Mike Layton's grassroots cycling committee aims to put progress and a little civility back in Toronto's saddles.
Where that leaves the cycling committee is back at the organizing stage, just like it was 20 or so years ago. But unlike 20 years ago, the committee faces the prospect of working in a vastly larger city and doing so under an administration hell-bent on keeping cyclists off the streets—especially in the suburbs. The grassroots level, though, is where political activism thrives.
“What I learned growing up and then in my first couple of years of being an environmental activist is that it’s all about organizing,” Layton says. “You get a group of people together, you go out on the street, you spread a message, and sometimes those people have different goals, but this just gives us such a great reason to go out and organize again.”
For the elder Layton, that kind of organizing meant looking at a spate of cycling-related tragedies on downtown streets and seeing the need, often unrecognized, for something more substantial than just reminding drivers to give bikes a wider berth. Fifteen years after first sounding the call for 1,000 kilometres of bike lanes, his legacy left us with a treasure trove of progress, but also the uninformed venom of critics who see the advancement of bike infrastructure as little more than a “war on the car.” Worse, people who share this view have ascended to the highest echelons of municipal power, with the most charitable thing said about cyclists being that riding in Toronto is like “swimming with sharks.” For the younger Layton, organizing in 2011 means countering this authoritarian, dismissive take on cycling in general, re-framing the public dialogue, and doing so with a smile.
“We had been with an administration that was a little more open to bringing ideas to the front,” Layton says, recalling Toronto’s seven years under David Miller. “If you could get the ear of someone to listen, they would listen to you, and then perhaps judge your ideas accordingly. Now, it seems, if you’re not in that circle, you’re not being listened to at all.”
As the committee gears up to the task of painstakingly chipping away the ice enshrouding City Hall, its best prospect in the short term, Layton says, is partnering with the public. And the solution, he adds, is shared by everyone who shares the road. “Perhaps it’s just for all traffic to say, for pedestrians, ‘I’m going to look both ways before I step out into traffic. I will not run across a road.’” Or, for drivers, “need[ing] to know where they can and where they can’t park, and when […] As people get more conscious and more understanding and perhaps make it not all about themselves and getting the easiest and quickest route but more about how we treat others on the road, then maybe it’ll get better.”
“Just gotta bring some more love to those roads.”
A SHORT HISTORY OF CYCLING ACTIVISM IN TORONTO
Between July 22 and 30, 1996, two cyclists in Queen West and Cherry Beach were killed after collisions with large trucks, both riders coming into contact with the heavy rear wheels of the vehicles. Erin Krauser died at Queen and Bathurst; Martha Kennedy at the intersection of Cherry Street and Commissioners, not far from today’s Polson Pier entertainment complex.
Within days, a press conference took place, attended by everyone from then-mayor Barbara Hall to cycling advocates to various trucking outfits. Hall announced a co-operative effort among key parties to understand why the city’s streets had become so deadly, drawing on the expertise and experience of groups like Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists, the Ontario Cycling Association, and, at the council level, the City’s Cycling Committee.
The involvement of the latter was more or less a foregone conclusion. By the mid-1990s, the committee had already introduced a raft of revolutionary changes to the city, most visibly the ring-and-post lock stands unveiled in 1985, 16,000 of which would eventually line Toronto’s streets. In 1989, the committee was busy advocating for and later overseeing the installation of curb lanes along Queens Quay. But, in 1996, with two deaths that summer bringing the year’s total to three, Cycling Committee founder Jack Layton took the events as reason to aim a little higher.
On August 2, the day of Hall’s press conference, Layton put the word out to come down to Cherry and Commissioners. Then-councillor for the pre-amalgamation ward of Toronto-Don River, where the second death had occurred, Layton was calling for a much more ambitious solution: nothing less than the City’s commitment to paint a thousand kilometres of bike lanes on Metro roadways “to end cyclists’ deaths.” Gradually, the initiative would bear 50 kilometres of bike lanes, then the restoration of rail lands and hydro corridors as active bike routes, then close to 200 kilometres of bike lanes painted by October 2000. That fall, Layton’s Bike Plan expanded to its most ambitious under his guidance: a city-wide network of bike lanes extending to 800 kilometres, four times what the City had already laid down.
Three years later, Layton moved on to Parliament, and the Bike Plan fell into political limbo; by last November, a little over half of what was set out in the plan had materialized. That fall, of course, the game changed. Riding a surge of false populism and a reputation of supposed fiscal prudence, Etobicoke Councillor Rob Ford, Layton’s old neighbour on the council floor, moved into the mayor’s office, bringing much of the preceding Miller administration’s progressive legacy to a shrieking, grinding halt. Notably, that legacy included expanding Toronto’s cycling infrastructure, albeit to nowhere near the extent that Layton had in mind.
Subsequent policy changes have stymied that vision even further. Under Ford, known for publicly declaring Toronto’s cyclists to be a “pain in the ass” or worse, throwing the city’s streets wide open to vehicle traffic is once again the top priority.
Cycling advocacy, some may argue, has come full circle.