On May 22nd I posted a piece here on Spacing about the fairy tale war on the car. It was at the height of the rhetorical volleys surrounding the decision to remove the middle lane on Jarvis to make way for pedestrian and cyclist improvements. In it I suggested that car culture has always been at war with itself: city driving has never been pleasant, not in the good-old-days in the 1960s with fat arterial roads, expanding suburbs and less cars on the road, and certainly isn’t pleasant today. Bike lanes have become a convenient scapegoat for drivers. Enter Toronto Star columnist Bob Hepburn and a piece he wrote two weeks ago called “Time to stop nutty war on cars.” Here’s how he opened:
As I inched my car along Wellesley St. East in morning traffic earlier this week, I watched a lone bicyclist merrily speed by me in his designated bike lane.
For cyclists like him, the recently installed bike lane on Wellesley is a welcome development.
But for fuming motorists like me, the bike lane is an unmitigated disaster because it has narrowed the street, slowing traffic and significantly increasing commuting time. And then there’s all the extra pollution caused by having our cars and trucks stuck longer in traffic.
The Wellesley bike lane — used only by that one cyclist as I sat idling in traffic — is just another scrimmage in the rapidly escalating “war on cars” raging these days across Toronto.
Currently, the anti-car crowd is winning the war.
It’s as if Hepburn was trying to prove my thesis. He calls the Wellesley lane “an unmitigated disaster”. As anybody who has driven or biked on Wellesley before and after the bike lanes were installed last year (I have and continue to use both methods of transportation along Wellesley often enough), they know this is absolutely not true. Wellesley, during anything close to busy times, was always a disaster. A small, urban street that could not handle very much traffic. It was backed up and slow and many times I’ve inched along from Queens Park to Jarvis or even as far as Sherbourne in single file gridlock then and now. Most of Wellesley was one (extra wide) lane to begin with — the bike lane simple turned them into normal sized lanes and as Now Magazine pointed out, they aren’t particularly good bike lanes since they end before each intersection. Wellesley still has left turn lanes for cars and yet is as crappy a street to drive on as it ever was. Now there is somebody to blame — the merry bicyclist — rather than the cars themselves.
Though Hepburn makes some good points in his piece about the need for more transit, his repeated use of the word war, and his claims that war has been declared against cars, reminds me of another situation where the media declared war when there was no war. I emailed Hepburn for explanation of his claim that the Wellesley bike lane is a “disaster” when there is no change (in fact, there might be more order on Wellesley now that car lanes are clearly marked) but I received a form letter that said, in part: “I have received an overwhelming number of comments from readers from Toronto, and in many cases across the country, with most of them agreeing with the main points in the column, but with a good number sharply disagreeing. One thing is clear from all of the comments and that is how passionate readers feel about this issue.”
As we said in grade school “no guff” — there has been passion over this issue for months now, that isn’t news — but when a reporter/columnist uses words like “disaster” and “war” as loose as Hepburn did, of course readers who trust the writer will be in agreement. As I said in my initial piece on the 22nd, this is exactly the kind of rhetoric we can’t let them get away with because is extinguishes the possibility of a reasonable conversation and debate between cars, transit, bikes and pedestrians that needs to take place in Toronto. Remove the incendiary rhetoric, and that conversation can easily take place.
Photo by 416style.