The Jarvis vote: What the hell happened?

After a long and contentious debate that spanned across two days, Council voted today to remove the bike lanes on Jarvis Street and return the ┬ástreet to its original five-lane configuration. The move will cost the city at least $200,000. The debate was marked by a series of (mostly) cogent arguments by councillors opposing the elimination of infrastructure that has, by all accounts, had no significant impact on traffic flow and increased the number of cyclists in the city. Those who supported the elimination responded by generally just wandering around the council chamber and not listening. ┬áThe hundreds of taxpayers who came to City Hall to support maintaining the lanes were dismissed by some councillors — notably Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday — as “bike people.”

The media narrative spinning out of today’s vote will be that the cyclists won a “concession” after Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee and architect of the 2011 Bike Plan, supported an amendment that will see the Jarvis lanes removed sometime in 2012, simultaneously with the installation of new, repaved, separated bike lanes on Sherbourne Street. This is a too-simplistic interpretation that ignores the damage Council has now done to ongoing neighbourhood revitalization efforts across the downtown east-side.

What Council really did today was move to reclassify Jarvis Street — a place where people live and work and go to school — as a kind of downtown highway with a reversible fifth lane. In doing so they’ve thrown out a 2009 Environmental Assessment, a series of exhaustive community consultations and the objections of the local ward councillor, who was in the midst of ongoing neighbourhood beautification efforts in concert with local residents and business.

The vote on Jarvis came down with 18 in favour of keeping the lanes and 27 opposed. Or maybe it was 26-19. Or 28-9. No one is really sure.

Political Gamesmanship

Late on Tuesday afternoon, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam — the local councillor for Jarvis Street — moved three individual-but-connected motions. Together they worked to protect her efforts to continue to improve Jarvis Street, a recognized “cultural corridor” in the City of Toronto. You can read the motions in full in the Decision Document, but here’s a quick summary:

  1. Council not eliminate the Jarvis bike lanes
  2. Council not eliminate the Jarvis bike lanes before the proposed separated bike lanes on Sherbourne are implemented
  3. Council not eliminate the Jarvis bike lanes before extensive community consultation

Her third item, calling for the involvement of a variety of community groups in an extensive consultation, showed signs of support from a few right-leaning councillors. And why wouldn’t it? Most would acknowledge that it seems cold-hearted to make significant changes to a street over the objections of a local councillor without so much as a public meeting.

Minnan-Wong, as the last speaker on the item, had an ace up his sleeve, however, as he moved an amendment to Wong-Tam’s second motion, explicitly calling for a return of Jarvis to its “pre-existing operation.” This stood as the first significant reference to Jarvis’ former five-lane configuration, and came after several of Minnan-Wong’s right-leaning colleagues had made arguments seemingly in support of a 2009 Environmental Assessment that called for wider sidewalks — instead of bike lanes — and the elimination of the fifth lane. His amendment also employed softer language, calling for more limited coordination between the removal of the Jarvis lanes and the installation of the Sherbourne lanes, as opposed to the original implication that one not happen without the other.

Wong-Tam challenged the amendment, which was ruled to be in order by Chair Frances Nunziata. A vote on whether to uphold Nunziata’s decision saw councillors support their Chair 27-18.

From here, things quickly broke down into procedural chaos. After the vote to retain the Jarvis lanes failed 18-27, the vote on Minnan-Wong’s amendment passed 26-19. Wong-Tam’s amended motion then passed 31-14 in the confusion, which had the probably unintentional effect of making her third motion — the one that would have allowed for public consultation — redundant. Minnan-Wong’s efforts thus had the dual impact of explicitly calling for the return of the fifth lane on Jarvis Street and ensuring that no consultations would ever be held on this issue.

The rest was noise. Some councillors lobbied Nunziata with the sensible suggestion that council vote on the individual items contained in the 2011 Bike Plan one at a time, as this would allow them to express support for elements of the plan while opposing others. Nunziata, as is her way, was obstinate and opted to instead hold only one vote. That prompted nearly all left-leaning councillors to leave the chamber before the results of the vote were read, with eight of them opting not to register a vote at all.

Not About Bikes

The most disappointing thing about today’s outcome is that it cements Jarvis as little more than a strategic battleground in a spite-driven war between cars and bikes. Bike lanes on Jarvis were never the entire issue. A reasonable compromise would have been to see a return to the original staff recommendations made as part of the 2009 EA: removal of the bike lanes in favour of wider pedestrian thoroughfares, and perhaps the installation of a few key left-turn lanes for automobile traffic. Instead, some councillors were disingenuous enough to pretend that this was their favoured option while ultimately placing their support behind a reversible fifth lane.

Today’s decision does little except increase the speed of automobile traffic, foster a substandard pedestrian realm and prop up Jarvis Street’s mid-century-to-now legacy as the tragic story of a once-great street in perpetual decline.

 

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