Convincing pro-car councillors of the benefits of cyclists is a near-impossible task, argues Daren Foster.
In his closing remarks on the proposed Bloor Street bike lane pilot project on April 25, Public Works and Infrastructure Committee member and Councillor Stephen Holyday (Ward 3, Etobicoke Centre) suggested that cycling advocates were “trying to build a wall” around downtown—to keep certain people out, I guess. People like Councillor Holyday, who clearly wasn’t on board with the proposal.
As a fortification, might I suggest, this wall has been something of a bust. A tunnel burrows right beneath it, bringing undesirables from all four corners of the city directly within its confines every three to five minutes during peak times. It’s so porous that it can’t even keep the likes of Holyday from a successful incursion to set up shop right in the heart of things at Queen and Bay.
There really should have been little to no debate about this 2.5 kilometre bike lane pilot project running along Bloor Street West from Shaw Street to Avenue Road. It had overwhelming support from local residents and businesses. The two city councillors representing the wards the project would run through, Joe Cressy and Mike Layton (Ward 19 and 20, the Trinity-Spadinas), were big proponents. This should have been a slam dunk.
But that’s not how things work here, not in Toronto, not for more than five years now. Change, especially when it comes to allocating road space, must always be challenged, contested. Drivers’ time is the most valuable time. A three- or six-minute delay while behind the wheel of a car is like 45 minutes stuck on a bus. You just don’t mess around with drivers and their cars without expecting serious pushback.
That driving might not even be negatively affected, as study after study shows of places that have provided more room to other road users, did not faze pro-car skeptics. The most succinctly dismissive was former chief of staff for Rob Ford, Mark Towhey. When confronted on social media with this possibility, he simply and succinctly responded, “Bullshit”.
— Mark Towhey (@towhey) April 25, 2016
More subtle but hardly any less willfully stubborn, Councillor Holyday worried about something called “echo congestion” if the bike lanes were installed. I’d never heard of such a thing. Neither had the internet, apparently, when I Googled to find out exactly what it was.
Perhaps the councillor was confusing it with the initial spike in car traffic surrounding areas may experience when nearby traffic lanes are repurposed for something other than driving. It eventually dissipates in something that’s referred to as “disappearing traffic“: reducing space on roads for cars over the long term appears to result in reduced, not increased, congestion.
Such counter-intuitive thinking is, by its very nature, a tough sell, especially if you’re rabidly determined to hold onto to your inalienable right to the roads. What we ought to do is establish a pilot project, collect the data, see if that’s actually feasible.
The pilot project naysayers, including Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong, who dropped into the meeting to question the methodology of the proposed study in the smugly passive-aggressive fashion he’s mastered, do have some legitimate concerns. “It’s not clear what the base line data is (the numbers are not in the [pilot project staff] report), nor, it seems, will the evaluation include anything on pedestrian activity, public realm use, or other indicators on the quality of street life along that stretch,” John Lorinc writes in Spacing. It’s also not clear how many cyclists need to be using the bike lanes for staff to declare victory, as the deputy mayor wondered less graciously.
For his part, the city’s general manager of transportation services, Stephen Buckley, said the project parameters were only 85 per cent in place, so there was still an opportunity to try to address some of the councillors’ concerns before the scheduled implementation date in August—if there’s an implementation date. And, at this point, nothing should be taken for granted.
Not content to just pull at the loose thread of data collection questions, the car warriors wanted assurances that this was just going to be a pilot project, that these Bloor Street bike lanes weren’t, in fact, set in stone. Councillor Holyday wondered out loud if this was just a Trojan horse, once installed, never to be removed. We know how difficult it is in Toronto to rip up bike lanes, pilot project or not.
Public Works and Infrastructure Committee chair, Councillor Jaye Robinson (Ward 25, Don Valley West), wanted to know what the “bigger picture” was. She’s a “big picture” person, she stated at the meeting. Where was this whole thing headed, she asked on numerous occasions. First, 2.5 kilometres from Shaw to Avenue, and then what? Out over the valley and onward, across the Danforth? West, past High Park on a slow march toward Etobicoke? Right from stem to stern? Where would it end?
How could anyone possibly answer that question at this point of time? We’re still debating whether or not to implement the pilot project. Plans beyond that? I’m not at all convinced this particular council is capable of laying down these bike lanes, let alone anything more.
In the end, at the committee meeting, the debate and vote played out just as it should: deadlocked, in a tie. Any motions were killed there and then. The staff report was sent to City Council without recommendation. Arguably, the second most important committee at City Hall, Public Works and Infrastructure, simply shrugged off any responsibility for shaping what should be a key piece of city infrastructure.
Governing is hard.
It will all start up again next week, back at square one, at City Council, for a prolonged, agonizing debate over a pilot project that should be a no-brainer. It will probably squeak through with Mayor Tory’s tepid support, with the appropriate lack of enthusiasm we saw at Public Works this week. It’s something that, even if it does work, by any measure you take, won’t convince anyone of anything they aren’t already convinced of.
That’s the wall we’ve built. It’s just that Councillor Holyday’s perspective is skewed. He’s the one standing behind it, trying to keep others out.