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As the battle for Jarvis heats up, a call for pragmatism – not necessarily bike lanes

Last summer, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, with the backing of Mayor Rob Ford, led the charge to eliminate the bike lanes on Jarvis Street, which were installed in 2010. As a result, council decided to ignore traffic studies and the opinion of the local councillor – who found herself blind-sided by Minnan-Wong's move – and vote 27-18 to remove the lanes. Without some kind of political intervention, the city is set to spend more than $250,000 painting over the lanes and reverting the street to its previous operation later this year.

The elimination of the bike lanes was a dumb decision last summer and it remains a dumb decision today. At best, it stands as a complete waste of money. A less charitable take: it was an action driven almost entirely by political spite that will needlessly make commuting more dangerous for the people who live and work in the area around Jarvis.

Still, as the Toronto Cyclists Union launches a legal challenge against council's decision and rumours of plans for civil disobedience swirl, I can't help but call for some pragmatic thinking on this issue. It might be time to let the Jarvis bike lanes go.

Here's why: when council voted last summer, they in fact opted to do two things.

  • Remove the existing bike lanes on Jarvis.
  • Restore Jarvis to its previous configuration as a five-lane road with a reversible middle lane.
  • While both these actions have been bundled together as part of the great bike lane debate, one does not necessarily follow the other. The removal of the lanes doesn't instantly mean that the street needs to revert back to the five lane monstrosity it was previously – with ugly hanging traffic signals, super narrow vehicle lanes and recklessly speeding traffic.

    In fact, when the prospect of beautifying Jarvis first came up several years ago, it was the elimination of the fifth lane that was the major focus. The plan always called for the removal of that traffic lane and the use of reclaimed road space for wider sidewalks and public realm improvements. The idea, backed by community consultation, was to make shabby grey Jarvis a little greener. It wasn't until late in the political process that bike lanes were put on the table.

    Jarvis can become a welcoming and beautiful street even if it doesn't have bike lanes. But it can't become anything great if it has a reversible traffic lane running down the middle of it. In effect, maintaining the existing four lane configuration is significantly more important than keeping the bike lanes.

    Keeping the street at four lanes is also a more winnable fight.

    I simply can't see this council endorsing bike lanes on Jarvis. Even with the tide turned against the mayor, councillors like Karen Stintz hold firm to their belief that cyclists should be happy with the lanes on nearby Sherbourne. It's a view held by a lot of councillors, who feel their support for Minnan-Wong's puny network of separated bike paths is all the support the cycling community needs.

    Getting to the critical 23 votes needed on a theoretical revisiting of the Jarvis lanes would mean reaching not only middle-aligned councillors like Josh Colle, Gloria Lindsay Luby and Chin Lee, but also some mushy mayoral allies like Jaye Robinson, James Pasternak or Ron Moeser. The math doesn't look very good.

    In comparison, a motion that would seek to maintain the four lane configuration on Jarvis Street – which staff say has caused minimal traffic issues – and return to a plan that calls for improved sidewalks and more greenery does seem like something this council could easily endorse, especially if arguments in favour are divorced from the car-versus-bike rhetoric. Instead of wading back into that tired debate, this plan would be about improving the neighbourhood – about making sure that Jarvis has a chance to thrive as something more than a lifeless traffic arterial.

    Bike lanes or no bike lanes, the city has got to have a plan for Jarvis that respects its status as a place where people live, work and go to school. The fifth lane respects no one but rushed commuters from Rosedale.

    Even if council opts for a beautification plan without painted bike lanes, the upside for cyclists would be that a four-lane Jarvis Street would remain many times more hospitable to traffic on two wheels. It would also mean that bike lanes could be added back in the future, should the political weather start looking more favourable to people on bikes.

    Going forward, this necessary war for bike lanes can't distract from other improvements needed across Jarvis. All types of commuters – whether they're on two wheels or four – need to keep in mind that Jarvis is more than a means for you to get around. It's a could-be culturally-vibrant piece of a rapidly growing neighbourhood on the east side of downtown.

    More on the Bike Union's legal challenge

    The Bike Union's lawyers argue that the changes council wants to make to Jarvis require a full-scale Environmental Assessment, which would include public consultation. We'll see how the city's own legal staff responds, but either way this should be effective as at least a stall tactic. It'll buy some time.

    In general, I support the Bike Union's work on this issue: my ideal version of Jarvis includes bike lanes, provided they fit into the overall plan favoured by local residents. But I worry that advocates may be inching toward a bike-lanes-or-bust attitude that's too dogmatic and narrowly focused. My hope is that local councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam is working behind the scenes to ensure – bike lanes or no bike lanes – Jarvis doesn't regrow its reversible fifth lane. That has to be the priority.

    This post was originally published at on 2012-04-03T00:00:00.000Z

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    Matt Elliott

    City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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