In an odd twist, bike lanes are becoming one of the hottest issues in the Toronto election campaign.
When a proposal to put a lane down University Avenue surfaced this week, Councillor Rob Ford predicted a "traffic nightmare." Former deputy premier George Smitherman called for a time out on bike lanes. Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti said that if (saints preserve us) he became mayor, removing new bike lanes would be the first thing he would do. Only left-leaning Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone seems favourably disposed. But the topper came from Rocco Rossi, the former Liberal organizer, who called it "sheer madness" to take two lanes of University away from cars.
Them's strong words for an idea as modest and tentative as this. The city's proposal has yet to get through the public works committee, much less pass city council. It calls for an experiment with bike lanes on University between Richmond Street West in the south and Hoskin and Wellesley streets in the north. The lanes would run along the inside of University next to the broad gardened median in the centre. Bikes would be separated from car traffic by standing posts.
This, understand, is only a trial. The lanes would be in place for three months this summer to see how they work. Traffic engineers say they expect little or no impact on traffic on University.
Yet to listen to Mr. Rossi, the lanes would be the end of urban civilization as we know it. He says it is a "democratic insult" to the voters to move ahead with bike lanes when they are a major issue in the campaign (though he's the one who's making them one).
Why the over-the-top reaction to such a small and sensible idea? Sad to say, the reasons are purely political. Our ranting candidates are trying to ride what they see as a wave of suburban anger over Mayor David Miller's administration. For those who love to loathe Mr. Miller, bike lanes represent all the sins of an administration that favours pedal-happy downtowners over the ordinary guy fighting his way to work through traffic. They are nothing short of a conspiracy - the infamous "war on the car" - to rob motorists of their fundamental rights.
You expect this sort of rot from the likes of Mr. Ford and Mr. Mammoliti, who have always aimed their pitch at the cheesed-off suburban little guy. But to hear it come from the likes or Mr. Smitherman and Mr. Rossi is weird. Mr. Smitherman is a condo-dwelling downtowner who boasts about his role in championing environmental causes in the Ontario government. What is greener than bike lanes? Mr. Rossi is an avid cyclist and former head of the Heart and Stroke Foundation, an organization that encourages people to get out of their cars and walk or cycle for the sake of their health.
His campaign against big-street bike lanes is pandering of the worst kind, a naked attempt by an old political operative to whip up the kind of resentments that can motivate voters. And what a silly issue to whip them up over. Toronto is way behind other cities in encouraging commuting by bike. The city's bike-lane network, if you can call it that, is little more than painted lines on pavement. Of the 500 kilometres of bike lanes planned in a 2001 cycling strategy, only 110 have been built.
The University plan is a belated half-step forward. Commuters tell pollsters they would be more likely to bike to work if they could travel on dedicated bike planes as cyclists do in many cities in North America and Europe.
Montreal has a good system of separated lanes. San Francisco put in its first separated lanes this winter. Even car-mad New York has had a separate bike lane on Ninth Avenue for two years. Separated lanes won't work everywhere in Toronto. Most downtown main streets are too narrow and some have to accommodate streetcars. But, University, a broad avenue running four lanes each way, is the perfect place to try them out.
Congestion and pollution are big problems for a booming city such as Toronto. Getting more people to ride their bikes by building an intelligently planned system of bike lanes helps address both problems. A forward-looking candidate for mayor would embrace the University trial, not exploit it to fuel his campaign and pit cyclist against motorist once again.