Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Toronto's downtown residents lacking voice in city hall debates

The debate over adding bike lanes on Bloor highlighted the urban-suburban divide that dominates who holds power on Toronto City Council.
The debate over adding bike lanes on Bloor highlighted the urban-suburban divide that dominates who holds power on Toronto City Council.

I’m still not sure how city councillors Mike Layton and Joe Cressy made it through last Monday’s meeting of Toronto’s public works and infrastructure committee meeting without slamming their heads against the wall.

They had both come to voice their support for the proposed pilot project for separated bike lanes on Bloor Street. The pilot spans Ward 19 and Ward 20 – the areas Cressy and Layton were duly elected to represent.

With the local councillors enthusiastically in favour and neighbourhood associations receptive to the pilot process, it should have been a slam-dunk decision.

But there was a problem: Cressy and Layton aren’t members of the public works and infrastructure committee. In fact, none of the committee members represent wards anywhere near Bloor Street.

Instead, five of the six members of the committee responsible for the city’s most important infrastructure plans are from Scarborough, Etobicoke or North York. Coun. Mary-Margaret McMahon of the Beaches is the closest thing the committee has to a downtown representative.

So Cressy, Layton and their downtown constituents had to watch as Etobicoke committee member Coun. Stephen Holyday wondered whether bike lanes were part of some nefarious plot to “build an invisible wall” to keep people out of the city. After much skepticism, the committee ultimately decided to neither endorse nor reject the bike plan – the issue will go before the full city council for a vote this week.

Call it aggravation without representation.

For people who live downtown, this is a common thing at city hall. Councillors representing the city’s most urban wards are routinely kept from positions of power. Mayor John Tory’s cabinet-like executive committee is dominated by suburban representatives. Even the TTC board lacks any representation from politicians serving areas south of Bloor.

The lack of representation is especially troubling given downtown’s epic growth. According to the city’s planning department, the core is growing nearly four times as fast as the rest of the city — over the last four years, the downtown population has grown 20 per cent, while employment has grown by 12 per cent.

These people aren’t opting to live and work downtown with the secret hope that downtown will become more suburban They’re choosing downtown because they want to live in an urban environment that doesn’t cater exclusively to the car.

But the city’s committee structures and amalgamation of powers leaves decisions affecting urban residents in the hands of suburban councillors preoccupied with making sure driving is easy and fun.

Whatever happens with council’s vote on the Bloor street bike lanes this week, this latest urban infrastructure debate only points to a bigger problem with Toronto’s governance model.

At city hall, the downtowners driving the city’s growth are often overshadowed by the suburbanites driving the city’s cars.

This post was originally published at on 2016-05-02T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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