26 November 2012

Beyond Rob Ford - More Hurdles for Toronto

It's difficult to ignore the massive, dark shadow cast by Mayor Rob Ford in Toronto and his continuous anti-bicycle movement. You get the feteling that if you manage to peer beyond his mammoth prescence, you'll see the frustrated urban Torontonians, at the mercy of the surburban vote, fighting (in vain) for a more bicycle-friendly future for the city. You sense - and hope - they are looking towards the Toronto of the future - a combination of the musical montage in the middle of Monkey Warfare and the bicycle culture/traffic in so many other cities.

They're there and they are envisioning a sensible modern future. However, it seems that there are other dark shadows to be dealt with in the city. The focus on bicycles as transport is not the same as in cities around the world. There is a strange and rather misplaced focus on pedestrianism that is further stunting the growth of bicycles as transport.

An ongoing discussion with a friend of mine led to this blogpost. Here are some indications that Toronto's push for a more liveable city is demonstratively ignoring the bicycle. Don't underestimate the fact that this is a serious problem for the city and for the growth of cycling.

From what I understand it's a bit tricky to pinpoint the big picture, largely because so many of the decisions are made behind closed doors. The rhetoric is generally positive - increasing pedestrian facilities is regarded as the key to creating a more liveable city.

Nevertheless, bicycles appear to be a point of irritation and cars are, by and large, still sacred in the city.

If we go back to 2007, we can see how this movement is defined. This City of Toronto document (pdf) may be one of the first example where this issue is stated in black and white.

Item 2(f)
Narrow roadways and widen sidewalks at all feasible locations. Not a bad policy, of course. The car, however, is still king and the space for this policy is inevitably taken from bicycles.

This mantra has been cited over and over, not least at the The International Walk21 Conference: Putting Pedestrians First, which was hosted by Toronto in October 2007.

Several newspaper articles like this one in The Star rave about the Bloor Street revitalisation project.

The article fails to note that Bloor is one of the busier cycling routes in Toronto. It's of particular importance for bicycle users crossing the Don Valley, because the viaduct bridge is further east on this street. In addition, there is a subway running beneath Bloor. Bicycles were excluded from the revitalisation plans - only some lame, token sharrows in one section after much battling from the community. Even Bixi stations were not allowed to be installed in this area because the BIA didn't want bicycles cluttering the street. The BIA actually wrote letter to the ward's councillor, opposing Bixi stations around here.

Here's more chatter about how wonderful pedestrian spaces on the streets are in this Star article. Again, bicycles are left out in the cold, despite the fact that Yonge is hardly a safe bicycle street, despite the fact that there are so many important destinations for city dwellers. There are many bicycles in the area - but inadequate parking facilities for them.

A Canadian magazine called Spacing is also contributing to the shadow. This article about "humanizing" traffic counts doesn't even mention bicycles. Amusingly, they have "Understanding the Urban Landscape" as their tagline on their website.

Spacing goes on (and on) about how wide sidewalks are the best (and only?) way to go.

It appears that the City is even manipulating traffic counts in order to sell the case for pedestrianism - and fibbing about bicycle numbers in the process.

Here are some blog posts from the Mez Dispenser blog on the subject. They took matters into their own hands:
- Simplified Fabrication
- Tally-ho - Exposing the City’s Mindless Math
- Proving our point…..again. (John St volunteer traffic count #2.)

The City of Toronto responded with this pdf.

In the John St Environmental Assessment report - in Section 1 (page 20) , it states the objective of the study but it doesn't mention cycling. Despite the fact that this is an important corridor that brings bicycle users south from the U of Toronto (Beverley St. bike lane), down to Front Street.

In this document about Front Street at Union Station, pedestrianizing the space for this project was translated into "prioritizing pedestrians", but maintaining car traffic and only providing those goofy, token sharrows for bicycles.

In the final report - in section 1.2 on page 3 - it states clearly the pedestrian priority for the project (pdf)

The development of Union Station as a pedestrian facility is broadly set out in policy directions outlined in the City of Toronto’s Official Plan and Toronto Pedestrian Charter. Specifically, the policy directions note that:
- Union Station will be refurbished and its passenger handling capacity expanded;
- A program of street improvements will be developed to enhance the pedestrian environment with measures undertaken to make it safer to walk and cycle in the downtown area; and, 

- An urban environment and infrastructure will be created that encourages and supports walking throughout the City through policies and practices that ensure safe, direct, comfortable, attractive and convenient pedestrian connections.

More generally, the Official Plan takes a comprehensive approach that links land use and transportation planning policies to create an effective strategy for accommodating the City’s future trip growth in a way that reduces auto‐dependency. This approach has been increasingly reflected in the City’s guidelines, programs and practices that promote walking as a mode that
encourages both health and transportation benefits.

And so on. And so on. Imagine that... failing to identify bicycles as part of the solution for the area around a train station

Toronto's "uniqueness" over the past few years due to its Mayor is well-defined and well-documented. The current political leadership is a running joke.

It is important to highlight that the City's singular focus on pedestrian traffic is also unique. I can't think of another city similar to Toronto in size that completely and utterly ignores the potential of bicycle traffic. For improving public health, for reducing congestion, for.... christ... do I even have to write this? And it is not just the Mayor, but also city hall, journalists and random hipster/urbanist magazines.

Pedestrians are always - or should be - at the top of the traffic hierarchy. Duh. But it's astounding that the anti-cycling sentiment in such a large city in the western world here in 2012 runs so deep.

This is not a good kind of "unique". I fear that even if Toronto discards its Mayor, the battle to modernise itself is light years behind that of other, more visionary cities.