Jun 11

Bike Plan to Nowhere: Three ways the new bike plan report falls short

Staff released their report (PDF) on Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong’s much-ballyhooed bike plan last week. It’ll be debated this Wednesday at the meeting of the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee, after which it will, if approved, go on to City Council for final consideration.

The Toronto Cyclists Union has served as a somewhat unlikely ally to Minnan-Wong as he’s talked up his plan for a network of four separated bike lanes across the downtown core. They’ve even visited with neighbourhood groups across the downtown to build support for the idea of protected bike lanes.

The release of the staff report appeared to throw cold water on that budding friendship, however.

The union’s response:

This report was released today and the Toronto Cyclists Union, representing over 1,100 members, is disappointed with the lack of progress in the report. It is not bold enough to address the needs of hundreds of thousands of Torontonians who ride bicycles. In fact, several of the recommendations outlined in the report set the City back on cycling progress.

via Statement on 2011 Bikeway Network Report | Toronto Cyclists Union.

To Minnan-Wong’s credit, he told the Toronto Star’s David Rider that he “wishes staff had taken a ‘bolder’ approach” in their report.

So why does the report — let’s just say it — kind of suck? Let’s count the ways.

Reason One: It’s a bike plan that eliminates bike lanes

First, it’s a bike plan that actually floats the idea of eliminating established bike lanes in Scarborough and previously approved — but not installed — lanes on Bloor West.

Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, one of the Team Ford members that sometimes breaks ranks, pushed for removal of the two Scarborough lanes — one’s on Birchmount Road while the other is on Pharmacy Avenue — as part of her election platform (PDF).

Though staff report that the two lanes “do not have a significant adverse effect on the traffic operations and parking situation” on the two roadways, and advise that removal of the lanes will cost more than $200,000, Berardinetti told the Toronto Sun that she would continue to support their removal because “[this] is what the residents want.”

It’s populist thinking like that that make me wonder why we don’t just replace our elected officials with a series of online polls.

Here’s a nifty video showing a cyclist riding the Pharmacy Ave. lane during rush hour. While hardly the definitive word on this sort of thing, it does not, to me, resemble traffic chaos.

Reason Two: It’s a bike plan that barely recommends new bike lanes

The authors of the report essentially hedge their bets on every major recommendation. The only protected lane they recommend without further study is a small installation over the Bloor Viaduct. They’re also a little bullish on protected lanes on Sherbourne and Wellsley, recommending them for 2012.

The other proposed lanes in Minnan-Wong’s network, including a lane or Richmond or Adelaide — which the report notes “would have the greatest benefit for cyclists” –, are pushed off into the future, noting that more studies must be done.

I’m being critical of the report’s authors, but I should note that their timidness to recommend lanes is grounded in reality, considering the views the mayor and Minnan-Wong have expressed in the past.The report includes a lengthy section in the summary that serves as a kind of disclaimer for councillors who once fought hard against bike infrastructure:

It is important to understand, however, that the implementation of other separated bicycle lanes will, in most instances, result in a reduction of vehicle traffic or parking capacity. It is with this understanding that this report seeks authority to undertake further in-depth assessment, including a comprehensive consultation and design process, to evaluate the different design options for this separated bicycle lane network, and to identify impacts and recommend potential mitigating measures

In other words: We really don’t want to spend a zillion hours producing a bunch of reports for bike lanes on Richmond Street if you’re going to inevitably dismiss any bike lane that might impact the free movement of cars.

Reason Three: It’s a bike plan that works against, rather than with, the cycling community

In addition to floating the idea of removing lanes in Scarborough, the report also calls for the cancelling a previously-funded environmental assessment that would “develop an innovative design and implementation plan for developing a bikeway along the Bloor-Danforth corridor, and identify short and long-term design options, including evaluating the feasibility of physically separated bicycle lanes.”

Minnan-Wong justifies the cancellation by saying “we only have so much money and we only have so much staff” and pointing to better uses of the funds set aside from the EA. The cycling community, apparently, would disagree:

Hundreds of cyclists hit Bloor St. Saturday for the annual Bells on Bloor ride with the simple message ringing out — build bike lanes from one end of Toronto to the other across the major artery.

via Cyclists pedal hard for bike lane | Toronto Sun.

The disconnect between what the plan actually proposes and what the cycling community is asking for is disappointing. I guess it should be noted that another term for cycling community is taxpayer community.

For those playing along at home, the best way to rapidly expand cycling infrastructure in this city is to aggressively design and approve pilot projects, in the style of New York City’s Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.

Minnan-Wong’s stated desire to take a “bolder” approach is the one thing that gives me hope out of this disappointing report. Bold is what cyclists should get. Bold is what this city deserves.

Jun 11

Our socialist roads and highways

Responding to a Bob Hepburn editorial in the Toronto Star that called road tolls “nuts,” Hamilton-area blogger Nicholas Kevlahan has pulled together some numbers on the cost of maintaining infrastructure for car drivers:

Although motorists feel they pay too much in fees and taxes (and we do pay a lot), a very careful Federal Department of Transport study shows that federal and provincial net road fuel tax revenues and provincial fees cover only 50% to 78% of the total cost of the nation’s roads.

via Ford Wrong About Toll Roads – Raise the Hammer.

In other words, we subsidize roads and highways through general revenues.

For comparison, roughly 70% of the operating costs of the TTC fall directly on the shoulders of its users.

Jun 11

Minnan-Wong’s work on bike lanes: pragmatic & inclusionary

The Toronto Star’s Catherine Porter went on an apparently quite scary bike ride with Chair of Public Works Denzil Minnan-Wong the other day. While riding — and falling, then falling again — the councillor talked about his plan for installing protected bike lanes on Richmond, Sherbourne, St. George/Beverley, Simcoe and Wellesley/Harbord:

“I see it as a pragmatic solution,” said Minnan-Wong, the public works chair, who will introduce his plan to the committee later this month. From there, it will go in July to council, where he figures he has the votes.

“The mayor has three principles when it comes to bike lanes: safety, community support and where they make sense. This downtown network, where we don’t have parks and ravines, meets those criteria,” he said.

via Porter: City’s new bike champion is on the right path – thestar.com.

Denzil Minnan-Wong is following the political track that Rob Ford, as mayor, really should be on as well. Now that he and council’s right-wing are in power, he’s throwing his support behind an initiative that even his most steadfast detractors will find appealing. Whereas Ford continues to stand up in council and rant about the socialists, Minnan-Wong would seem to be, at the very least, attempting to heal some of the divisiveness that badly marked the last election.

How genuine Minnan-Wong is with his overtures toward the cycling community is a matter of opinion — that he’s advocating for these lanes while not too long ago he was yelling about Jarvis gives me a ton of pause — , but politically I have to give him credit. That this kind of thing could nicely set him up for a mayoral run is, for him, a fringe benefit.

Minnan-Wong’s been careful to position his bicycle network plan as the mayor’s plan, but so far there’s been little in the way of comment from the mayor’s office on this issue. (“Not a priority,” they said, when Minnan-Wong first started floating the idea.)

I doubt very much the mayor or his loyal band of councillors would take issue with improving existing bike lanes, but I am very interested to see how council responds to the idea of a protected lane on Richmond. The removal of a lane of traffic on what some would dub a major arterial (for cars) seems contrary to the mayor’s beliefs.

May 11

Rob Ford’s next target: Jarvis Street bike lanes?

The Toronto Sun’s Don Peat reports that Public Works Chair Denzil Minnan-Wong is looking at removing the bike lanes on Jarvis Street:

Public works chairman Denzil Minnan-Wong said he thinks there is an appetite on council to revisit the controversial bike lanes.

“I’ve heard from many councillors that they would like to revisit this issue,” Minnan-Wong said.

He is proposing a separated bike lane plan in the downtown core but the network doesn’t call for such lanes on Jarvis St. because it is a primary north-south route.

via Jarvis St. bike lanes will be re-examined | Toronto & GTA | News | Toronto Sun.

For the record, the Jarvis street lanes were a low-cost item. Despite rapturous concerns that they would lead to traffic chaos, they’ve caused minimal delays. Aside from a lingering desire to give the finger to their political opponents, there is no reason for Minnan-Wong, Ford or any member of council to support this change.

And yet here we are.

The cycling community, including the Toronto Cyclists Union, has generally been supportive of Minnan-Wong’s plan for a network of four protected bike lanes downtown. This news should give them pause.

May 11

Burning bridges at Fort York

The Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale:

Despite the support of developers, history buffs and hundreds of local residents, Councillor Mike Layton’s effort to save the Fort York pedestrian and cyclist bridge was rejected by council Wednesday.

City staff will now try to find a lower-cost alternative to the $23 million bridge that had been scheduled for completion in 2012, the bicentennial of the War of 1812. But a different bridge could not be built until 2015, and Layton said he considers the project dead.

via Fort York bridge dead, councillor says – thestar.com.

So it’s dead. They killed it, following a 22-23 vote. (It wasn’t as close as it might seem — a two-thirds majority was required to save the item.) It was obvious that, despite near-heroic efforts, Councillor Mike Layton wouldn’t be able to command the votes after Councillor Michelle Berardinetti twittered the following:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/CouncillorMB/status/70698817103728640″]

Berardinetti, along with Councillor Jaye Robinson, has served as a good indicator of the strength of the mayor’s whip on any given item. With her on side, it was clear that this was going to come down to the same old left-versus-right divide.

Very disappointing, and not a good sign at all for those of us who value the innovative and ambitious work going on across the city’s waterfront.

May 11

The Fort York Bridge: it’s now or never

At Spacing, Luca De Franco has an interview with activist Richard Douglas, who’s been working to save the proposed pedestrian/cycling bridge that would span the rail tracks near Fort York.

The mayor and his allies have presented their opposition to the bridge as simple fiscal prudence. The bridge is over-budget, they say, so we must study cheaper alternatives. The reality is a bit more complicated, as Douglas explains. If we don’t build this thing on the planned schedule, it’s essentially never going to happen:

The returning of the Fort York Bridge project to Committee at Council effectively eliminates this project. The situation becomes even more time-sensitive when you consider that Metrolinx has provided a small window of opportunity to build this bridge.  Once that window closes, surrounding communities and the City of Toronto will have lost out on a tremendous opportunity.

via Headspace: The Fort York Pedestrian Cycle Bridge « Spacing Toronto.

A commenter to the article also shares an automatic response sent to him by Councillor Mike Del Grande, received after he emailed the Budget Chief regarding the bridge:

I now have too many e-mail messages to read each and every one. So my answer will be automatic. Bridge yes but not at any cost. But… does not carry the day. This kind of thinking has caused a great financial problem for the City. We spend more than we bring in and I have to find $774 million.

Post Script- Sat May 14th I visited the area. This bridge will cost 22 + the opportunity to gain 25 million from proper usage of the site. So it will really cost 47 million at the end of the day. Sorry, that is very poor use of limited funds the City has. I also noted that there were a total of 2 people in City park and a few people in the dog park and on the other side of King there was one person. Does not strike me as demand usage, at least not for today.

In addition there is concern about City land which if the bridge is built in a certain fashion will increase the value of City Lands by millions and this cannot be ignored. An overage of 4+ million and other planning considerations does not justify the just spending because it is a nice bridge. What I am more open to is how about a special levy on all those properties to pay for the overage?

I added some paragraph breaks for clarity. Also added some emphasis.

Councillor Del Grande recounts visiting the area where the bridge will be built on Saturday, May 14, which was not a particular nice Saturday in Toronto. At best it was overcast and drizzling. Regardless, he feels observing the area for a brief window on an unpleasant day is enough to declare that there is no “demand usage.”

As Richard Douglas puts it in a follow-up comment to the article on Spacing, “Aside from the poor weather conditions and the muddy, water logged parking lot as deterents did he really expect to see citizens standing at the roped off opening of the parking lots waiting for the bridge to be built?”

If this is the way Del Grande is going to judge the necessity of infrastructure projects, I’d hope he’ll soon pay a visit to Sheppard Avenue to gauge the need for a multi-billion dollar subway project.

Councillor Mike Layton has put a motion on the agenda for this week’s City Council meeting that would, if passed, essentially reverse the earlier decision by the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee to kill the project. It will require a two-thirds majority, which I initially dismissed as an impossible requirement. Layton has been working really hard to get the votes, however.

May 11

What does the Mayor want from the Federal Government?

So the federal election happened. I’m over it. Municipal politics are way more fun and important anyway. How interesting can a government chamber be when you always know how everyone is going to vote?

But before we can move on, we’ve got to acknowledge the Ford Nation, and whatever impact it is they had in Monday night’s outcome.

Here’s what Doug Ford, presumably speaking for his brother, had to say about the results:

“What is good for Toronto is good for Canada,” Ford said Tuesday, adding that for the first time in a long time, Toronto will have a say in the federal government.

“We have a friendly voice in Ottawa right now,” he said. “We never had a voice in Ottawa for a number of years…we have numerous strong voices now to represent us in Toronto and Ottawa knows we are going to be a strong voice coming from Toronto now.

“It’s always nice to be able to pick up the phone and have a direct line to Ottawa, day in and day out.”

via Election good for Toronto, Councillor Ford says | Decision 2011 | News | Toronto Sun.

Okay — but what is it that the Ford Brothers want from the federal government? The line in the endorsement was about the Public-Private Partnership Infrastructure fund, but that at most represents a $300 million dollar commitment and isn’t going to be anything close to the magic bullet the city needs to actually make this Sheppard subway extension happen.

So what is it? What should the federal government do for Toronto? Ford had a laundry list of demands for the provincial government earlier this year. And other mayors across Canada have certainly made it clear they need more direct funding for infrastructure.

But so far Toronto’s mayor hasn’t asked the prime minister for much more than a handshake. He voted against sending a letter to the federal government that would condemn cuts to immigration services in Toronto, something that negatively impacts thousands of people, including many who supported Ford. At the last council meeting, the mayor was one of a group of five councillors to vote against asking the federal government to provide support to businesses who suffered damage or lost business during the G20 weekend.

If the mayor is so sure that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is going to be good for Toronto, he needs to define what “good for Toronto” is. It has to be more than token support for a P3 subway line and the meagre funding the city gets from the gas tax.

We’re facing an 800 million dollar hole in our operating budget next year and our combined capital budget requirement for transit and other infrastructure over the next decade totals into the tens of billions of dollars. Surely the federal government — who receive more than 50 cents of every tax dollar you pay — can do something about that.

Wouldn’t that be good for Toronto?