I'll admit I wasn't sure how I felt about putting myself between a city councillor and a roomful of cyclists.
But Torontonians are skilled at sublimation if nothing else, and the crowd at the NOW Bike Forum (April 11) was especially likely to have burned off any excess tension on the way.
And anyway, there was a buffer of biker panelists. Tanya Quinn (known to bloggers as Crazy Biker Chick), Darren Stehr of Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists, Wayne Scott of Hoof and Cycle Transport Guild and pun-happy activist Hamish Wilson joined Ward 18 councillor Adam Giambrone and pedestrian and cycling infrastructure manager Dan Egan.
We'd come together at the NOW Lounge to tackle the question of whether we're losing the fight for a bikeable city - and to mull over the problem of promoting a mode of transit that's ethically urgent but politically unpopular.
"The city doesn't look at cycling as a genuine form of transportation," said Scott. "The idea seems to be that cycling is a vote loser. But I don't think we're losing; it's inevitable." Trust a cyclist to be cynical and hopeful in the same breath - it's a survival skill.
Velo activists recently got sand in their bearings over frozen funding for bike infrastructure. Giambrone, former head of the cycling committee, isn't worried. "The Bike Plan has been stalled more due to political malaise than funding," he said, admitting that T.O. should be spending at least twice as much as it is on cycling. But he does see some hope in the additional planners council recently approved.
Egan, too, believes things are looking up. "There's been a real sea change at City Hall in the last year, and we in staff feel that all the way down from senior management."
Still, it's in no way guaranteed that staff empowered by an urban executive will overcome suburban debris in the political lane. And both Giambrone and Egan seemed to have come partly to rally cyclists themselves.
"You can move parking all along Bloor in Ward 18 for bike paths," said Giambrone. "Would people be angry? Yeah. Can you make every decision like that? Probably not, but you can certainly decide to do things that are somewhat unpopular [with motorists and some store owners] if that's what you need to do. Councillors who get 67 per cent of the vote [as Giambrone did] need to get that sort of confidence."
It almost seemed he was dropping a hint: get noisey now. The experience of a participant named Paul who was involved in the successful push for a Dundas East bike lane made the point.
While prior proposals faced stiff opposition, "the difference was community organizing," he said. "There are a lot of people out there with rusty bikes in the basement. If you create a bit of a movement, there's more support." He also pointed out that while Business Improvement Areas have staff to help them organize, cyclists don't.
Egan agreed. "Dundas East was really interesting. The traffic implications were greater than most projects," he said. "If the community is behind it, it makes it easier. Whether staff should lead that, that's a good question."
He wondered aloud about city funding for advocacy groups, pointing out that staff in Chicago have a "good relationship" with the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation. "That might be a model to look at for Toronto." It might indeed. Staff are just as able as councillors to facilitate consultations, but are freer to find consensus across communities since they don't worry about getting elected.
Building on ground-level conversation gives decisions sustainability; they won't just be overturned as soon as the electoral pendulum swings back. And there'd be less worry about propping up councillors' careers just to reach a desired goal, or about councillors acting unilaterally.
Of course, there is the danger of the grassroots being used as a way to shirk responsibility. "Cyclists ask for something new and we're told, 'No, it's not in the Bike Plan,'" said Stehr. "We ask for something that is in the Bike Plan and we're told, 'No, it's not possible.' Politicians will blame cyclists for not being vocal enough, but when we are vocal they label us extremists."
But progressive councillors have a similar quandary. If they push things through without wide consultation, they're accused of being undemocratic. If they do consult, they're accused of not taking leadership.
"We've had too many projects stall," Stehr said. "We go to the public and there's opposition. Even a mild outcry and the councillor gets cold feet and pulls back." He confided to the audience that many projects have gone under simply because cyclists haven't organized, while over-cautious merchants and motorists have.
"Cyclists are a very resourceful bunch,' said Quinn. "They don't need infrastructure to get them out. Toronto streets are relatively bike-friendly by the way they're designed."
She's right: the network is great - there are just all these cars in the way. But Kensington's car-free Sundays show we just have to do what makes sense. And maybe ride in groups. Oh, and maybe signal your turns. It's only polite.
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Councillor Adam Giambrone on LRT and cycling
Dan Egan, Mgr. Pedestrian and Cycling Infrastructure, on community organizing
Tanya Quinn, crazybikerchick.blogspot.com, on cars, urban design, bikes