It’s often touted among cycling advocates in our city that there was a time when Toronto ranked as North America’s #1 cycling city. One could say it all started with the installation of the City’s first bike lane on Poplar Plains in 1979 (photo above). In more recent years, progress on this front has been slow, and in some cases we’ve even seen regression. Though a lot of progress was made in the past decade or so, a lot of what you see on Toronto’s streets was implemented prior to the city’s amalgamation.
An article in the Toronto Star last week got me thinking about what path Toronto could be on had we not amalgamated.
In Montreal, the borough of Le Plateau-Mont Royal is facing some backlash to the Mayor’s recent changes to the area’s streets. New bike routes and traffic calming are funneling through-traffic off of local streets and onto major thoroughfares. According to some shop owners, the increase in traffic congestion along these routes is bad for business. I personally extol the livability as well as financial benefits of street planning that caters more to patrons who arrive by foot, bike and public transit, rather than private car (see my research here and recent developments in Portland). However, some Plateau merchants claim that these street changes have so strongly impacted their businesses’ bottom line that many shops have already had to close.
“I’m dying here,” says Manny, who prefers not to use his real name lest the city retaliate. He has been retailing there for 35 years. “We’re all dying.”
Buffeted by recession, rising taxes, climbing rents, proliferating big-box stores with their free parking, and now, new traffic-calming measures, similar to what Toronto instituted in some neighbourhoods more than a dozen years ago, shopkeepers say they’re fighting for their lives. The merchants’ association said Friday that business has dropped as much as 35 per cent for some stores over the last two years.
Regardless of which side of this debate you fall, from an outsider’s perspective, at least, it’s easy to see that what Mayor Ferrandez is doing would likely be impossible were he not running a fairly independent borough when it comes to transportation planning. He is, in relative terms, trying to create a bike city in the Plateau, and willing to accept the congestion-causing consequences this has on the area’s arterial streets. If he had to answer to city councillors or mayors from neighbouring boroughs – the same ones whose constituents would be complaining about increased travel times through the Plateau – then he may have faced more obstacles to implementing his plan.
Transplant the scenario to Toronto and it’s certainly not news to anyone that we have a City Council largely divided by previous borough lines. Former City of Toronto councillors are typically pro-pedestrian, pro-bike and pro-transit, yet they’re outnumbered by suburban councillors and so we see bike lane projects die, transit service expansion halted, and pedestrian projects cut – not to mention the countless other areas of municipal governance in which downtown councillors typically differ in their position from their suburban counterparts.
I’d say there is hope. Last week’s series of events showed us that suburban councillors, and supposed allies of the mayor, can surprise us by arriving at their vote based on facts and figures.
It’s a dreamy trip to imagine what the central city could look like today, as far as having a great city in which to walk, bike and take transit, were it more like the Plateau in terms of its governance. But would this bike city be great? What would a metro region look like with a completely bike-friendly centre surrounded by a car-centric suburban ring? I’d say that ideally we could show the merits and garner support to ensure that every community would feel safe to bike in – a true bike network from the downtown to the far suburban fringes. But in whose lifetime would that be a realistic goal?
photo: Google Maps