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The Strange Tale of the Politics of Separated Bikelanes

Minnan-Wong in the Sherbourne bikelane

The National Post has an interesting article about Seinfeld-esque Bizarro World that is forming around the issue of separated bikelanes in Toronto.

Denzil Minnan-Wong, head of the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee, is pushing a plan of 4 streets in downtown Toronto having physically-separate bikelanes to ensure safety for cyclists (which includes novice and tourist cyclists on Bixi Toronto bikes). Minnan-Wong has not been the biggest supporter of bike infrastructure in the past, voting against Bixi Toronto (he has since come around), the University Ave. separate bikelane (he helped defeat this bikelane) and the Jarvis bikelane (he failed to defeat this one).  Needless to say, it’s weird having Minnan-Wong, a big Rob Ford ally, promoting great bike infrastructure.


Vaughan speaking about something at City Hall

The most vocal opponent on Council of this plan is Adam Vaughan, the most prominent anti-Ford Councillor at City Hall these days.  Most of the proposed separated bikelanes fall in his ward, and it sounds like he’s against it because Minnan-Wong is for it.  He also is very critical of the Toronto Cyclists Union for endorsing this plan – because they are trying to work with the Ford Administration in promoting bike infrastructure.


So… what’s going on here?  Here are some things to remember:

1) Minnan-Wong deserves credit for pursuing a forward-looking policy meant to increase safety for cyclists in downtown Toronto.  This will not only increase safety for the cyclists there are, but encourage new cyclists to hit the road too.  At the same time, Minnan-Wong is a councillor in North York (and part of Scarborough)… so pushing for bikelanes downtown is different than pushing for bikelanes in his own ward.

2) Adam Vaughan should not be criticized too harshly.  He’s doing a great job of pointing out the failings of the Ford Regime at City Hall, and if this passion prevents him from seeing the benefits of this bikelane plan, then so be it.  This is also HIS ward we’re talking about – and he has to balance the needs and wants of ALL of his constituents when doing his job.  He wasn’t elected to only represent the cyclists (or wannabe cyclists) in his ward… he represents all of the people there, even the ones who didn’t vote for him.

3) The Toronto Cyclists Union has a mandate to work with whoever is in power at City Hall to promote bike infrastructure and make the streets of Toronto friendlier for those on two wheels.  This is equally applicable with Mayor Rob Ford as it was with Mayor David Miller.

What do you think of this strange situation? Leave your thoughts below in the comments.

  • Geoff Kettel

    I support the idea of the protected grid but there needs to be full disclosure on the grid plan and a place to discuss before a decision is made. The risk of a quid pro quo concerns me – you get the protected grid but we eliminate the Jarvis bike lane? The grid need to be in addition to – to check out a new approach – not instead of part of an existing bike lane system. And we are likely losing the place to discuss this – the Toronto Bicycling Cttee – next week at Council

  • Antony

    Adam Vaughan may smell a trap. If he’s going to run for Mayor next election, Rob Ford’s campaign against him will be that he’s a “downtown elitist” who’s going to narrow all the suburban roads to put in bike lanes and streetcars.

    I’m going to be charitable to Mr. Vaughan and assume that he’s pushing the ‘local control’ angle for tactical reasons.

  • lukev

    Antony: I have no sympathy for such political games. It’s obvious that is trying desperately to make Ford and Minnan-Wong look bad for his personal reasons. He’s putting himself on the wrong side of history in the process.

  • Tim

    Adam Vaughan had better figure this out, I dumping him as a facebook friend as soon as post and tell him how disappointed I am in his stance!!!

  • Peter M

    I was wondering why 8 years of Millers so called bike friendly council yielded so little progress in developing a bike lane infrastructure in Toronto. Now I’m starting to see that it was a bunch of BS
    and that all politicians are full of crap. I thought Adam Vaughn was progressive, turns out he’s just another paper pushing bureaucrat.

  • Tim

    Amen brother Peter M!!!

  • Antony

    Fair enough, I’m not defending Vaughan, just trying to make sense of why he’s behaving this way, with the goal of figuring out how to apply pressure while leaving him a face-saving escape route.

    If my guess is correct, then the way to get separated bike lanes approved with Vaughan’s support is for local citizens to turn up at community groups and convince a few more.

    For example, if you’re in Vaughan’s ward, do you go to your local Residents’ Association meetings? I know that no-one spoke in favor of the Harbord lanes at the Harbord Village RA meeting, and the association subsequently opposed the plan.

    If enough local associations go on the record as supporting the plan, then Vaughan can withdraw his opposition and save face since “The consistuents have spoken”

  • As much respect as I have for Councillor Vaughan, I don’t really get his opposition to the separated bike lane plan. Then again I don’t trust the National Post to properly report that angle. Instead, Vaughan is a whiny elitist, according to the Post.

    As much as separated bike lanes have problems, I’m excited to see them get built. The routes are a bit questionable, like do we really need to separate cyclists on side streets like Beverley/St. George and Sherbourne? And I’m not happy that it might mean that we lose painted lanes on other streets (Jarvis), but if it works well downtown, that’s a big step to getting better infrastructure outside the core, and more cyclists on the roads.

    Of course the TCU is on side with the separated lanes. We should all be positively jumping up and down with excitement and joy that the Fords are doing anything positive at all with cycling infrastructure. Seriously. That’s going to change real quick when we start staring down a billion dollar budget shortfall next year.

  • smartercommunities

    Separated bike lanes are much needed to tap into the 60% of people – who are too afraid to bike in mixed car traffic but would bike if in a protected bike lane – to really shift the modal share from driving to active transportation. This vision is exciting.

    I am remaining open but skeptical as Councillor Minnan-Wong’s actions will speak louder than his words. Would it not be convenient for Councillor Minnan-Wong to put in separated bike lanes that fail, and then to take out all of the painted bike lanes on arterials to alleviate traffic congestion (don’t want bikes slowing down cars in mixed traffic) and say that separated bike lanes never worked and are too expensive? Wouldn’t that be convenient? And at the same time get all of the bike supporters out rallying behind this – unwittingly – and have them help take down Councillors who have been longstanding champions of cycling?

    That would be so convenient. It is so perfect – he’s pulling a Harper.. he’s already there… bringing down Councillor Vaughan, who knows that separated bike lanes are very expensive, and would do nothing to tame car traffic (noise and pollution and speed). By making Richmond and Adelaide into two-way streets, Vaughan’s proposal would reduce the expressway-feel of those streets and potentially make the downtown more liveable.

    Councillor Minnan-Wong is “sticking it” to Councillor Vaughan where it hurts him, and Minnan-Wong is not actually putting forward a separated bike lane grid that actually taps into the 60% of people who would bike if there was a protected bike lane network. No, he’s just sticking it to Vaughan where it hurts him.

    I encourage people to watch Councillor Minnan-Wong closely and to see what happens to the bike network when this Council, and in particular, Executive Committee are done with it. Might see existing bike lanes disappear? Funny that. Bye bye bike lanes, and bye bye Vaughan. Look – expensive protected bike lanes went in that are not working! Cyclists are a bunch of whiners cuz you can’t please them? The evil plans works so perfectly. It’s scary… I hope this is not how it plays out.

    I am not happy with how Councillor Vaughan is losing his temper and attacking City staff in Cycling – and being baited by Councillor Minnan-Wong and some of the cycling constituents who are only seeing a narrow part of the picture, at the expensive of other city and liveable issues – like complete streets – pedestrian access and safety – and shared streets and public spaces. Vaughan is so exasperated – he’s showing his anger and frustration by being squeezed by the crazy right-wingers and the extreme bike advocates… No one in the middle gets it, and city politics keep going down the drain in Toronto….

    It is so sad to see things deteriorate… on the streets and among advocates… I can’t believe how quickly people attack Vaughan and City staff… Yet give Minnan-Wong all of the benefit of the doubt.

  • Antony

    I hadn’t heard about the “remove bike lanes on Jarvis” angle. I’m willing to believe it, but where is it officially said?

  • smartercommunities

    Just focus on what Executive Council does and the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee, and Minnan-Wong…

    You might see more than Jarvis bike lanes gone… over the next few years… Ford’s just waiting for Hudak to get in power at the Province, and the real damage will begin.

    Hopefully some of the cycling constituents will stop attacking Vaughan and start watching the Fords, Minnan-Wong and Executive Committee on what projects are not getting funding, and what’s missing from the big picture for the bicycle network, for pedestrians, for transit, and for city planning.

    Given Minnan-Wong’s track record compared to Vaughan’s – it’s pretty horrible that the media and some cycling advocates are attacking Vaughan so hard, and being so easily manipulated and distracted from transit service cuts, the insane waste of money that is burying Eglinton LRT for twice the amount! $8 Billion for a $4 Billion project… what’s several billions when the pedestrian and cycling bridge is clearly a waste at $23 Million… compared to $4,000 Million… Love how this Executive Council can understand numbers… and yet Vaughan is getting so much crap. It’s sad… when the Minnan-Wong and Fords are succeeding at divide and conquer.

  • Eric the Moving Target 4 Cars

    In the grand scheme of things, let’s not get caught up in the details. So I’ll call it as I see it.

    All the politicians mentioned in this article = NOT DOING ANYTHING FOR CYCLISTS.

    I don’t care about their office politics or the current political climate. I’ll use Rob Fords attitude:


    Who’s going to get anything done? No one lest we mobilize ourselves. Let’s stop deferring the decisions to City Hall, who’s too busy running a city and could care less about a couple of stripes on the road. Let’s do something. Enough talk.

  • lukev

    I didn’t know what the phrase “left wing kook” meant until I read that comment by smartercommunities.

    Lay off the conspiracy theories, dude.

  • Antony

    I’m not going to tell smartercommunities he’s wrong – Ford’s track record is the worst, and Minnan-Wong’s not much better (despite his recent change of heart). Trust will be an issue for a lot of folks. Maybe there is some diabolical double-cross in the works. Who knows.

    Regardless of that, what’s to gain from opposing M-W’s publicly-declared plans, besides the feeling that ‘if the Ford administration wants it, it’s bad’? If the plan dies for lack of support, will that somehow lead to improvements in other cycling infrastructure?

    I would argue no, it will just confirm that bicycle infrastructure is a political death trap of NIMBYism, and discourage any politicians from going near it anytime soon.

    Am I wrong?

  • John

    If you listen closely to what DMW has actually said about bike infrastructure in the past, he has been mainly critical of the ad hoc nature of much of the planning. Other criticisms were classic conservative skepticism of the quasi-religious approach to cycling advocacy that saw cycling as inherently holy, as opposed to a practical transportation alternative that could justify its place alongside the car, walking or transit. For example, Jarvis was never in the bike plan, but then suddenly it was added. Same with the University bike lanes, which were also not connected to any other bike lane. Karen Stintz has expressed similar criticisms, and like DMW, she has also shown signs of being open to more bike infrastructure … IF properly planned, and conceived from the standpoint of regular cyclists and not cycle warriors.

    I have believed for a long time that cycling could and should justify itself using the same practical language that people use to justify other transportation investments. This is the language I believe DMW is responding to, but Vaughan is still operating on cultural pinko terms; ie: DMW is right-wing, cyclists are left-wing, therefore DMW is no friend of cyclists.

    This is Toronto’s first bike plan that has been conceived as a connected network — no little lane segments here and there, but an actual grid. It is also the first plan that recognizes that casual cyclists are not comfortable mixing in traffic, even if there is a painted line. If we want cycling to become a true transportation alternative for ordinary folks, then this is the type of approach we need.

    Be skeptical all you want, but don’t delude yourself about the shortcomings of Miller, Vaughan and all the other so-called bike friendly politicians. The fact that Vaughan has allowed the Harbord bike lane to remain incomplete to spare a few parking spots speaks for itself.

  • Antony

    John, you make some good points, but:

    “This is Toronto’s first bike plan that has been conceived as a connected network”

    Hamish Wilson’s lid is going to flip at that one. Toronto’s had a “connected network” bike plan for 10 years.


    What we haven’t had is arguments to persuade NIMBYs, defuse the car-addicted, or rally support of the potential-future-cyclists; or the political will to push bike infrastructure through.

  • John

    Sorry, Antony (and Hamish) – I meant to say, “This is the first plan that has been conceived as a connected network that recognizes that casual cyclists are not comfortable mixing in traffic.” My paragraph awkwardly treated these as two separate points, rather than the single point I intended to express.

    DMW’s plan is distinct from separated lanes like the MGT, University or the West Railpath that are not well connected to much else; distinct from the segmented Harbord lane, Dupont lane and other bike lane fragments; and distinct from connected lanes that are still unwelcoming to less experienced cyclists.

    For cycling to become a practical alternative to the car, you need all three: connectivity, continuousness, and safety. Ad hoc planning, dependent on practically-unanimous local support, usually allows for one or two, but not all three at the same time.

  • Antony

    “Only Nixon could go to China”

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