While many cities throughout North America are adding bike lanes to reduce congestion and encourage carbon neutral transit, at least one city is doing the very opposite. As the 9th greenest city in the US and Canada according to the Siemens’ Green Index, Toronto seems an unlikely candidate for reversion to more automobile lanes, but that’s precisely what the city council has voted to do. To those familiar with the local politics, however, the move may not come as a surprise. Tensions between motorists and cyclists have been strained in recent months, exacerbated by polarizing statements made by a handful of city councilors and the recently elected mayor, Rob Ford. But is such a deliberate move away from sustainable initiatives a cause for concern, or can it safely be dismissed as temporary political farce?
Upon closer examination, we find that sustainability does play a part in the rhetoric of the debate, even for bike lane opponents. A Toronto cyclist, who was particularly displeased with the removal of bike lanes from Jarvis Street, voiced his concerns to city officials in June of this year. In response, he received the following email from Mayor Rob Ford:
Toronto’s economy loses billions of dollars every year from gridlock and traffic congestion. We need to make the situation better – not worse. The Jarvis Street bike lanes experiment has been a failure. Ninety-four percent of commuters now face longer commutes on Jarvis Street. Over 15,000 commuters each day are suffering from longer travel times, for the sake of 600 additional cyclists.
The City should remove the bike lanes as soon as possible and improve travel times for thousands of daily commuters. City staff have been directed to develop a low-cost plan to do so. Bike lanes were never intended to be installed on Jarvis Street. The original Environmental Assessment recommended against installing bike lanes – but City Council amended the report to approve bike lanes anyway.
The mayor’s defense appears to be structured as follows: bike lanes have increased congestion rather than alleviated it, the vast majority of Toronto’s commuters are still motorists, and the lanes may prove incompatible with the recommendations of the environmental assessment. His first argument, while unsubstantiated in this email, does raise a few interesting questions about the growing pains a city faces upon embracing bike lanes. If indeed motorist congestion is worsened in the short-term, does that not serve to increase rather than decrease carbon emissions? To what extent is the inconvenience of increased travel time for motorists an intended consequence? Does this effectively act as a non-monetary tax on the mode of transport?
The mayor’s second point has less philosophical value and is almost indefensible. Simply catering to the majority of residents may prove more valuable politically, but it is neither ethically nor logically sound. It is, in fact, the reason we have a representative rather than direct democracy: the rights and interests of the minority must be protected. What makes this situation particularly absurd is that the act of cycling benefits the whole community, not just the minority, with cleaner air. Moreover, if the mayor is correct in suggesting that the Jarvis bicycle lanes are responsible for removing up to 600 cars from the road each day, I would consider that an extraordinary achievement—far from a failure.
The final argument regarding the recommendations of the environmental assessment could have held more weight, if only he had provided the details to support it. Curiously, he neglects to mention that the city intends to install bike lanes on a smaller parallel street, prior to their removal from the Jarvis thoroughfare. Such a move can be defended for a number of reasons, including the improved safety for cyclists. If the mayor’s claims regarding the environmental assessment are correct, then perhaps the commission determined the introduction of bike lanes on such a major thoroughfare to be counterproductive to the reduction of carbon emissions. Regrettably, the mayor makes no attempt to explain any of this, resorting only to divisive ideological rhetoric.
More so than the city council’s decision to remove the bike lanes, perhaps we should be more concerned at the absence of constructive dialogue between the parties involved. Rather than constructively engaging the cycling community in solving the city’s transportation woes, Mayor Ford seems to express only disdain for their “minority” interests. Rather than respecting the vital role of they play in reducing the city’s carbon footprint, cyclists are treated with hostility, and in some cases, suspicion. While it appears there may be some logic to the city council’s plans, perhaps benefitting cyclists and motorists alike, there is seemingly no attempt at communicating these shared values and ideals to the public. Indeed, the collapse of constructive dialogue will always prove more damaging to the sustainability movement than the removal of any single bike lane. Toronto’s greatest problem may not be transportation, but a deficit of political and social leadership for good.