April 29, 2016

Streetfight in Toronto

Full house at PWIC
If there is one word to describe Monday, April 25, it is Streetfight! It all started with a packed room at the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee meeting, which debated the Bloor Street bike lane pilot project. 30 community members took the opportunity to depute (26 supporters and 4 opponents), including some children and youth. Given the large number of speakers, deputations were cut from five minutes to three. In spite of this demonstration of support, 243 letters sent to PWIC (most in support), and 9,309 Bloor Loves Bikes pledge signatures after removing duplicates; the committee was deadlocked and sent the motion to next week’s city council meeting without recommendations. (link to motion & webcast) Councillor Holyday constantly questioned supporters which indicated his opposition to the pilot project, while Edward Keenan’s Toronto Star article called out Councillor Robinson’s objection over insufficient information. Councillors McMahon and Perruzza supported the pilot, while Moeser and Lee were absent.

In a strange sense of timing, former New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan was in town the same evening to talk about her book “Streetfight”; prompting Cherise Burda of the Ryerson City Building Institute to open the session by referencing that day’s street fight at PWIC. Sadik-Khan then asked the audience of approximately 100 people what they saw in streets. Cars? People? Bicycles? A reference was then made to the old video game Frogger, which Sadik-Khan suggested calling “Pedestrian” to some laughter. Throughout the talk, she kept the audience engaged with some good humour, her experiences with NYCDOT and Bloomberg Associates, and how they apply to Toronto.
Former NYC Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan
Some of these experiences included the awkward start of her role in 2007 when then Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked why she wanted to be traffic commissioner, to which she answered she didn’t want to be traffic but rather transportation commissioner. It turned out Bloomberg was already pushing for PlanYC; a city plan which sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, rebalance New York’s streets for pedestrian and cycling safety, and improve public transit. The main initiatives done during her tenure – discussed in greater detail in her book – include the following:
  • Reducing lane widths to accommodate separated bike lanes and other uses
  • Creating over 60 pedestrian plazas using basic tools like paint, bollards, and planters, including the flagship Times Square plaza
  • Implementing London-inspired wayfinding signs
  • Improving bus service with Select Bus Service
  • Launching Citibike bike share program
Opponents of Prospect Park West bike lane; proving why improving
pedestrian and cycling safety is a street fight
One chapter in Streetfight which cracked me up was about Citibike. It discussed some frivolous lawsuits regarding station placement (all of which were dismissed), a reporter’s mishap while trying one of the bikes, reactions from comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and a Wall Street Journal editorial board member who claimed Citibike stations “begrimed” city neighbourhoods. This particular rant was so ridiculous Jon Stewart responded “they’re just f***ing bikes, lady”. The issue of aesthetics would better apply to a beat up two tonne vehicle parked on a street all day. Speaking of parking, Sadik-Khan reminded the audience “cars don’t shop, people do” and cited the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation's Annex study as justification for building bike lane pilot projects such as Bloor. She also gave a shout out to local organizations such as Cycle Toronto, Metcalf Foundation, and TCAT.
Q&A session with Janette Sadik-Khan & Christopher Hume
The talk concluded with a Q&A session with former Toronto Star transportation reporter Christopher Hume based on questions sent by the audience on Twitter. Hume started by saying there was more than enough expertise among the audience to transform Toronto’s streets, but the political element is lacking. Sadik-Khan noted Toronto is currently hitting its stride with active transportation and that citizens can change their streets tomorrow. The infamous Remenyi Music store – whose owner ridiculed the idea of transporting pianos by bicycle – was brought up when discussing the business impact of bike lanes. As for the planning process, New York City hosts 2000 community consultations per year and Bloomberg’s leadership helped ensure the 11 commissioners responsible for city streets knock down their silos and unify standards. For a final remark, Sadik-Khan said transforming streets is “not anti-car but pro-choice”, while stressing the need to focus on safety.
With the talk finished and my copy of Streetfight signed – a powerful yet entertaining book worthy of any city builder’s collection – it’s time to resume the fight for safer streets and look forward to next week’s city council vote. A fight we can and must win.

Bring it on!
Rob Z (e-mail)

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