Image via Flickr user Sweet One
On Monday afternoon, reporters from most of Toronto’s major publications went to Jarvis Street to watch the spectacle of five individuals laying on the road in an attempt to stop the erasure of the road’s bike lanes. As is now the norm, those reporting on the unfolding event took to Twitter to document the scene in real-time. One photo, shared by Metro’s Jessie Smith, shows a scene vaguely reminiscent of Tiananmen Square. A man identifying himself as “Rob Ford” is shown lying down on the road. In the background is truck that, with its long frontal suction tube, seems more akin to something from a Dr Seuss book than a dangerous Chinese Type 59 tank. As I considered that photo for several moments, I started to think about the reaction people would have to the photo and news.
Some would find common cause with the protestors, but the vast majority, I suspected, would ridicule the protestors. Indeed, shortly after the initial protest, blogTO published an article on the bike lane’s demise, and an early commentator named “Ataxpayer” chimed in on the topic, saying, “bike lanes on Sherbourne, use them and quit your whining hipsters.” Ataxpayer wasn’t the only one, either; multiple commentators went on to share Ataxpayer’s sentiment.
For my part, I understood where the five individuals that protested the lane’s removal yesterday were coming from. Steve Fisher, who was one of the people that tried to stall the removal by sitting on the lane, told the Toronto Star that he had in the past been hit by a car while biking, and that the removal of the lane likely represented a setback for his future safety. What struck me about the action that Fisher and other cyclists took was that, having already tried in vain to make a rational appeal to keep the lane, they were forced to make an emotional one instead. Unfortunately, when it comes to the war of emotional appeals, a decisive victory was won against the bike lane more then a year ago.
During a city council meeting on 13 July 2011, councillor Karen Stintz stated her reasons for why the city should consider removing the lanes. Initially, the Ward 16 councillor made the reasonable argument that the composition of Jarvis Street affected more than just the residents living near the road. However, the evidence that the councillor used to illustrate her point – a single women that complained to Stintz that the bike lane added twenty minutes to her daily commute, causing her to frequently miss having dinner with her four children – jettisoned any pretence of rational argumentation. Instead, Stintz had made an emotional appeal to city council, and that appeal had had a profound effect on the resulting discussion. For instance, the fact that according to the city’s own study the bike lane added only added two minutes to the commute of those using the street, and that the issue could have easily been remedied by reprogramming the street’s traffic lights, was buried under the narrative of a single mother missing dinner with her four kids.
Video of Stintz’s appeal to city council
People are, of course, entitled to have an emotional response to political issues, and, in many ways, such a response is natural and to be expected. But by allowing emotional responses to dictate the nature of our political discourse, we create a false dichotomy between groups of people. Since its inception as a political issue, the Jarvis bike lane removal has been, almost exclusively, positioned as a debate between cyclists and drivers. In reality, however, the configuration of one of Toronto major arteries is something that affects all of us. After all, roads are the means by which all modes of transportation traverse a city – that is, pedestrians, public transit, cyclists, and, yes, cars all need access to roads to get anywhere. However, when someone claims that a mother’s commute became significantly longer due to a recently installed bike lane, or when someone sits down on a road to protest the removal of a bike lane, what they are doing, in effect, is asserting that their claim to a major road is somehow more legitimate than everyone else’s.
In an op-ed piece for the Toronto Star, Christopher Hume called the removal of the Jarvis bike lane symbolic of “a nation in decline, terrified of change, the new US.” Obviously such a statement is hyperbolic, but Hume is correct in suggesting that the removal is symbolic of something. Removing a bike lane is a reasonable proposition as long as there’s data to support that doing so will benefit a majority of people, however, to do so in active ignorance of the facts, is, I think, a sign of a local government out of tune with the best practices of a modern, rational government. However, we only have ourselves to blame for the state of our local government. We need, as a society, to embrace a more rational and analytic approach to decision making.
Igor Bonifacic is a writer working for the Toronto Standard. You can follow him on twitter at @igorbonifacic.