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marcus gee

Big changes could be coming to the way Toronto lives. A provincial government paper on climate change envisions a massive shift in how people get around. By 2050, says a draft climate change action plan unveiled in this newspaper, only 20 per cent of commuter trips would be by car. That turns the current numbers almost on their head. According to Statistics Canada, data from 2011 show that about 70 per cent of Toronto commuters got to work in a car.

Nothing in the city's recent political history suggests it is prepared for such transformation. The shift away from the motor vehicle will require not just a huge investment in public transit but a fundamental reshaping of the city. That, in turn, will require strong political leadership, an asset that so far has been sadly lacking.

Consider what happened at city council this week. Councillors spent a whole afternoon talking about installing a bike lane on a few blocks of Bloor Street West. As the frustrated Mayor John Tory put it, the idea is hardly revolutionary. Cycling advocates have been pushing it for decades.

Bloor Street runs right through the centre of the city, a major east-west roadway that makes an obvious route for bicycle commuting. Installing the lanes will cost about a half a million dollars, a pittance compared with the billions that go into road works and transit building. The lanes are being installed only as a pilot project, so city staff will have months to see how they work and whether they snarl car traffic or kill business on the street, as critics say they will.

Yet, councillors spent hours quarrelling over the idea before they finally gave a thumbs up. One, Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong, raised the terrifying spectre of bike-lane "creep."

"Are there going to be bike lanes on Danforth next?" he demanded. Another, Giorgio Mammoliti, called it an example of the "war on the car," a favourite slogan from the Rob Ford days.

Remember that, when it comes to promoting cycle commuting, Toronto is already far behind some other big cities. New York, Montreal and Chicago have built substantial networks of separated lanes. Toronto's has begun to take shape only in the past few years, with many gaps still remaining.

The bike-lane wrangle is just one example of how Toronto is hesitating as it confronts the challenge of ending the dominance of the automobile. Politicians at both the provincial and municipal level have balked at one obvious measure: imposing road tolls or road pricing. So far, they have rejected parking levies, too. Measures to increase urban density – a key to making transit more efficient and lowering reliance on the car – have been far short of what is needed. The downtown is much taller and denser than it once was, thanks to the condo and office-tower boom, and nodes of density are developing at big intersections such as Yonge and Eglinton, but most of this sprawling city remains laid out much as it was decades ago, designed and engineered for the car.

Any attempt to change that pattern always encounters heavy resistance. That push back helps explains the success of Rob Ford, who rode to city hall on a wave of suburban alienation. One reason that politicians are not bolder about taming the automobile is that they fear a Ford-style backlash.

Mr. Tory himself lives under that shadow. He has tried to straddle the city's divide on the issue of the automobile. He has worked to unsnarl traffic by cracking down on illegal rush-hour parking and trying to speed up road work. He also pushes for better transit, and on Friday he got some welcome help from Ottawa when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $840-million in funding. The mayor argues that the city must have both an expanded transit system and an efficient road network.

Reasonable enough. Toronto can't just wish the car away. As long as most people commute by car, traffic must be kept moving. Ultimately, though, the city should be trying to end the tyranny of the car.

That means more incentives and better zoning to encourage density. It means less and more-expensive parking. It means more and better public transit. It means taxes and tolls to put a higher price on automobile use. Above all, it means more political courage.