Any lingering hope that Rob Ford was committed to making biking safer in this city all but died Thursday, when Ford's allies on the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee voted to remove three of the city's bike lanes, including a heavily-trafficked one on Jarvis St.
If City Council approves the move, Toronto could have 8 km fewer bike lanes at the end of 2011 than we did a year ago.
Committee chair and Ford point man Denzil Minnan-Wong will tout the Committee's vote to move ahead with a network of separated bike lanes downtown, but bike activists were left reeling by a surprise vote to scrap the lanes on Jarvis, an aggressive motion that few saw coming.
"Today is an extremely disappointing day for cycling advocacy and public safety in general in Toronto," said the Toronto Cyclists Union's Andrea Garcia. "I think it sends a strong message that City Hall is not interested in prioritizing cycling."
Bike traffic on Jarvis has tripled since the lanes were installed last year, and meanwhile car traffic has only been mildly affected. Many saw Jarvis as proof cars and bikes could successfully share the road in Toronto.
Perhaps even more troubling than the shredded bike plan that will go to City Council on July 12 is the way it came about. The Jarvis bike lanes weren't even on the committee's agenda, but were added in the final stages of the meeting by Councillor John Parker. Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, in whose ward the Jarvis lanes fall, said that an apologetic Parker came to her five minutes before the vote and told her he was going to move to kill the Jarvis lanes. Wong-Tam believes he was given orders to do so, but she stopped short of pointing the finger at the mayor.
"I think it's very disrespectful and extremely unprofessional. I would never go into his ward without speaking to him first. So I'm just shocked that he's done it," Wong-Tam said. "I'm not going to hold that against Councillor Parker. He probably was doing what he was instructed to do. Someone gave him orders from higher above and he did it."
Parker denied the mayor had intervened on Jarvis, but Ford told reporters midday that he was going to nix the street's bike lanes, well before any motion to do so had been introduced.
The ironies here abound. The committee hand-picked by Ford, for whom "the taxpayer's always right" is mantra, didn't consult the local councillor who represents the people most affected by removing the Jarvis lanes. In fact, the Fordists expressly voted against community consultation, voting down a motion put forth by Mike Layton suggesting the lanes shouldn't be removed until the community had a chance to register their views.
Perhaps worse, Minnan-Wong couldn't provide a figure for how much it will cost to remove the Jarvis lanes. And although the staff found they didn't negatively affect car traffic, the committee also voted to remove 6 km of bike lanes on Birchmount Rd. and Pharmacy Ave. in Scarborough, at an estimated cost $210,000.
Although local Councillor Michelle Berardinetti disputes that figure, it's undeniable that Ford's committee voted to remove these lanes before they knew how much doing so would cost, which is exactly the kind of thing the mayor vowed he wouldn't allow when he was campaigning as the fiscally-responsible antidote to David Miller. Toronto taxpayers are about to spend more money to end up with less cycling infrastructure.
And the bad news doesn't stop there. The committee also voted to put an end to the project studying bike lanes on Bloor Street, the long-sought crown jewel of Toronto cycling infrastructure that supporters say is a natural East-West route but remains dangerous for bikers. Little rationale was given for this decision, and it appears this too came from somewhere higher up. Many believe that city staff (who recommended the study in the first place) has been put under political pressure to nix bike plans for Bloor Street.
The committee did push through plans to design separated bike lanes on Harbord-Hoskin and Beverley Street, but incredibly those were the two streets where staff advised separated lanes should not be installed. Harbord-Hoskin received significant cycling upgrades in 2010 and even without separated lanes is one of the safest biking routes in the city. The money's better spent elsewhere.
Installing separated bike lanes on Beverley would require the removal of left-turn lanes and all on-street parking, which could well provoke howling backlash from local residents. The cynical among us might believe Minann-Wong floated the plan knowing it will never be implemented.
Cycling advocates are left clinging to a pilot project to put separated bike lanes on Richmond Street next spring, and a temporary separated lane on the Bloor Viaduct slated for later this year. The latter project will only last until winter however, when it will be removed to accommodate snowplows.
The committee also directed city staff to continue the process of developing a downtown separated bike lane network, but after the stunt pulled Thurday to kill the Jarvis lanes, this administration will have a hard time convincing the cycling community it intends to follow through on those plans in good faith.
If the theatrics at Thursday's meeting taught us anything, it's that the decision to name the 2011 edition of Toronto's bike blueprint the "Mayor's Bike Plan" was an apt one. This plan is Ford's, and Ford's alone. It hardly reflects anything recommended the cycling experts on city staff, nor by the city's cycling advocacy groups.
In some instances even the almighty taxpayer, who we were told would reign supreme in Fordland, has also been shut out. Berardinetti convinced the committee to back removing the Scarborough lanes on the grounds that her constituents say they tie up traffic. The voters have spoken, she said. That's in sharp contrast to the residents of downtown's Ward 27, who were given no chance to weigh in on the fate of the Jarvis lanes.
The preferential treatment given to suburban voters flies in the face of the idea that Ford wants to be a mayor for all Torontonians, as if we needed more proof of that lie after his decision not to march in the Pride Parade. No, it appears Ford intends to govern as he campaigned: divisively, with little thought for anyone outside of his suburban, conservative, heteronormative, car-driving base. He's made a fool of anyone who dared think otherwise.
The updated bikeway network plan will go before City Council for approval on July 12.