2011 Villain: Anti-Cycling Sentiment
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2011 Villain: Anti-Cycling Sentiment

Nominated for: perpetuating an attitude that, quite literally, kills.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—the very best and very worst people, places, things, and ideas that have had an influence on the city over the past twelve months. From December 12–23, the candidates for Mightiest and Meanest—and new this year, a reader’s write-in option! From December 26–29 you’ll be able to vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year, and we’ll reveal the results December 30.

About a month after Jenna Morrison’s death at Dundas and Sterling, members of the Urban Repair Squad gathered at the controversial intersection with bikes and paint. For two hours, give or take, they worked, stenciling white DIY sharrows and a strip of bright, glaring teal down the right-hand side of the road. This is an intersection known among Toronto’s cyclists as one of the most dangerous in the city, a tight merge on to Dundas that, on the morning of November 7, proved too tight, claiming a young mother’s life. Teal may not be the most attractive colour in the spectrum, but to those who see the city over a pair of handlebars, the brighter the better—particularly when blind spots are more plentiful than side guards.

Of course, the experiment in direct action didn’t last long. By 11:30 that morning police swept into the intersection themselves, scattering the guerrilla artisans. “After all but a few police cars had left,” reported the Grid, “car after car pulled up to the stop sign to make a right turn on to Dundas, and more often than not, kept safely out of the bright teal and white lane.”

“It seemed to be working.”

It was telling. For much of the past year, in ways both implicit and explicit, the highest officials at City Hall have painted cycling as an afterthought at best, or at worst, the elitist preference of downtowners, a niche interest not shared by the more practically-minded suburbanites. In a city supposedly teetering on the brink, so this story goes, cycling is one of those fringe luxuries whose infrastructure we can’t dare waste money on. That a small group of people provided that infrastructure themselves, though, relatively quickly and easily, provides evidence for different, uglier truths. Rather than budget constraints, it suggests that the real problem is a systemic rejection of cycling as a viable part of our transportation network—the reason 2011 has seen our city’s first net loss of bike lanes. And that, to put it mildly, is quite beyond unacceptable by now.

It’s also how Olivia Chow’s renewed call for truck side guards can be so thoroughly waved off. Back in 2006, the Conservative government responded to an earlier request that we consider making side guards mandatory by saying that the competitiveness of the Canadian trucking industry would be affected, an evidently worst-case scenario, even when stacked up against tragedies like Jenna Morrison’s, or what happened outside the Gladstone in 2006, and the deaths ten years prior that had Jack Layton making a cause out of bike lanes to begin with.

These are fundamental issues of public safety, to say nothing of public health. Would basic changes to our transportation systems, like adding more bike lanes and requiring side guards, be so readily rejected if the safety of drivers was somehow on the line?

And would the removal of bike lanes, which council decided to do for Jarvis and Pharmacy, be so eagerly pursued were the act anything but, in part, a backhanded slap in the face of Toronto’s cyclists? Throughout his first turbulent year as mayor, Ford has repeatedly insisted that Ford Nation, wherever it is, continues its support, constantly urging him to “stay the course.” But in its supposed hotbed out in the suburbs, constituents are also telling councillors that they want what we have downtown.

This is what action like that of the Urban Repair Squad the other week illuminates mercilessly: in laying out a bike lane in less than two hours, water-soluble paint or not, they have show that cities and federal governments too can provide basic safety with negligible impact. But ours haven’t. Cycling remains on the margins, whether those of roadways or policy papers.

Respect, perhaps, needs to come first. Politicians, like some drivers we can think of, need to realize that cycling, and cyclists, aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. And yes, their rightful place is in the lane alongside everyone else, not on the sidewalk.