Fellow Toronto cyclists, there are two things worth musing over:
1. Our fight isn’t really about the Jarvis bike lanes, and
2. Cycle Toronto is not your political advocate for better, safer bicycling in Toronto.
I’m sorry. Both are bitter pills, especially owing to the several political and physical blows we’ve withstood these past few years. Neither pronouncement is a minor indictment, and that’s probably why you won’t be hearing much about them from a Cycle Toronto spokesperson or any party with a vested interest to promote Cycle Toronto at their establishment.
As I peck this out, city staff have announced that contract workers will return to resume the Jarvis reconfiguration. Several demonstrators have vowed to continue where they left off Monday, preventing the heavy equipment from burning away the old lanes — even if their act of civil disobedience results in arrest.
Watching this sideshow has been excruciating. It’s like waiting for poison to pass through your body when you really didn’t have to ingest it at all.
Were I a betting woman (and I’m not the betting type), city contractors will probably resume under the cover of darkness as demonstrators are fast asleep. I have my stakes set on the three o’clock hour, with workers being done by the time morning rush hour begins. Keep in mind that Toronto is notorious for carrying out “emergency” operations at night.
But I must say: as someone who’s been riding a bike for nine-tenths of her life, I feel utterly dismayed with the state of cycling in Toronto.
Pleasure Cycle Toronto
For months, I’ve tried to crystallize the heart of my frustration in ways which might resonate broadly. After Monday’s civil disobedience against contract work crews, perhaps it’s time to just lay out the sorry state of cycling in Toronto. I’m even optimistic: it’s so bad right now, the only way is up.
Cycle Toronto enjoys collecting dues and handing out pretty orange stickers. It’s done little else to substantively advance the political condition of Toronto’s bicyclists.
It’s a slight exaggeration, but only just.
Strategically crucial moments when Cycle Toronto could have cut its teeth as a serious political force for bicyclists instead were times when the union dialled back and retreated with contradiction, cognitive dissonance, and benign ambiguity. Cycling adversaries have taken this as an open-arms invite to walk right over us and embolden themselves to use road rage to threaten us with bodily harm.
When the Toronto Cyclists Union, as it was originally known, was founded by Dave Meslin, the basic idea for an organized political body of mobilized bicyclists was in precisely the right place and desperately needed. It still is. Problems, however, were evident and cumulative from the get-go. The union has since incubated an ineffective, bloated entity hobbling the political might of Toronto’s diverse bicyclists.
Play some free bird!
Yvonne Bambrick, the cyclist union’s first director, very publicly eschewed wearing a helmet and set a negative precedent for bike safety advocacy. It was a squandered opportunity which a fledgling organization could have used for laying a cornerstone of commitment for better bicycling habits. While an adult cyclist’s decision to wear head protection is an elective one, Bambrick was the public face and de jure head for a community-based cycling group; with that comes an exceptional responsibility to promote best practices for cycling safety on Toronto’s arterials (versus, say, the very different conditions of Copenhagen or Portland) — especially so for youth cyclists and for others trying to establish good habits.
Even before the 2012 study which definitively found that bike helmets reduce both injuries and fatalities, years of correlative peer review recommending the use of helmets was already in place. Bambrick dismissed this with a ham-handed statement about “choice”. Were Bambrick not in a public-oriented role of leadership, her personal choice to ride bare-headed would have been of little consequence beyond her own personal risk management.
The question here was never about campaigning for compulsory helmet use, as this runs aground with class barriers for bicyclists who can’t afford a helmet. Compulsory helmet by-laws also discourage the casual use of bike-for-hire services like Bixi. But Bambrick’s decision as its de facto voice and role model put Cycle Toronto at odds with routine harm mitigation for cyclists and especially bad precedent for teaching good riding habits for our cycling successors.
Then in 2011, Cycle Toronto’s political currency was put to a stress test. This was the crucible to discover how well the young organization could weather against municipal opposition. It didn’t go well.
An item to terminate the Jarvis bike lanes, then only a year old, was expedited by Councillor John Parker, with blessing from Public Works and Infrastructure Committee (PWIC) chair Denzil Minnan-Wong. This campaign, paraded by Mayor Rob Ford and his caucus (which includes Minnan-Wong), was rammed through committee and then council. It was an embittered vow of political spite against Mayor David Miller’s previous government.
At the PWIC meeting in June 2011, Cycle Toronto’s director Andrea Garcia submitted a statement on behalf of membership. Separately, 128 independent citizens submitted statements, many of whom supporting the Jarvis lanes (in addition to a 2,000-signature petition presented by Councillor Mike Layton, who also sits as opposition on the PWIC). Garcia, along with Meslin and Herb van den Dool (of IBikeTO.ca), also gave deputations before the committee.
At the time, Cycle Toronto knew Minnan-Wong was one of its own active members. In July 2011, when he used a parliamentary manoeuvre on council floor to abruptly call the question on removing the Jarvis bike lanes, Cycle Toronto’s Garcia denounced the council’s vote. Her statement revealed a staggering political naïveté — stunning in that an organization of well more than a thousand members had magnificently failed to treat the politics of bicycling as a bona fide politics or prepared itself for the eventuality that Minnan-Wong, based on his political history, might play the union to his advantage. Instead, Garcia argued that the union’s mandate was less a matter of politics than of public safety (ironically overlooking her predecessor’s predilection against promoting basic cyclist safety through better helmet use).
(This is where doing as Bambrick does comes in handy: cue the Keenan headdesk.)
Even a cursory grasp of urban transportation history in North America provides the needed clarity to comprehend how far-reaching and entrenched the politics of bicycles on city streets has always been. Early motoring leagues, whose members were exclusively wealthy pleasure drivers (this was before the Model T revolution democratized the automobile), aggressively mobilized in the 1910s to commandeer the first asphalt-paved urban streets from other users — which had been laid down not for automobiles, but for safety bicycles. Let me say that again: paved roads were invented for safety bicycles.
Go home and tell your friends.
Given this, the act of forming a cyclist union was inherently political at its core. Community organizing is, likewise, inherently political. The founding of a cyclist union is a conscious act of of community organizing — which makes sense, given that its founder, Meslin, specializes at community organizing. If the cyclist union wasn’t political, then as an organization it would be little better than an exclusive social club. It’s doubtful a social club was what many union members signed on to support.
So for Garcia to say that Cycle Toronto wasn’t political was a costly mistake which has hurt Toronto’s bicyclists. Cycle Toronto alleged to shy from politics. Consequently cyclists have largely been left to fend for themselves as if the union hadn’t been chartered in the first place. What makes this dangerous is that the high visibility of a cyclist union gives a false sense of security that there is a political voice going to bat for them — irrespective of whether they’re a paying member. This isn’t so.
Even with the loss of the Jarvis bike lanes, the union still held a public relations wild card in its hand: to deliver a no-tolerance message against wilful efforts to undermine its core values — namely, to revoke Minnan-Wong’s membership.
His public about-face in council chambers flouted Cycle Toronto’s own by-law: specifically, section 10(iv), which empowers the union’s board of directors to revoke a membership should one “not support the mission, vision and guiding principles” of the union. Minnan-Wong’s conduct, even boasting his union membership just moments before he called for the Jarvis vote, undermined the heart of Cycle Toronto’s mission and left it egg-faced with embarrassment.
Cycle Toronto made no attempt to revoke Councillor Minnan-Wong’s membership or even demonstrate a commitment that cyclists wouldn’t be treated like political doormats. Instead, the union continued to bemoan and grieve over the Jarvis lanes as if it was the alpha and omega of a multi-modal master urban plan (hint: it isn’t, and I’ll talk about this later on).
It looks really good on paper
In early 2012, the Toronto Cyclists Union underwent a cosmetic change, removing the word “union” from its name. It aggressively redoubled to sign on more members — particularly evident at the end of the July 2012 Jarvis ride and with the appearance of point-of-purchase membership kits at local bike shops.
Even after Minnan-Wong let his membership lapse, Cycle Toronto could have rebuked and censured him as a public servant who crossed a serious alliance of citizen-bicyclists. They still could, but even after the October 2012 death knell for what was already a fait accompli on Jarvis, Cycle Toronto has all but cowed from the PWIC chair.
What one ought to expect from a 2,500-plus member club is that it have a representative present to depute at every municipal meeting item germane to the welfare of Toronto’s bicyclists and the cultivation of an active transportation policy. This is core to political advocacy, the nitty-gritty of why people mobilize: to have an efficacious, visible, vocal, persuasive presence at the municipal table. A strong organization has opponents who recognize that an unwillingness to sit to negotiate in good faith will be done at their political peril. This concept appears lost to Cycle Toronto.
In October 2012, at the PWIC meeting, Minnan-Wong sponsored an item to municipally re-classify electric motor scooters (i.e., the so-called, motor-assisted “e-bikes” with a gasoline motor scooter form factor) as “bicycles”. His wilful erosion of bicycling advocacy in Toronto delivered another message: the city, under his watch, will continue endangering Toronto’s safety bicyclists, whose meagre (and dwindling) infrastructure now stands to be commandeered by motorized vehicles manned by unlicensed, even reckless motorists — some of whom may be driving with suspended licenses.
Nevertheless, Cycle Toronto didn’t appear before the PWIC to depute against this hostile item. Instead, its director, Jared Kolb, submitted a letter to the committee which merely frowned upon the item — leaving only two citizen bicyclists to face the PWIC as deputants (disclosure: I was one of those deputants). The other five deputants favoured re-designating electric motor scooters as “bicycles”. To the committee, it looked as if bicyclists had largely conceded this issue from the get-go.
To summarize: rather than pressing forward with a bold, assertive, smart, and multi-pronged plan to champion holistic, multi-modal, active transportation while going to bat for bicyclists, Cycle Toronto is still lamenting the tactical loss of the Jarvis lanes, treating them more like a Custer’s Last Stand than a single casualty within a much wider theatre.
This brings up the other point:
Get over Jarvis. Jarvis isn’t a person, and giving it a candlelight vigil is insulting to anyone whose memory must be marked by a vigil.
As recently as Monday, Cycle Toronto cheapened the sombre ritual of candlelight vigils by promoting one for the Jarvis lanes. Rather than reserving it for a fallen bicyclist (such as for bike messenger Mike Rankin, who was struck and killed last week by a taxi which gunned its throttle to “clear” a yellow traffic light), Cycle Toronto’s obsession with Jarvis seems to be almost maniacal.
As with other fatalities still fresh in our minds, Cycle Toronto’s decision to promote a Jarvis vigil was callous and self-absorbed. In addition to Rankin, the one-year marking of Jenna Morrison’s death has just passed, and now another woman, exactly the same age as Morrison, was crushed by one of Mayor Ford’s privatized Green For Life garbage trucks and is now clinging to life.
Nearly all of Cycle Toronto’s tweets have, meanwhile, been monopolized by protest coverage on Jarvis. It’s bad enough to behave this way as an organization, but given the union’s size, it just looks clownish and gives multi-modal adversaries like Mayor Ford’s caucus even more fodder for sneering at and contributing to the very real dangers which Toronto citizens on two wheels must confront daily.
Our fight (and it is a fight) is for something immensely greater than Jarvis. Let this chapter rest. There’s much greater work to do.
tl;dr: Get over Jarvis.
More to come . . .
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About Astrid Idlewild: Astrid (@accozzaglia) is an urban design graduate from McGill. She is a film photographer, #RIDEOCCUPYSURVIVE button fundraiser for Jenna Morrison, former bike messenger, the brains behind the DenizenTO TTC subway shirts, and The Kodachrome Toronto Registry curator. She rides a Sekine (which mercifully shares only three letters with the Linus bike and little else).