Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bike Lanes and Car Claims

A year ago I wouldn't have imagined that bicycle lanes could become such a political lightning rod in a city like Toronto, but there you are - even after twenty years, this place keeps surprising me. Considering the degree that the project appears in the news, though, it seems to me that this may be something of a worthwhile litmus test for the mayoral candidates - how they react to it may tell us more about how they'd conduct themselves otherwise. We've learned a lot about Rocco Rossi that way, and through his speech last month at the Empire Club, which basically tells us that he thinks cars are awesome and transit is for nerds.

If you're unfamiliar with the situation, let me summarize. Jarvis Street is a rather well-used throughfare a bit east of the downtown core, running from Front Street in the south to Bloor Street in the north. It's one of the few roads in Toronto I can think of that has an odd number of lanes - five, to be precise, with the middle lane switching between southbound traffic and northbound traffic depending on the time of day. A plan approved by City Council in May 2009 would see Jarvis condensed into four lanes, two north and two south, with the rest of the space given over to bicycle lanes. As of 2009, twenty-eight thousand cars used Jarvis on an average day, and a key chunk of these are driven by residents of high-end neighborhoods like Rosedale, Lawrence Park, and Moore Park.

The elimination of Jarvis' fifth lane would, according to the articles I've seen, add something on the order of two or three to five minutes to these drivers' commute times. The horror...

For the record, I'm supportive of the Jarvis bike lane project. I've been on enough plenty of streets where I felt like by cycling along them I was taking my life into my own hands, even more so - Bayly Street in Pickering, which I traversed during my ride from Oshawa to Scarborough last September, is a sterling example of this in my mind. Plenty of roads are as hostile to two wheels as much of Los Angeles is to two legs.

It's a good thing, then, that we have Rocco Rossi to... talk as if this is an awesome thing. To put it bluntly, I don't trust Rossi at all on this. A Sunday Star article refers to a statement of his that "he’s not opposed to bike lanes in general" - but this runs completely counter to coverage of his speech at the Empire Club on January 22, where he was reported as saying that he is "prepared to look at removing existing [bike lanes]."

Ultimately, though, I think the real problem here is the act of catering to drivers above all else. Despite what some people may think, owning and running an automobile is not the be-all and end-all of existence, and cities should not be built or organized exclusively to suit their interests; unfortunately, that's pretty much what we've had for the last seventy years. It wouldn't be the first time the interests of motorists were enshrined above the interests of others in this city, either.

Take the St. Clair streetcar, for instance. What a lot of people probably don't know is that back in the day, it ran east of Yonge Street as well. This branch was known as the Mount Pleasant streetcar, and it extended north to Eglinton via Mount Pleasant Road - which, incidentally, is the same road that connects Jarvis Street with Rosedale, Moore Park, and the rest. Despite popular local suppot for the line, it was shut down in 1976 at the behest of the Metro Roads Department, acting "in response to complaints from car drivers about streetcars 'obstructing' their progress." This attitude, in my mind, is the pinnacle of self-centeredness, and I see small pieces of it every time a car zooms by a stopped streetcar with its doors open. What do I mean?

I mean that, in my mind, drivers are not the be-all and end-all. Generally, when I see a car on the road here, it's got one person in it - two at the most. The average streetcar, even on off-peak times, has closer to thirty, going up to more than a hundred with standing room only. To me, the conclusion is clear - streetcars are more important than cars. Not only that, but all else being equal, a car will beat a streetcar every time - hell, I've raced streetcars from Niagara to Yonge on my bicycle and won. Cars have enough intrinsic advantages already without having the deck stacked in their favor.


  1. "and a key chunk of these are driven by residents of high-end neighborhoods like Rosedale, Lawrence Park, and Moore Park."

    Source please. Otherwise, some might conclude you're turning this into a class issue, which it should not be.


  2. My sources for this come from the May 25, 2009 Toronto Star article "Council approves Jarvis bike lanes," the February 21, 2010 Toronto Star article "Bike lanes for Jarvis," and the February 20, 2010 National Post article "City proceeding with Jarvis bike lanes," which all indicate that residents of those areas use Jarvis Street to get downtown. I chose the word "key" rather than "major" or something as I don't know how the percentages break down; what I do know is that residents' associations up there seem to be active in opposing the bike lane project.

    I'd be more than happy to correct this if it turns out it's not the case.

  3. I am a cyclist, but I think this Jarvis bike lane is a big mistake.

    In 2007, city council discussed and approved narrowing Jarvis to improve the streetscape and beautify it.

    Then in 2009, Mr. Miller decided to make a bit of political theatre by changing the redesign to be about bike lanes instead. And he did it on bike-to-work day for effect.

    All this did was turn the debate into a cars-vs-bikes holy war.

    Sherbourne has much better potential as a bike thoroughfare, because goes north of Bloor. I often bike up Sherbourne to get to my relatives in Davisville, and it provides a safe and peaceful bike route.

    The real missing link in downtown bike routes is east-west streets. We need bike lanes on Bloor... maybe even Richmond or Adelaide streets too.

    Jarvis should not be ground zero for bike lanes, it's not a critical link, and not worth dividing the whole city over.