only of David Miller but of the preceding 20 years, including issue-based advisory committees. Though staffed entirely by volunteers, 21 of these committees, including the one dedicated to cycling, were put on notice in late April. Ford’s administration claimed the move was all about “respect for taxpayers” or “stopping the gravy train,” the usual platitudes, but these were groups without so much as a finger in the City’s coffers. As conduits of citizen engagement, the move was more likely a way to censor a populace with serious misgivings about whatever was coming next.

But Ford wasn’t the only one who took up a new office last October. A new generation of young, progressive councillors was elected, some of whom had early and decidedly contentious contact with Mr. Ford as community activists. For Mike Layton, elected to Ward 19, the loss of the cycling committee would pose a challenge he wound up meeting armed with a simple piece of parental advice.

“I was talking to my dad,” Layton told NOW last spring, “and he said, ‘Just establish a cycling committee in your own office.’ That’s what we did.”

The advice may have been simple, but following it was anything but. Despite that trademark flourish of optimism, the younger Layton will be the first to tell you that attempting to return Toronto to its 1990s heyday as Canada’s best city for cycling is an extraordinary challenge. Nonetheless, the long-time cycling activist and environmentalist feels up to it.

“My thinking is that you don’t dismantle a committee when you haven’t really overcome the issues yet,” Layton told Torontoist recently. “Even if you have a plan, that plan could change, or you could need advice on the implementation, which is sort of how this committee is set up now: at least the exchange of information about how one comes to a conclusion about providing advice is there.”

At this stage, more or less back at square one, the fledgling bike committee under Mike Layton is taking baby steps: feeling out a consensus among the city’s cycling community, bringing it together under one umbrella, and going from there. But the end goal, no matter how approached, remains the same: a Toronto that’s safer and more accessible to cyclists.

Layton outlined how the committee would work: not a party of individuals, necessarily, but a collective of collectives. “We wanted it to be an open process,” he said, “but we didn’t want to end up in a position where it’s just a catch-all for every individual who wanted to speak up about cycling.”  A member of the Toronto Cyclists Union for two years, Layton enlisted their assistance and that of several other partners in identifying key groups that would represent diverse interests. The idea quickly followed to create a congress of these cycling organizations and advocacy groups, each with a civic platform to join the policy discussion.  Otherwise, he said, “you have a problem with too many people showing up so you don’t have a manageable group, which then pushes people away, and you don’t have a critical mass of people.”

Once organizers had identified those groups, though, they noticed—perhaps predictably—that the interests represented were concentrated downtown.

Thinking of geography in bigger terms than that, Layton says, is critical. But with the Pharmacy and Birchmount bike lanes in Scarborough reversed, the plan to extend cycling infrastructure into the suburbs has met a wall, and the Ward 19 councillor knows it.

“We’re hearing a little bit of, ‘We want outside of downtown what you have downtown,’” Layton told us, “and so we should stop focusing so much on downtown and start making sure that the infrastructure outside of downtown is protected and continues to grow, which is difficult, particularly in the administration that is taking out bike lanes.” What was put in place barely a year ago wasn’t a one-off thing, he maintains. “Everyone focuses on, ‘Well, it’s only six kilometres of bike lanes in Scarborough.’ Yeah, but if you look at the map, that six was actually supposed to be forty. It was the first of a bunch of other pieces that went in, and by doing that, we’ve said, ‘those two roads are never going to get bike lanes.’”

The future of Toronto cycling, he suggests, depends heavily on connecting downtown with the rest of the city.

“Taking out the bike lanes that were laying those foundational pieces: it was tough,” Layton recalls. “We’re not going to see a ton of that other bike infrastructure get built in the next couple of years, where it was supposed to be a long-term roll-out of getting a certain number of kilometres of bike lanes every year. That just won’t happen.”