TOcore’s Great Streets plan can correct mistakes from the past, and help put Toronto on the road to achieving Vision Zero

May 10, 2018

by Matt Elliott

Seven years ago, Jarvis Street broke my heart.

Toronto City Council’s debate over whether to remove the bike lanes on Jarvis in the summer of 2011 was the first time I got really fired up about a municipal issue. Living just a few blocks away from Jarvis at the time, I put my soul into it. I wrote passionate, overlong posts on my blog about why the bike lanes — approved and installed under Mayor David Miller’s administration in 2010 — should stay.

I got really nerdy about it, too. I pored through city reports and researched the unique history of the street. I transcribed speeches given by councillors who had once supported the bike lane plan, but had since changed their views. I armed myself with stats: after the installation of the Jarvis bike lanes, for instance, bicycle traffic along Jarvis tripled, while the number of collisions was reduced by 23 per cent.

And then I sat, alongside a hundred helmet-wearing cyclists, in the gallery during the city council meeting where the ultimate decision was made. I even tracked the projected council vote result with a spreadsheet.

I was young and idealistic, but I also thought – and still think – I had the facts on my side. And I thought – looking around the chamber at the room full of cyclists and urbanists that seemed just as passionate as I was about this issue – that I could help push council to make the right direction.

In short, I had hope. Hope that a majority of councillors would grasp that cities around the world were installing more bike lanes, not removing them. Hope that appeals to safety would win out.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam’s motion to keep the lanes was defeated, 18-27, the opposition led by Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong and then-mayor Rob Ford. The bike lanes on Jarvis Street were removed in November of 2012, despite last-ditch attempts by some cyclists to physically block the line-erasing machine by sitting in front of it (as reported by The Canadian Press on CBC).

I remember leaving city hall after the vote and just feeling sad about the state of the city and the priorities of the mayor and council. Wondering if there was a real point to my political involvement, when the stuff I valued about the city didn’t seem valued at all by council. When council in fact seemed okay with making one of the major ways I got around the city more dangerous. Heartbroken.

However, this was not just a case of removing some paint on the road. It also put an end to a process started in 2001 to revitalize Jarvis as a “cultural corridor.” And it restored Jarvis Street’s reversible middle lane, a feature that encourages high-speed driving and makes Jarvis one of the most unpleasant streets for pedestrians and cyclists in the downtown core.

Instead, the debate needs to be about making downtown streets more pleasant and safe to get around for people who aren’t driving cars. It needs to be about creating accessible space for walking, riding, and rolling. It needs to be about trees and public spaces;  it needs to be about designing streets in such a way that does not encourage reckless and dangerous speed, which causes injury and death.

In effect, Jarvis, with its reversible middle lane, is more like a highway than a street that runs past schools and homes. It’s my least favourite street in the downtown core.

Seven years later, though, I have a bit of hope again.

Last week, the city’s Planning & Growth committee approved the next phase of the TOcore plan for downtown Toronto. It includes a public realm plan for what planners term “Great Streets” – ambitious transformations to 12 of downtown’s most prominent streets.

Jarvis is on the list. Jarvis, my first municipal love – the one that got away.

“Once a grand and elegant tree-lined promenade, Jarvis Street today is a wide, multi-laned arterial roadway, widened in 1947 in response to increasing volumes of automobile traffic,” the report says, before laying out a plan to narrow the street by removing the reversible fifth lane, widen the sidewalks and add lots of space for trees and greenery.

The goal is to “re-establish Jarvis Street as a grand tree-lined promenade that supports civic life, celebrate its significant heritage structures and connect its significant public parks.”

There are no bike lanes in the plan. They probably should get added. But I do hope this time the debate over Jarvis – and the other “great streets” – doesn’t simply get reduced to public squabbling over whether these streets should have bike infrastructure. What’s at stake is bigger than that.

Instead, the debate needs to be about making downtown streets more pleasant and safe to get around for people who aren’t driving cars. It needs to be about creating accessible space for walking, riding, and rolling. It needs to be about trees and public spaces;  it needs to be about designing streets in such a way that does not encourage reckless and dangerous speed, which causes injury and death.

That last point is critical. The city has done a lot of valuable work over the last year on its Vision Zero initiative to eliminate road deaths. But this work is undermined by the continued existence of streets like Jarvis – streets that by design prioritize traffic speed over the experience of other road users. With high vehicle speeds, narrow sidewalks and erased bicycle infrastructure, Jarvis Street is fundamentally incompatible with Vision Zero.

When Toronto City Council considers the TOcore plan for Great Streets at their meeting later this month, Mayor John Tory and councillors need to see this as more than just aesthetic improvement. It can’t just be a meaningless aspirational exercise.

This isn’t a plan that should sit on a shelf. If approved and implemented, this plan will do more to keep people safe than any amount of signage or police enforcement blitzes – the typical ways we hear about safety.

Road safety starts with transformation. Its starts with taking space previously given to cars and trucks and redesigning that space so it’s available – and safe – for pedestrians and cyclists.

So do it. Make Toronto’s streets, including Jarvis, great at last. After seven years, please, council, un-break my heart.