I was in New York City last month and my 24th Street hotel was a few doors away from Madison Square Park and the iconic intersection of 5th and Broadway. Iconic because of the famous Flatiron Building in the background (see above) but perhaps equally iconic (to some of us) because it’s now a fine example of the way New York City is rapidly transforming Broadway into a shared street. If you haven’t already you should listen to the recent Spacing Radio episode featuring NYC’s Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan talking (in Toronto) last month about what her city is doing.
In these photos you can see the old boulevards of Broadway and 5th, but now surrounded by a gravelly surface and planters. Bigger sidewalks, bike lanes, new public plazas with chairs and tables and, here it is, the cars still get through in the heart of one of the most congested islands on the planet. All this done quickly, with a relatively small budget.
Here in Toronto there is a historonic frenzy being whipped up by some councillors and ratepayer associations suggesting that there is a War on the Car — but is there? Much of this rhetoric swirls around Jarvis Street and the closing of its centre lane to make room for other modes of transit. Much less radical than what New York has done in the photos above, but the histrionics in Toronto are at a pitch that might be appropriate if the plan was to close down Jarvis entirely.
Take this piece in the Globe today that got to the heart of why things are getting wacky: some councillors are trying to find a wedge issue for next year’s municipal election. Even councillors who should know better, like Paul Ainslie — the pride of Guild — said this to the Globe: “I don’t get people calling my office and saying there are not enough bike lanes.” With that logic, does Ainslie not support anything that comes across council’s agenda unless he’s heard something from his constituents? That would be silly. So is conflating a lane closure into a war as others have done.
Comments like this, and other more incendiary ones, look ridiculous when we see what New York is doing and will look much worse when viewed in retrospect: political posturing is going to land some councillors on the wrong side of history, and if they care at all about their various legacies, they should act like real leaders now rather than slip and slide, waiting for somebody to “call them” and ask for bike lanes. Cities everywhere are changing, adapting, and it isn’t a war, it’s progress. Janette Sadik-Khan’s talk should be required listening for everybody who has an opinion on Jarvis or this fake War on the Cars. This is possibly one case where the equally-imaginary Toronto inferiority complex with New York may work in our city’s favour: if New York is doing it, and doing it so easily and on such a massive scale, doesn’t it make Toronto look silly if we’re using terms like “war” when talking about a few feet of bike lanes? I’m not saying that argument works for everybody — or even me — but if somebody is going around shouting there is a War on Cars, it’s likely they believe in other fairy tales. It would be fun to see
hawkish Chicken Little warmongers like Case Ootes and Denzil Minnan-Wong (the councilors saying the sky is falling that war has been declared the loudest) take on Mayor Bloomberg. Could they get away with the crazy rhetoric then?
Then there is something that the car folks don’t – and possibly can’t — admit to: cars have always been in a perpetual state of war with themselves. It’s a dirty and nasty civil war that nobody wants to talk about but anybody that has driven a car knows exists (and has existed for a long time). Cars are always battling each other for space and there is not, and never will be, enough roads in most urban centres to declare a truce in that war. I drove for nearly a decade in Windsor and I’ve driven enough here in Toronto to know the war is ongoing. Whether I’m driving on College Street downtown, rolling on big fat Jarvis Street (with that middle lane intact), out in Kingston-Galloway along Councillor Ainslie’s six-lane-wide arterials or speeding along the incredible 16 lanes of the 401 near the airport, a drive in the city a constant battle with other cars for space. Civility breaks down in seconds, people hustle for position, they swear the most vile swears at each (I do it too — it just comes out), and it’s Hobbsian and brutish because there is just not enough room. There hasn’t been room for decades — the term “gridlock” is thirty years old, existing long before bike lanes were a thought. So when a proposal like Jarvis comes along that will make a negligible difference in the time it takes to drive along it, car drivers have somebody other than themselves to vent to. This fake and embarrassing War on the Car is a scapegoat for the Car on Car war and it’s bad for Toronto to let it become a wedge issue. Don’t let them get away with it.