Could the election of Mayor Rob Ford be a boon for cyclists?
The suggestion seems laughable on the face of it. Mr. Ford ran for office vowing to end the "war on the car." He opposed bike lanes on University Avenue and Jarvis Street. This is the mayor who invited Don Cherry to his swearing-in and watched as the hockey commentator denounced bike-riding "pinkos."
"I can't support bike lanes," Mr. Ford infamously said in 2007. "Roads are built for buses, cars and trucks. My heart bleeds when someone gets killed, but it's their own fault at the end of the day."
But wouldn't it be interesting if Mr. Ford turned out to be the guy who finally made Toronto a great city for cycling? It's not as far-fetched as it seems.
The head of public works in his administration, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, is pushing a plan to create a network of bicycle lanes on Wellesley, St. George, Beverley, Sherbourne and Richmond streets downtown. He favours lanes that would be separated from traffic by concrete curbs, protecting cyclists and minimizing annoyance for drivers. It would be Toronto's first big experiment with separated lanes like those in Montreal and New York.
The mayor himself promised during his election campaign to spend $50-million building a "comprehensive" 100-kilometre bike trail network along rail and hydro corridors and in ravines and valleys. The two proposals are to come to a city council committee for consideration in June. "I think we'll surprise people," said Mr. Minnan-Wong. "It could be a great time for cyclists."
Whether these plans actually come to anything remains to be seen. Mr. Minnan-Wong seems to be freelancing his bike-lane plan. It's not clear that he has the support of the mayor's office, from which all power flows at the moment. The mayor's allies have just voted to kill a $22-million bike and pedestrian bridge to Fort York.
Then there is the little question of money. Although Mr. Minnan-Wong said the city's capital budget has provision for more bike lanes, the city faces a $774-million budget shortfall in 2012.
Still, it would be smart politics if Mr. Ford became a friend of the bike. His opponents accuse him of being a highway-loving throwback who doesn't care about creating a cleaner, more livable city. They would have a hard time making that stick if he led the biggest roll-out of bike lanes in years. Becoming a pro-bike mayor would broaden his appeal beyond the suburban motorists who were the core of Ford Nation in 2010 and ease his road to re-election in 2014.
Politics aside, making Toronto a friendlier place for cyclists makes solid sense. Though former mayor David Miller was often accused of obsessing about bike lanes and green roofs, the city fell behind many other major cities on support for cycling during his seven-year tenure.
Montreal has added 200 kilometres of bike lanes since launching a new transportation plan in 2008 and expects to add another 200 by 2014. New York is adding 50 miles (80 km) of bike lanes a year under mayor Michael Bloomberg. The city says the number of bike commuters has grown by 255 per cent since 2001.
Portland, Oregon, has had great success with bike routes that follow quiet residential streets and keep cyclists mostly away from busy thoroughfares. Like Toronto, it saw a backlash from motorists when it started its big push to promote cycling. "Backlash is normal," the city's former bike program manager, Mia Birk, said at a Toronto talk on Friday. Now the city is admired around North America for its bike-promotion effort.
The time is ripe for a similar push in Toronto. It is spring in the city and the cyclists are coming back out. The Bixi bike-sharing network is to launch on Tuesday, putting 1,000 bikes at 80 stations around downtown.
Unlikely as it seems, the arrival of Mr. Ford offers a rare chance for a breakthrough. Just as it took a Communist-fighter like Richard Nixon to go to China, it might take a bike skeptic like Mr. Ford to make progress on cycling in Toronto.