Those of you who don’t live in Toronto are unaware, but a previously unfathomable thing came to pass on Wednesday. Toronto City Council voted in favour of a pilot project for bike lanes on one of Toronto’s major (if not the major) thoroughfares, Bloor Street. The rallying call of “Bike Lanes on Bloor” from cyclists over the last decade always struck me as mostly symbolic, if not a bit tongue-in-cheek. In car-centric Toronto, it just never seemed possible, no matter how much one hoped, that the city would ever put bike lanes on such a major road. There is much left unsettled (it’s just a pilot) and no doubt limitations (it only covers a short 2.6km stretch of the road), but there is much to be happy about. This seems a step in the right direction for addressing issues of transportation, environment (both natural and urban), and public safety. If it points to future vision of Toronto, I wholeheartedly support the pilot.
Expectedly, support for the project was not unanimous. Three councillors voted against it, all from Toronto’s “inner” suburbs. But why would councillors, whose constituents live nowhere close to the proposed pilot area, vote against such a project? Etobicoke councillor Stephen Holyday offered his rationale: “I’m here actually to stand up for the people of the west end of the city who are going to be directly impacted. This blocks the people from the west end from getting in and out.”
Holyday represents Ward 3 in Etobicoke, which you would recognise as a collection of fairly typical suburban neighbourhoods: mostly single family homes on large lots, nestled in cul-de-sacs, with major arterial roads, and a collection of strip malls along these roads. In other words, it is a quintessential car suburb. Apart from a few bike lanes on a non-major roads, and some rec-trails in the ravine system, it is a rather unwelcoming place for bikes – that is, if you are actually trying to get anywhere.
Suburbs are designed for cars – they are essentially required if you wish to get anywhere, and the surrounding infrastructure, e.g. strip malls, are made to accommodate cars. But there’s something about the design of suburbs that people often don’t consider – they’re created to simultaneously facilitate car use and shelter people from their externalities. Suburban cul-de-sacs – the residential blocks whose roads form a loop and have no thoroughfare traversing them – are designed to discourage traffic. This is a major reason why people want to live in suburbs. They are quiet, kids can play hockey or basketball on the street, people can be outside on their lawns, and not have to deal with cars zipping by their homes, with all the associated noise, risk, and pollution. Ironically, this makes suburban residential streets pretty safe for biking – but only for the kinds of bike rides that parents go on with their kids, namely, meandering around nice quiet roads with minimal car traffic. The catch is, if you actually want to use bikes as a means of transportation, you’re out of luck.
Another minor but important point: it is a fairly wealthy ward, with the median household income being substantially higher than the rest of Toronto. The majority of the people who live in this ward are home owners, living in single family homes.
Given all this, I find Holyday’s comments fairly objectionable.
The relatively privileged people who live in suburbs (the ones who can afford single family homes) also tend to be the same people who oppose densification of their neighbourhoods, on the grounds that it will increase automobile traffic (I grew up in one of Toronto’s “inner, inner” suburbs in North York, and opposition to new apartment buildings and condos was vociferous on this precise point – increased density would lead to cars on side streets). So why is it difficult for these people to understand that others also want to decrease traffic in their neighbourhoods? That people who live in the city’s core also want to be protected from the risks of cars?
Holyday sees Bloor Street primarily as a means for people to get in and out of Etobicoke. Certainly, it has multiple functions. But Holyday is relatively unconcerned with those other functions. And in its capacity as a thoroughfare, isn’t it reasonable to prioritize those who use it most frequently? Namely the people who live in its adjacent neighbourhoods? These people rarely drive to their destination. Most walk, others bike.
Many people who live in the suburbs are inconsiderate of this issue. Those who comfortably live in quiet, safe suburban neighbourhoods (and that they aggressively protect from any development that might jeopardize that quiet safety) don’t understand what people have against cars, because, paradoxically, in being so dependent on the car, they externalize its ill effects to others. Everything outside of the tiny enclave where they do not use their car (maybe no more than a one kilometre radius around their home) merely appears to them as places to drive. They do not recognize that the spaces that they primarily see as conduits to get them to and from their safe and quiet neighbourhoods are actually places people live.
This is one of the ironies of the suburban vision. There is undoubtedly an attitude of self-sufficiency in the suburbs (just consider Rob Ford’s attitude towards “downtown elites”). People want to live quietly, according to their own devices, and in relative isolation. But ultimately, this isolation – and the car dependency it requires – must be accommodated by everyone else.