A Hollow Victory on Jarvis St.

When Toronto Council voted last week to kill the centre lane of Jarvis St., widen the sidewalks and add some bike lanes, cycling advocates went bananas. It felt like an important victory. Perhaps the city was turning the corner on bike lanes and soon Toronto would be a rider’s utopia.

But I’m not convinced.

For having received what I see as a pat on the head, cyclists are showing a bit too much exuberance; especially when the only real winner is Mayor Miller, who scored a good PR victory and enhanced his green/keen/clean image with the city’s younger, more liberal crowd all the while allowing the contrary “right wing” morons on council to make their own nooses a little tighter. And car advocates, who one might incorrectly sight as the big losers here, got a bit of a win as they now have a cause célèbre, the amusingly named “war on the car”. Cyclists only scored a victory if you think the proposed redesign is a) necessary, b) properly conceived and/or c) working toward a bigger plan.

So who’s the big winner in Jarvis’ new design? Well, it doesn’t do much for drivers; wider sidewalks are always appreciated, but Jarvis isn’t a high traffic pedestrian area; and cyclists don’t really need a bike lane on that particular street. To succeed as a renewal would mean a dramatic reimagining of the street. But the city can’t afford to do that. As forward thinking as they want to appear, it’s true that they can’t sacrifice Jarvis entirely as a corridor route. There is an exit from the Gardiner right onto Jarvis, which means its traffic load will continue to be heavy. Unless the city is willing to close the Jarvis off-ramp, their options for Jarvis are quite limited.

Sure, the bikes lanes are something; but they’re something we already have one street over on Sherbourne. A quick examination of the Official Bike Plan reveals that Jarvis isn’t a part of the proposed network, so the money being spent to fight this battle and then revamp the street could be money better spent developing more bike lanes in underserviced areas as identified in the Official Plan.

I regularly talk to people who still contest that it’s suicide to ride your bike in downtown Toronto and it can hard to argue with them. We all know someone who’s been badly hurt as a result of a being doored or turned into by a cabbie or any of the myriad things that can happen when an unarmoured, slow moving wheeled human attempts to navigate around fast-moving 2000lbs monsters of glass, plastic and steel. That the Jarvis lane doesn’t do anything to ensure the safety of cyclists on one of downtown’s busiest streets is its greatest failure. And why aren’t more people more incensed? Shouldn’t these new bike lanes be separated from traffic by a small median? Shouldn’t we get something more than 2 painted lines?

By narrowing the eastern sidewalk and removing the 0.6m extra-wide shoulder currently proposed for bikes lanes, one could easily have a separated bike lane. If you follow the Montreal model for these types of lanes, intersections would be handled with signals for both car and bike that assign priority where appropriate. That this option wasn’t even discussed by cycling advocates in the broader media is a massive failing on their part. Pairing this style of separated bike lane with an east-west corridor (perhaps along Adelaide) and a western north-south corridor (trickier…a mix of streets might be required to get from Front St. to Bloor) and you have a ring around downtown of safer travel for cyclists.

I resist the “at least it’s something” that many are applying to the Jarvis vote. I also find it incredibly naïve to think this represents a sea-change in the city’s attitude toward bike lanes. A painted line is not a victory for cyclists and having it come at the outside edge of an election cycle is highly dubious as well. That the advocates for cycling in the city are lapping up council’s politically viable table scraps and not demanding better is a reasonable indicator of why the city doesn’t take bike infrastructure more seriously.

Until we begin to lobby for our own lanes on busier routes as an absolute necessity, then the council will continue to pat cyclists on their heads and send them away, down the painted line paths.

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