They weren’t biking around to malt shoppes and sharing milkshakes, but Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong and cycling advocate Dave Meslin once had a pretty good working relationship.
That ended when the Jarvis bike lane was put on the chopping block at the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee on June 23rd. Before then, the two raised eyebrows for working together, Meslin, almost the consummate “bike-riding pinko,” and Minnan-Wong, a trusted member of the Ford administration.
The relationship could best be described as an alliance, pragmatic and focused on Minnan-Wong’s goal of implementing a separated bike lane network. They exchanged emails and text messages.
Now the only communication between them has been a sparring match on Twitter.
“I’ve made it clear to the Mayor’s Office and Denzil that there’s nothing left to talk about,” Meslin said. “But I’m not angry about the bike lane, I’m angry about the process.”
That process has been at the centre of Meslin’s career. He recently co-edited a book, Local Motion: the Art of Civic Engagement in Toronto, and he’s worked at the vanguard of Toronto’s public space and voting reform movements. He’s also a founder of the Toronto Cyclist Union.
Meslin was an early proponent of progressives engaging with Mayor Ford’s administration, rather than becoming a frozen-out opposition. He wrote in the Toronto Star about how Mayor Rob Ford could even be good for cyclists.
Since March, Minnan-Wong has moved quickly to reach out to cyclists, proposing a separated bike lane network and even becoming a card-carrying member of the Toronto Cyclist Union. Far from what some might expect from a suburban Scarborough councillor who was handpicked by Mayor Ford to chair the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee.
Minnan-Wong wanted to talk to Meslin and the cyclist union about the location of bike lanes that would be physically separated from traffic.
“We wanted to put in place a separated bike lane network and we wanted to put it in where people would use it,” Minnan-Wong said. He said the discussions were exclusively about the separated lanes, though Meslin also tried to push some questions about the possibility of the Jarvis removal.
Meslin said that his attempts didn’t get very far, “When I talked about removals he skirted the issue and we talked mostly about things that he wants to see done and things we agree with.”
Councillor Adam Vaughan, usually seen as bike-friendly, eventually came out against Minnan-Wong’s cycling plan, which would have interfered with his plans for a pedestrian corridor on John Street. Suddenly, everything seemed upside down—the suburban councillor standing up for bike lanes and the downtown councillor blocking them.
The city’s report on the John Street Cultural Corridor said two per cent of people using the street travel by bike, while the majority travelled on foot or by car. Something seemed fishy to Meslin, and he gathered a group of volunteers to count the traffic on John and, ultimately, prove the report wrong. In their count, they found about a third of traffic on the street came from cyclists. This put Meslin at odds with Vaughan and the Entertainment District BIA who want to connect the CBC, TIFF Bell Lightbox, CTV and OCAD University with a pedestrian corridor that doesn’t leave much room for cyclists.
Even after their falling out over Jarvis, Minnan-Wong has praise for Meslin’s work on John Street. Minnan-Wong said the cyclist union showed him that John was “a natural corridor for cyclists,” and he’s disappointed supporters of the John Street Cultural Corridor would play loose and fast with the data.
The Jarvis fight puts Meslin on the other side of city data. The bikeway report shows that since the bike lanes were put in last year, cycling traffic on Jarvis has tripled to almost 800 bikes in an eight-hour period. The report recommends the city adjust the timing of some stop lights so motorists can get back the two minutes they’ve lost to their commutes since the alternating centre lane was removed and the bike lane put in.
Meslin doesn’t say Minnan-Wong promised him anything on Jarvis—and clearly Minnan-Wong didn’t. Meslin said the dispute boils down to the lack of public consultation and the circumvention of the local councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who was only told about the motions minutes before it was tabled.
“There are rules that ensure that people’s voices are supposed to be heard at city hall,” he said. “Those mechanisms were intentionally circumvented and the people who are responsible are Councillor Minnan-Wong and the mayor’s office.”
It’s at this point that a productive working relationship turns into a rhetorical battle over who really wants to get things done and who has the moral high ground.
Minnan-Wong has said repeatedly that the Jarvis bike lanes were a well-known issue and that the city report included the latest information on the lanes. He said the issue is not just about a local road but one of the city’s main commuter routes and that Wong-Tam will have a chance to speak at council this week.
“I think it’s a bit of a reach for someone to claim that they didn’t know. It’s somewhat disingenuous,” Minnan-Wong said. “There’s been a great deal of discussion over Jarvis Street over the past two years. We know where the bike lanes are. We know what the bike lanes are. I think at the end of the day, you’re either for them or against them. I don’t know what you hope to achieve by having another meeting. It’s simply a way to delay that decision”
Meslin said a proper consultation would have allowed both sides, for and against, to organize and marshal evidence; for example, testimonials from doctors about the health effects of the lanes or students of nearby Jarvis Collegiate.
Minnan-Wong said Meslin didn’t speak out over a lack of public consultation on the Richmond separated lane pilot project, suggesting he supports public consultation only when it suits him. Meslin said this accusation “doesn’t make sense.” He said the amount of consultation necessary for a pilot project was met in the case of Richmond and the proposal was in the city report.
The question remains whether they will one day be able to work together again. Minnan-Wong stands by the bike plan that is going to be voted on this week. He said it represents an investment in cycling infrastructure of nearly $43 million in five years—nearly double what Mayor Miller invested in his final term. As for the so-called war on the bike, he said those charges are trumped up.
“There are some individuals who might want to torque this up and create this crisis and suggest we’re not investing in cycling infrastructure. That’s patently false.”
The fact is, some of those individuals were part of Minnan-Wong’s outreach to the cycling community. The same is true of the critics who say the removal of lanes on Jarvis, Birchmount and Pharmacy will lead to a net loss of bike lanes.
“There’s more to this bike plan than just one year,” Minnan-Wong said. “I don’t think it’s a fair representation just to capture this year as a sole representation of the work that we’re trying to do.”
The plan will focus on the separated lane network connecting Richmond, Sherbourne, Wellesley, St. George and Beverley, and routes through parks and ravines. Minnan-Wong said the next steps include a cycling education centre and creating a route connecting Scarborough to downtown through hydro corridors in the Don Valley.
Meslin will continue his advocacy work while shutting out the councillor. He did it before, when, for four years, he didn’t talk to Councillor Paul Ainslie.
He still has some faith in Minnan-Wong’s commitment to bikes—though he thinks the councillor and the mayor have a very suburban perspective on what proper cycling infrastructure is.
Maybe they won’t be sharing any frozen dairy treats any time soon, but they were once something like allies. Now Meslin is organizing to save the bike lanes on Jarvis. In advance of this week’s vote, he has promoted a petition by the Toronto Cyclist Union and is encouraging cyclists to turn up at council and “vote with their bodies.”
“It’s easy to sign a petition, to send an email, to make a phone call—if you’re taking a few hours out of your day to go to city hall, obviously you feel very strongly about something,” he said. “I think it’s the strongest statement you can make in support of something is actually take the time to go to the council meeting.”
Shutting out a councillor might be another way of sending that message.
“I was optimistic that these folks might be interested in talking to people they didn’t agree with and really embracing the democratic process,” he said. “I think the outcome of this proves that wasn’t the case.”
“As we’ve seen with other administrations, they think they know what’s best and they’re just pushing it down everyone’s throat and doing whatever they can to minimize debate and consultation.”