Emotions were high as Bike Month kicked off yesterday. Thousands of cyclists joined mayor David Miller in commuting to an early morning pancake breakfast held in Nathan Phillip’s Square. But pancakes weren’t enough to dissuade Denzil Minnan-Wong and other councillors pulled out all the stops to delay a vote simply to approve the Jarvis Street Streetscape Improvements Environmental Assessment Study.
Before I get into some of the highlights of the seven and a half hour marathon discussion, I want to go over what was being decided upon, for if anything was lost in the day-long debate, it was the relatively modest and straightforward proposal itself.
What was at stake today was approving the recommendations of an environmental assessment on the Jarvis Street Streetscape Improvement proposal. The assessment was unanimously in support of closing the fifth reversible lane on Jarvis Street. It stated that narrowing the street from five lanes to four would have a minimal impact on car trips along the stretch from Bloor Street to Queen Street (a maximum of 2 minutes extra at peak times during rush hour).
This being said, the underlying purpose of the study was to look at ways to help Jarvis Street reclaim some of its former glory as one of the city’s finest boulevards. Several alternatives were proposed as ways of rejuvenating the stretch, the one chosen being the expansion and improvement of the sidewalk along with the addition of two bike lanes going north and south respectively.
For seven and a half hours, councillor Minnan-Wong along with councillors Stintz, Holyday, Thompson, Del Grande, Ootes, Jenkins, Parker, Ford, Shiner, Walker and others relentlessly confused the issue at stake. They argued that bike lanes were unnecessary for Jarvis Street and that this meant that so too was the car lane reduction. In other words, the car lane reduction was just another example of the city’s supposed â€œwar on the carâ€ (as Del Grande put it) if favour of the bike.
The shift in focus from the study itself to bike use in Toronto quickly polarized the room, which in the morning was filled with helmet-wearing cyclists fresh from the opening ceremonies of Bike Month held outside. Minnan-Wong’s assertion that the Don Valley bike path and St George Street bike lanes (George Street, as he called it) were good enough didn’t help much. Nor did Holyday’s comment lighten the mood when, with around a hundred helmet clad cyclists in the room, he boldly stated that â€œI’ve talked to lots of people who live where the bike lanes are, and there’s nobody in them. Nobody.â€
Frustrations boiled over at 5:30pm when councillor Ford, a self-proclaimed â€œstraight talker,â€ upset the whole chamber by bluntly declaring that â€œbikers are a pain in the ass.â€
The underlying premise of the proposal, to rejuvenate the neighbourhood surrounding Jarvis Street, was totally forgotten. As councillor Vaughan pointed out, the improvements don’t signify a â€œwar on the carâ€ but â€œa war on past mistakes.â€ The proposal is an attempt to rectify the planning decisions of the 1940s and 50s that â€œmurderedâ€ one of Toronto’s most beautiful neighbourhoods by prioritizing car travel at the expense of all other forms of mobility.
Of the $6 million going towards these improvements, only $50,000 to $100,000 will likely be used to put in bike lanes. The rest will go to beautifying the street for pedestrian users with trees, historic plaques and new wider sidewalks.
Furthermore, as councillor Mihevc pointed out, motorist transit will actually improve by partially dedicating one lane to cyclists. Although slightly counter-intuitive, expanded sidewalks and a safer bike route will actually make car transit more efficient by reducing the number of cars on Jarvis Street in the long run. This will occur following the anticipated â€œmodal shiftâ€ that will occur as new transportation alternatives are made available by the street improvements.
The real turning point came when councillor Cho, who had begun the day arguing against narrowing Jarvis, decided to throw his support behind the proposal. â€œWe owe it to our children,â€ Cho remarked, emphasizing the environmental benefits of cycling over polluting motor vehicles.
â€œWe have all won,â€ said councillor Rae following the 28-16 vote passing the study reccommending bike lanes and improved sidewalks. â€œThe whole city has won. We have made the street more complete for bicyclists, for car drivers, for transit users and for pedestrians: for everyone.â€
photos by Jake Schabas