Toronto cycling activists were gnashing their spokes and rending their spandex after city council voted to kill the Jarvis Street bike lanes on Wednesday. Put in only last summer, the curbside lanes are to be pulled right back out again by the end of next year. It looks like a huge step backward. In fact, it could turn into a big win for cycling in the city.
Almost lost in the hubbub over Jarvis was the fact that council also voted to push ahead with Toronto's first network of separated bike lanes. That means cyclists will be able to travel on lanes that are not just painted lines on the asphalt, like those on Jarvis, but fully separated from car traffic.
Council voted to build separated lanes across the Bloor Viaduct, to start design work on separated lanes for Sherbourne, Wellesley, Harbord and Beverley and to look into separated lanes on Richmond and Peter or Simcoe. The result would be a system that would take cyclists smoothly and safely from, say, the Danforth to the financial district or from the University of Toronto to the waterfront without having to fight their way through mixed traffic.
It is the biggest step yet toward creating a true bike network for Toronto – not just the dog's breakfast of disconnected, unprotected lanes we have now, but a real network like they have in Montreal. Thousands of commuters who now fear to ride in the turmoil of the open road would start cycling instead of driving to work, with all the benefits that brings for health, air quality and traffic congestion
Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34-Don Valley East), the moderate conservative councillor behind the project, says the city is planning to spend twice as much on its bike plans over four years as former mayor David Miller did in his final four. On top of 14 kilometres of separated lanes, the city would create 100 kilometres of off-street bike trails in ravines and rail or hydro corridors. After years of slow, stuttering progress on cycling infrastructure, that would be real progress.
Great, say cycling advocates – if it ever happens (they have understandable doubts given all the talk about the city's money troubles). But if you're going to build a bike network, they say, why start by killing bike lanes on Jarvis?
The answer is simple: politics. The Jarvis lanes were a red flag to motorists from the start. Jarvis is one of the few broad streets taking car commuters in and out of downtown. Removing the roadway's reversing fifth lane to make room for bikes added minutes to that painful commute. Suburban councillors with car-commuting residents denounced the bike lanes. They were doomed from the moment Mayor Rob Ford took office on a pledge to end the "war on the car."
Jarvis had to be sacrificed if the mayor and hostile councillors were ever going to back bike lanes elsewhere. It was an unspoken tradeoff: You can have your lost traffic lane on Jarvis back if we can take away space on other, less vital roads for bike lanes.
That will strike cycling zealots as the worst kind of appeasement. In their world, cycling is so virtuous and car commuting so ruinous that making any kind of concession amounts to surrender. They are vowing to fight on to save the Jarvis lanes during the 18-month reprieve they won for the lanes at Wednesday's council meeting.
But in the real world, most people still get to work by car. Telling them they are bad people won't get us anywhere. Killing Jarvis should soothe their war-on-the-car fears and ease the way for bike lanes on other roads. Jarvis had to die so bigger bike plans could be born. Now let's make sure they come to something.