This week City Hall was supposed to give us a solid foundation for a better biking infrastructure.
Instead the plan we got was a house of cards that will likely collapse bit by bit, brought down by the Ford administration's weapons of choice: budget cuts and poor planning.
Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong is the man the mayor put in charge of Toronto's bike plan, and he's a hard guy to peg.
When confronted by opponents he resorts to neither the truculent absenteeism of Rob Ford nor the machismo of Giorgio Mammoliti. To his credit, he speaks to his critics and sometimes looks genuine in his task of improving cycling infrastructure.
He surprised many activists and columnists, including this writer, by reaching out to skeptics with plans for a separated bike lane network downtown, the first of its kind in our cycle-crazy city core.
But virtually all the goodwill he had generated with that plan evaporated in a single evening in June when he ushered through a surprise motion to kill the Jarvis bike lanes, a shocker that reportedly came directly from the mayor's office.
The motion was moved by Ford's deputy speaker John Parker and few saw it coming, except maybe Minnan-Wong. When asked Tuesday if he knew beforehand there were last-minute plans to kill the Jarvis lanes, Minnan-Wong was mum. "That's was an arrangement between myself and Councillor Parker," he said.
The vote Wednesday killed not only the Jarvis lanes but also the possibility of bike lanes on Bloor, a project Toronto cyclists have been dreaming of for years. Council voted to end the Bloor Street environmental assessment, ensuring the $70,000 already spent on the bike lane feasibility study will go to waste. City staff gave no reason for their recommendation to end the Bloor EA, a strong indication bureaucrats penciled it in at the behest of the Ford administration.
Having allowed Ford to divest cyclists of two significant pieces of cycling infrastructure, Minnan-Wong is now asking for patience. Not one foot of the promised separated bike lane network will break ground in 2011, but the councillor has vowed to start delivering next year.
But if what's left of the bike plan is going to survive, it will have to make it through the gauntlet of the 2012 budgeting process. That became less likely than ever this week with the release of the Core Service Review, which found that bike infrastructure is among the few services provided by Public Works that are dispensable. The report is part of a major review of city services that will guide the Ford administration's 2012 budget, and it recommended "reducing the scale of bike infrastructure being developed" in the city.
Minnan-Wong has pledged to fight the mayor in order to keep all the separated lanes in the 2012 budget, but he could give no guarantees, saying "I'm going to continue on. Even if there was some level of cuts, we'd still be spending more on cycling infrastructure than (the previous administration did) in the last four years."
And in a climate where the city is floating ideas like laying off 500 police officers to bridge a projected $774-million shortfall, Minnan-Wong's chances of winning that fight must be considered bleak indeed. If Ford is willing to risk offending his base by going after perennial untouchables like the police, what are the odds he'll be at pains to avoid pissing off downtown bike-riders?
There is a very real possibility that at least some of the separated lane network will fall victim to budget cuts, and there are signs Minnan-Wong is preparing for that eventuality.
Ominously, he rejected a motion Wednesday that called for the Jarvis lanes to be removed "only after" work on new Sherbourne separated bike lanes had been completed. Minnan-Wong's amendment replaced that wording with the much more vague promise to "co-ordinate" the Jarvis removal with the Sherbourne project, a subtle change but one that will allow the city to remove the Jarvis lanes if Sherbourne is never finished.
Where things get really loopy however is that of all the places to start building separated bike lanes next year, Minnan-Wong has chosen two streets that the city's experts recommended were unsuitable: Harbord-Hoskin and St. George-Beverley. Even if these lanes survive the 2012 budget, they may never survive the planning and consultation phases.
After this week's council meeting, Toronto's bike plan is coming into shape and Minnan-Wong has all his ducks in a row. That could just make it easier for the mayor to shoot them down.