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How to fan the flames of the fake War on the Car in Toronto

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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.



  1. As it happens, I sometimes use Wellesley to bike to work. I go after the morning rush (between 9:30 and 10:30 usually) and go westbound starting at Parliament. It is a very rare occurence when I’m not part of group of two or three bikes by the time we hit Jarvis. (The super long and rather underutilised light at Jarvis helps.) I thus call BS on his claim of a lone biker.

    And by the way, yes, it is fun to blow by idling cars at speed. Somewhat dangerous, but oh so fun.

  2. Bravo, Shawn.

    When can we expect your follow-up piece decrying the rhetoric of pro-cycling extremists?

    (You know, the ones who are always on about drivers willfully slaughtering thousands of cyclists and spewing trillions of tons of Earth-destroying carbon dioxide every second. Yeah. Those people.)

    Maybe if BOTH sides stuck to the facts, a reasonable conversation could begin.

  3. Shawn I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said. I’ve been walking down Wellesley during rush hour every day since March 2008. The traffic was horrible before the bike lanes were installed, and it doesn’t seem to be any worse now. The bike lanes have been very heavily used, and they’ve prompted me to consider getting a bike myself.

    I often wonder where all that traffic on Wellesley is coming from. Nearby on Carlton the traffic flows much more smoothly. I’m constantly in awe that drivers coming from Jarvis and the DVP (via Parliament), who seem to make up the majority of the traffic, don’t drive a couple of blocks further south and save themselves the hassle. A lot of the time I can out-walk the Wellesley bus to the subway.

    It’s pretty frustrating that suburbanites are competely clogging up the street and severely impacting the local transit service for those that actually live there. The least they can do is let us have a couple of bike lanes.

  4. Diane> Never been a supporter of over-the-top rhetoric from the pro-bike lobby as well. I think we’ve (or I’ve) called it out here before, in the comments (also calling out, in general, bad cyclists who blow through open streetcar doors and etc). Haven’t seen a mainstream media piece extolling the extremist cycling POV though.

  5. Uh, Dianne… vehicle collisions are the leading cause of childhood deaths in the world, and vehicles are the single most significant cause of CO2 emissions, which is… bad. Since you are offended by facts, please get your incurious pro-car suburban-centric spin elsewhere than an urban spaces blog; I won’t look to GM for solutions to the mess we are in. Deal?

  6. As someone said to me the other day, there is no war on the car. There is a war on choice. If you don’t have the choice to take reliable transit, a safe bike lane, or drive car, ou’ll take the easiest and most dominant mode.

    Free market supporters like Minnan Wong and Ootes should support bike lanes: care have a monopoly on road space and resources. In order to give more freedom to our citizens, build the infrastructure for them.

    It should also be noted that 50% of Toronto residents OWN a bike. Bike sales have outpaced cars sales for 3 years now in North America. Its not like people don’t want to bike….

    Lastly, a point that is often made by anti-bike lane advocates: if bikers want lanes they should pay for them by lisenses. This is a totally misguided POV since lisenses only go towards highways which cyclists cannot legally use. Secondly, you’ll find that a decent majority of bike commuters are renters. And as John Lorinc pointed out the other day in his post here on Spacing, renters pay 3 to 4 times as much in a percentage of property taxes than home owners do. In essence, cyclists pay more for the roads than drivers. Cyclists get short changed.

    So this war on cars is just Karl Rove type of electioneering. Pick a wedge, give it a good moniker, and don’t let up on it. Sadly, even progressive minded folks like Hepburn can get sucked into it and don’t take the time to analyze the logistics of the situation.

  7. And Shawn, don’t pander to the Diannes or confuse the vehicle with the human. Let’s assume the same proportion of jerks cycle as drive: I’d rather be hit by a bike than a car, I’d rather smell a bike than a car, I’d rather live in a society which needs to extract resources for bikes than for cars, and I’d rather navigate a streetscape designed for bikes than for cars.

  8. James> No panders — even if one believes what you say, it’s completely unhelpful to use that kind of language. Like it or not you live in a political world where to get things done you need to win over the hearts and minds of a lot of people — blunt-force-rhetoric, from any direction, doesn’t help.

  9. @Adam: I, too, walk down Wellesley every morning; and I’ve noticed that the biggest bottlenecks are west of Yonge St. Furthermore, it appears that many of the cars are coming southbound off of Avenue Rd and heading east. This high volume of drivers is further delayed OTHER DRIVERS (ie, not cyclists) making right- and left-hand turns onto Bay st and Yonge streets. The closest mode-conflict is the high number of pedestrians crossing at Yonge and Wellesley, but, again, this has nothing to do with bikes.

  10. Metro is mainstream? 🙂

    I think you’re taking issue with the 2nd Paragraph in the story you link to — the tone is a bit moral sure, and she generalizes too much (“cars have been terrifying cyclists” — some do, but not all, and sure, some cyclists are terrified of all cars, even the ones driven by good, conscientious drivers) but nothing in it is like the false picture that Hepburn paints in his column re: the disaster on wellesley.

  11. A long time ago, Wellesley east of Yonge didn’t have left-turn lanes laid out. Ambitious drivers would form a double row of cars. This always got interesting when either there was a parked car or a left-turning car in the way.

    The left-turn lanes went in sometime in the later ’80s. Since then, it’s been pretty much single-lane, backed-up traffic (as opposed to Rome-style, anarchic, two-squeezed-lane backed-up traffic).

    Back around 1990, it was often quicker to walk to the subway from Sherbourne than to take the bus, which was stuck in all the unmoving cars. So not a heck of a lot has changed.

  12. I take it the the commenter above thinks that in order to be mainstream you have to support cars? I thought mainstream would be providing a rationale argument which Shawn clearly has.

    While the Metro article embraces a ‘war on cars’ — a term I don’t like and prefer the war on choice some councillors are enflaming — her reasoning is dead-on. Bikes do nothing but improve the quality of life at the street level, improves air quality, makes us healthier, etc.

    The ‘war’ is about allocation of space. And the biggest war is between car drivers themselves, as Shawn has mentioned. Bikes are just a lazy excuse for drivers to play when they forget that its all the other drivers who are taking away their space.

  13. Shawn, okay, well if by “mainstream” we mean the Star and the Sun, you can still find much rhetoric, albeit enclosed in quotes within articles about Critical Mass and the like.

    And I really don’t have anything to say specific to the situation on Wellesley. I don’t take that route, by either car or bike, so it’s not for me to say.

    My mode is transit-plus-walking. If there were more (and more useful) bike lanes, I could go transit-plus-cycling, which I consider a good thing in general.

  14. “James, check your facts, please.” Dianne… what?! Oh, that was you have totally disproving my point?

    Shawn, I wish we lived in a world where winning over people’s hearts and minds to do right was easier for us than the larger interests winning over their hearts and minds for the status quo. Wish I had your faith, not my despair.

  15. Just a thought, but perhaps Wellesley is sometimes more congested than Carlton as it could be seen as a bit of a “cruising” street, similar to Church (amongst the gays) and Yonge (amonst the straights). I don’t think I’m on to much here, but maybe it explains it a tad.

  16. Jason I hardly think that’s an issue during the weekday rush hour. And most of the congestion is east of Jarvis where the cruising is unlikely to occur regardless.

  17. And, James, regarding your assertion that “vehicles are the single most significant cause of CO2 emissions”, well, it depends on how you subdivide everything that is not a vehicle.

    Most sources claim 40-45% of CO2 emissions arise from power generation while only 30-35% is from transportation.

    Here’s a breakdown wherein ALL liquid fuels combined (not just gasoline) barely edge out solid fuels or gaseous fuels, meaning that vehicles are far less of a contributor that you claim:

  18. The thing I find gets left out of these discussions is how much cars slow down traffic. I regularly see cars stopped in the middle of intersections and parked under “no stopping” signs on busy streets, not to mention the occasional accidents, even fender-benders, that can tie up traffic for blocks.

    I’d think most drivers would want fewer cars on the road. If people who are able to bike to work can do so safely and conveniently, that leaves space on the TTC. If the TTC becomes a more attractive option, more people might leave their car at home. Which, in turn, will make driving more pleasant for those who need to do so.

  19. I feel Hepburn chose a poor example in Welelsley. No lane was removed for bikes, and the narrowing of the existing one lane had no impact on traffic flows. I live right off Wellesley, East of Jarvis, and I’ve used bus, bike and car to get to and from UT. During am and pm rush, cars crawl due to high volumes and busy intersections. Hepburn implies that more car lanes will improve traffic floes, but he disregards, or is unaware of induced demand. Greater supply will always generate greater demand.

    I fly by when I ride my bike, able to bypass the long queue forming at intersections. The only occasional problem is the delivery truck blocking the bike lane, in which case I signal, quickly slip onto the car lane, matching or exceeding car speeds, pass the truck and return to my lane. I don’t understand what the fuss is about. As long as each vehicle keeps to its dedicated lane there are no problems.

    As for the CO2 thread, no contest. Cars have high emissions – bikes have, for all intenets and purposes, none.

  20. Funny. I also wrote to Hepburn about his errors of fact and logic, and I got the same copy-and-paste reply. It’s pretty infuriating, really. He has this huge public platform and he uses it to drag down the level of discourse with a useless column full of falsehoods and based on no research at all. I have to wonder what goes through newspaper columnists’ heads when they publish stuff like this.

  21. Lots of good points made in this discusson:

    1) We don’t know when Hepburn was doing his driving, or how long he was on Wellesley, but it’s virtually impossible that he only saw one cyclist if he was “stuck in traffic”.

    2) As Emanuel (right above my comment) states, Wellesley is *exactly* the same as it was before, except with a bikelane… they did not reduce the number of carlanes, nor eliminate left turn lanes.

    3) The only place the bikelane stops before an intersection that has any real impact is at Jarvis… BUT, a few weeks ago the city added lots of “sharrows” to this intersection – showing cyclists where they should ride, as well as giving drivers a large visual cue.

    Wellesley is just about perfect as far as bikelanes go downtown – it makes cyclists feel safer, it encourages people to bike (as mentioned above), and from a driver’s perspective, it hasn’t reduced car capacity.

  22. I think jameasmallon can fan the flames of the war on cars just fine, and anyone with a differing opinion isn’t permitted on what he thinks is his blog on urban issues (read: kill drivers).

  23. The biggest problem in these debates that there is no credible and impartial study methodolgy that identify the conditions of the street both before and after.

    Without this information, it simply degrades into car driver “opinions and experiences” versus non-car “opinions and experiences”. And no real progress.

    If there was a better focus on collecting different kinds of statistics about street life, neighbourhood characteristics, and city activity (like amounts of seating, pedestrian behaviour, time spent shopping, locations of benches, water fountains, etc), instead of always focusing on car volumes and speeds, then perhaps the benefits of re-designing city streets and public spaces would be clearer.

    If a business owner can be shown factual proof that removing on-street parking spaces actually resulted in an increase of pedestrian traffic and additional sidewalk cafe space (and thus more revnue), then there would be more incentive for businesses and residents to champion various street improvement projects.

    Jan Gehl’s studies of city life have some excellent methodology for documenting pedestrian activity and behaviour on city streets.

  24. Diane – if 30% of deaths of children from injuries are caused by road accidents (most of which, by sheer probability involve a car) then something needs to change. We cant solve all diseases and poverty issues, but we can solve Torontonian car issues. KIDS DYING = BAD.

    Nitpicking about the accuracy of an internet forum statement makes you seem belligerent and rude – waiting for a fight. If you have a philosophical retort to the argument between cars and bikes and the “war”, then make it. If you want an argument about facts regarding bikes and cars, then go to statisticians. “Facts is facts”

    Cars create pollution in their manufacture, maintenance, use and disposal. Bikes create less. If fewer cars were used, then fewer are manufactured. The processes from mining to disposal would be lessened. There would be less pollution over all.

    Cars hit people with about 2000 kg (regular car) and 40 km/h (city speed limit). Bikes hit people with a max of 200 kg (heavy dude on a heavy bike) and 30 km/h (bloody fast in the city). Bike speed is inversely proportional to mass. Physics means that car injury is worse than bike injury.

    Anyway, congratulations on linking to pages without explanation. You haven’t changed anyone’s perspective, and you’ve provided a post-thesis cathartic release.

  25. “I’d think most drivers would want fewer cars on the road.”

    Excellent point, Ryan. But you’re failing to factor in stupidity.

  26. Oh and about that vast differential in tax rates of owners v. renters again. What about condo owners – how do they fare?

    This policy seems to be diametrically opposed to the city’s stated densification policies. The issue would seem to merit a thorough investigation. Is Spacing up to it?

  27. “…expanding suburbs and LESS cars on the road…”

    That should be FEWER cars on the road.

    The nit is now picked. 🙂

  28. @Dave it seems that even from a car’s perspective that Hepburn was misleading his readers.

    I don’t know — things like this column, I think, are one reason why the mainstream media is going down the pot. Too lazy for somebody who gets paid to write.

  29. Thanks for this piece Shawn – my thoughts exactly.
    You were just the right person to publish this response and I am grateful to all the excellent writers at Spacing for their ongoing considered and thoughtful contributions to this discourse.

  30. The Spacing wire comments come alive again after a pretty slow spring. Great comments. Two thoughts….

    1. Not all cars are from the suburbs and in fact some of the worst offenders of driving 2 blocks to the store live downtown on my street. I have some neighbors who I have never seen walk anywhere.

    2. People always remember the “good old days” before some change that they opposed. Like St. Clair was perfect before the ROW when in fact it was chaos for everybody or how there is no parking anymore like there used to be before they _________. Sometimes people even do this before the change as happened at Dundas West where some people opposed the Giraffe development because street parking was “hard to find” when even the president of the local BIA said there was zero parking problems at all.

    Shawn I praise you for this one.

  31. If you want to fix the overall “problem” with Wellesley, you might as well also widen it in its eastern extremity and connect it with the DVP, and make a direct diagonal connection with Hoskin through Queen’s Park in the west. And perhaps extend Harbord westward to connect up with Howard Park while you’re at it.

    I’m too deadpan for smileys.

  32. Diane reminds me of that kid in high school who loved to argue every individual detail but overall really missed the point.

    But then that describes a lot of people. So I’m glad she has to time and inclination to step in and bring some healthy debate to the proceedings.

  33. Does anyone remember the craziness on Spadina before the streetcar ROW? Somehow the world continued.

    Two excellent points about traffic were raised: 1) traffic blockages caused by people who decided to stop where they’re not supposed to and block a lane, maybe the bike lane, and slow everyone down, 2) many of the worst driving offenders are not the hordes of invading barbarians from the suburbs, but your own neighbours, who just HAVE to drive to that Tim’s drive-through, or to get their Starbucks Venti latte, or to buy their pack of smokes, when any of these places might be only a 10 minute walk.

    And as for Mr. Hepburn: he thrives on stirring things up. Every year he calls for the abolition of Victoria Day being named after Queen Vicky.

  34. Liz, the whole point of this thread is to discuss Shawn’s point that there is too much rhetoric clouding the supposed issue of “cars vs. bikes”.

    Shawn very aptly pointed out an example of such rhetoric on the part of Toronto Star columnist Bob Hepburn. I responded by pointing out the same on the part of Metro News’ April Lindgren, and later in the thread, on the part of “jamesmallon”.

    I have clearly stated both my position and my reasons for taking that position. If you feel that makes me “belligerent and rude” – well, I suppose I should thank you for further proving my point.

  35. Diane, you note: “Liz, the whole point of this thread is to discuss Shawn’s point that there is too much rhetoric clouding the supposed issue of “cars vs. bikes”.

    Shawn very aptly pointed out an example of such rhetoric on the part of Toronto Star columnist Bob Hepburn. I responded by pointing out the same on the part of Metro News’ April Lindgren”

    Let’s see if the Metro article is rhetoric.

    “The fact is, cars have been polluting the air, running down people, terrifying cyclists, destroying neighbourhoods, facilitating sprawl and otherwise wreaking havoc on the city for decades. The time has come to fight back.”

    Polluting air? One of the leading causes.

    Running down people? Check on that. Certainly, I’ve been hit TWICE in the middle of the city by inattentive drivers. This is hardly unusual.

    Terrifying cyclists? Not sure, I don’t ride much. But, certainly, I see nothing extraordinarily outrageous in this claim.

    Neighbourhood destruction? Yes, examples all over North America.

    Sprawl? The amount of sprawl that exists would be near impossible and certainly impractical without a car.

    Unless it’s something else that bothers you with that article?

    In comparison, Bob’s article is basically a giant falsehood – blame the bike for traffic on a street which saw ZERO capacity reduction. Bob is mad at the traffic jams in the city and is blaming it on the cyclists. Sorry, the drivers have nobody to blame for the jams but themselves.

  36. Speaking of cars blocking traffic, I would be very interested in an aerial-view study that could track identical cars looping the streets looking for cheap parking. It’s there, I know it, and each of those cars probably has a magnified effect since they are 1) driving the same street repeatedly, 2) looking at the curb, not where they’re driving, and 3) making lots of turns, slows, and stops.

  37. Yes, but Diane, the point isn’t whether the dude got his particular facts (numbers, stats, etc) correct, the point (1) is that it’s not about “a war on the car” & accompanying rhetoric, it’s that bikes pollute less, kill less, and improve people’s health more, than cars do (does this really need to be proven by stats?), so it should be made easier to choose to bike.
    The other point (2) is that there needs to be better choices made in city planning to improve transportation for all; because, as many have mentioned, if the city is built better for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit, then there will be fewer cars on the road, which will be better for cars that need to be there.

  38. “…expanding suburbs and less cars on the road,” should be FEWER cars;
    “…when a reporter/columnist uses words like ‘disaster’ and ‘war’ as loose as Hepburn did,” adverb should be LOOSELY.

    If Spacing aims to be a magazine worthy of national recognition (per its NMA nom this year), the least it can do is copy edit.

  39. My god. I’ve been following these comments and, really, what is big deal with ‘Diane’? Surely you must see her point and recognize it has some validity. Justified or not, there is an animosity towards cars from some (many?) cyclists. Shawn’s piece here is really about a specific article written by a cage-rattler, and he does a very good job in pointing out the falsities in the argument that the bike lane on Wellesley has made car traffic more congested. We (Spacing-ists) all agree. Diane, I think, is just pointing out that this issue is a bit of a two-way street (har har): there’s a segment of the cycling population that see themselves as ‘urban guerrillas’ believing that cycling, in and of itself, is inherently good, and there’s a whole pile of ‘green’ marketing to back them up. Sure, cycling produces less emissions, etc… but often find myself thinking, “Fuck off. Cycling does not have to be an ideology.” And speaking of ideology… uh… I’ll just say that ideology occurs when something becomes true, and when something is accepted as true, we should all be suspicious.

  40. Stickler – this is a volunteer effort – no budget for proof reading. Thanks for volunteering and fixing my typo. I need a proofreader. Want to volunteer and help proof more articles? Or was this a freebie? The NMA nomination was for our print mag – it has a few proofreaders.

    Mark- “cycling is not an ideolgy” is a
    good way of putting it – like anything ideological, it’s euphoric for the converted, alienating to everybody else.

  41. Screw bikes and cars.

    When is Yonge Street going to get a Pedestrian lane?