The scene from a recent 'Critical Mass' bicycle demonstration in Toronto. via Flickr.
Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford is mostly famous for his (alleged) love of crack cocaine, but he's also well known for fearlessly fighting back against the “war on the car,” an imaginary battle he claimed to have won in 2010. This has taken the form of making sure all new public transit is built underground, so as to not offend the delicate sensibilities of motorists, and also taking a brave stance against the conventions of contemporary urban planning by ripping out bike lanes—instead of building new ones, like the rest of the civilized world.
Sure, the removal of those lanes might only save drivers two minutes in commuting time, and yes it cost the taxpayer $300,000, but the symbolism is the important part. How else will cyclists understand that it's their own fault when they get hit by cars if the city coddles them with luxurious bike lanes? Rob is just showing us cyclists some much-needed tough love.
Activist Taylor Flook didn't take Rob's life lessons to heart however, and after being sent to hospital following a bike accident, Taylor wrote ol’ Robbie an open letter, pleading with him to reconsider his apparent disdain for bike lanes and cyclists. The letter touched the mayor so much that he got one of his underlings to respond, helpfully explaining to Flook that if she thought the city was at fault for her accident that she should make an insurance claim. The staffer even ended the letter with “Best Wishes,” proof that Robbie really does care about everyone, even pinko bike-riding activists.
Of course it is possible that this was just another revolt by a Rob Ford staffer, and that the instructions on how to make a claim against the city were actually meant to embarrass our noble leader. That seems a little too nuanced though, considering that most of Ford's current staff appear to have been hired for their football skills.
It's not so surprising that Toronto is seemingly going in the opposite direction from the rest of the world when it comes to cycling infrastructure. Even bike-loving leftists like councilor Adam Vaughan seem to only love bike lanes when they don't infringe on their own pet projects (ie. his dream of a pedestrian mall in the middle of the entertainment district).
Elsewhere in Toronto, retailers are trying to stir up panic around how bike lanes might impact their businesses (because everyone knows cyclists don't shop). And when lanes actually do get built, they tend to disappear and reappear unpredictably to make room for parking, making some streets feel more dangerous than before they were improved.
At this point, the bike lanes in Toronto are so few and so badly designed that no experienced cyclists plan their routes around them, and they also do little to lure inexperienced urban cyclists onto the roads. If you're riding a bike in Toronto, it's been made very clear to you that you're on your own, which helps keep the myth of the war on the car alive by keeping the relationship between motorists and cyclists as antagonistic as possible.
When a car cuts me off in traffic, I think of the two people I've known who were crushed to death by trucks while cycling—and it's hard to keep the rage down. But then I remember Darcy Sheppard, who was dragged to his death after confronting a motorist who'd hit him from behind. Or Chris Kasztelewicz, who lost a leg after being deliberately rammed by a cab driver he'd yelled at following a more minor accident.
The war on the car is mostly a myth, but the war on cyclists feels tangibly real. Give the finger to someone who almost runs you off the road in their SUV, and there's a strong chance you’re going to end up in a fist-fight. Cyclists in Toronto have to learn how to keep their rage to themselves. I lost track of how many friends have been sent to the hospital after bike accidents (myself included) long ago.
Building more bike lanes wouldn't prevent all cycling accidents, but it might at least help change the mood on the streets a bit by reminding drivers that bikes actually do belong on the road too. On the other hand, some might argue that separated bike lanes send the opposite message. In NYC, at least one overzealous cop convinced himself that it's a crime for cyclists to ride anywhere but bike lanes. And just because there are nice separated lanes doesn't mean that they won't be blocked by garbage, construction, or parked cars.
Mayor Ford may slowly be changing his tune though. He did surprise everyone by showing up to cut the ribbon at an official opening of the new bike lanes on Sherbourne in June. This was especially shocking, given that the ceremony happened at 10:30 AM, and Robbie doesn't generally crawl into the office until noon on Mondays. Nevertheless, he still managed to emphasize that, in his mind, riding a bike is for the latte-sipping downtown elite, and not for the working class of the inner suburbs. Ford's whole genius is dividing the city into two factions, and claiming that he's fighting for the underdog. Everybody loves an underdog, and everyone wants to believe that they're the underdog worth fighting for.
But if bikes are just for big cities, why did I see so many separated lanes in the tiny Quebec mining town of Rouyn Noranda when visiting recently for a music festival? If a city of 40,000 people can justify the expense, surely Toronto can manage to add a few more kilometres to their network. Instead, plans made years ago remain uncompleted, and nothing new of substance is being proposed. Rather than standing up to Ford on this, the left wing of city council gets side tracked with battles over the details and make so many concessions to retailers over parking that any improvements are marginal at best.
Don't get me wrong, municipal political theatre is great fun, but this imaginary war on the car that’s supposedly being run by latte loving lefties is leading to actual casualties. Is shaving two minutes off your commute really worth killing cyclists? The answer to that question is obvious—and yet the city of Toronto’s pattern of urban development pretends like it’s not, time and time again.
Follow Ben on Twitter: @benjaminboles