Bring Back the War on the Car
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Bring Back the War on the Car

Toronto needs warriors to fight for cyclists, pedestrians, and the life of the city.

Photo by Flickr user Sweet One.

Whatever happened to the War on the Car? I miss it. And I struggle to accept the fact that one madman’s election has really put an end to that great cause. But when I sift through the current campaign material published by his would-be successors, I can barely detect even a whiff of the old fighting spirit.

The word “bicycle” would qualify in that respect. But the only candidate who so much as mentions that most controversial conveyance on his website is Richard Underhill, an accomplished jazz musician who is currently ruining his promising second career as a fringe candidate by taking it seriously. And even this recently de-bearded downtowner is soft-pedalling [sic] the cause, promising a Tory-esque compromise to build bike lanes “with minimal effect on parking or traffic flow.” The usual squared circle of political promiseland, in other words.

Olivia Chow’s website is garlanded with beauty shots, but not one shows her aboard the bicycle that was once her calling card—perhaps it was considered too provocative to Ford Nation and has been quietly rusticated. Her rivals are uniformly dedicated to keeping motorists happy. None of the four has had a word to say about protecting pedestrians or calming the city’s increasingly deadly traffic. The evidence so far says that when it comes to dealing with the critical issue of safe streets, Ford has them all cowed.

And the cars have not failed to press their advantage. In 2011, they managed to kill about 20 pedestrians and cyclists—and far more of the former than the latter. Last year, they killed twice as many. Altogether, there were more traffic fatalities than homicides in Toronto last year. And so far, there isn’t a single mayoral candidate who appears to have a problem with that.

That silence in the face of an obvious crisis is all the more remarkable when one considers what’s happening in the real world outside Ford Nation—most recently in New York, to pick a favourite comparator, where unabashed progressive Bill de Blasio won a landslide victory to replace outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg, thanks in no small part to his bold plan to eliminate traffic fatalities in New York by 2020. Modelled on a Swedish initiative, de Blasio’s Vision Zero policy is the boldest fightback against the car any city on this continent has ever attempted.

Building on the impressive bike-lane and traffic-calming initiatives of the former mayor’s famous transportation czarina, Janette Sadik-Khan, the new policy puts New York streets far ahead of Toronto’s.

The most telling symbol of Toronto’s timidity is the ubiquitous “sharrow”—the not-quite bike lane denoted by pictures of bicycles with forward-pointing chevrons painted on the street. What does it even mean?

The question came to me abruptly one day from the mouth of a tourist in a car waiting at a light beside me on Spadina. “Does that mean I can’t drive there?” he asked, leaning across his front seat and pointing at the bicycle pictures in the lane ahead. The light was about to change, so I had to think quickly, and for a second the deep ambiguity of the sharrow confounded me. But just as suddenly, I realized the bare truth, which is all the tourist needed to know. “No, that means you can drive there,” I explained. “A picture of a bicycle on a lane in Toronto means, ‘Drive here.’”

He was happy for the explanation, leaving me to contemplate the absurdity of it.

I know how it happened. For years, the city was happy to paint bike lanes anywhere so long as they never displaced any parking or motor traffic. As soon as these lanes arrived at an intersection—or a row of parked cars or any number of other car-related disruptions—they disappeared. Toronto’s bizarrely discontinuous non-network of bike lanes lures cyclists into a protected zone only to throw them into the maelstrom. It was and remains embarrassing. Hence the inscrutable sharrow. Being useless if not dangerous to cyclists and meaningless to drivers, its sole purpose is to cover bureaucratic butt. It is the perfect symbol of a city where nobody wants to make a hard choice.

The hard lesson from New York and dozens of progressive European cities is that you can’t make gains for cyclists, pedestrians, and the life of the city as a whole without restricting car use—removing lanes, widening sidewalks, lowering speed limits, and redesigning intersections. And as JSK and others have proven, that is not a politics for wimps: we need warriors.