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Gridlocked: how incompetence, pandering and baffling inertia have kept Toronto stuck in traffic

Gridlocked: The Botched Union Station Reno

(Image: Peter Andrew)

Getting around the city, by public transit or by car, has become a perpetual nightmare of sardine-tin crowds, endless queues and construction bottlenecks. Gridlock is the lightning-rod issue of this mayoral race, with candidates sparring over which transportation fix—underground subways, surface subways, LRT, more buses, more bike lanes, no bike lanes, more speed bumps, no speed bumps—is best. But to voters, who’ve endured a generation-long succession of false starts, bad decisions and political interference, it’s all empty promises. Toronto’s epic infrastructure fail has put commuters in a fury and brought the city to a halt. Here’s a list of the most egregious scandals in recent memory—and who’s to blame.

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Everybody hates Adelaide Street’s new bike lane

(Image: PostTweetism/Twitter)

(Image: PostTweetism/Twitter)

The official opening of Adelaide Street’s new separated bike lane should have been a moment worth celebrating for Toronto’s two-wheeled commuters, who had waited almost three years for the project to wind its way from city hall’s drawing boards to downtown pavement. And yet, judging by the reaction in the media and elsewhere online, the only thing worse than no bike lane at all is a bike lane that isn’t perfect.

The controversy stems from the fact that the lane has no physical separation from the rest of the street—just the usual lines of white paint. Because of the wording of a June city council decision, everyone was expecting, at minimum, a row of flexible bollards to protect the new lane from Adelaide’s heavy auto traffic.

The reason the bollards have failed to materialize isn’t entirely clear. Stephen Buckley, the city’s transportation manager, has told the Star that, because the new lane is part of a pilot project, the city has some latitude to experiment with different lane configurations if it wants. In other words, there are no bollards because bureaucrats don’t want them there.

For obvious reasons, this hasn’t gone over well with bike advocates. Cycle Toronto is in full-on publicity mode and Now Magazine has taken up the cause. Meanwhile, at street level, every motorist incursion into the Adelaide bike lane is being documented by cell-phone-wielding cyclists, who have been posting their pictures on Twitter and eliciting the kind of collective outrage usually reserved for war crimes. Here’s a small sample.

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Cyclists, prepare to dodge some scooters: the city wants to start allowing e-bikes in bike lanes

(Image: Michael Gil)

(Image: Michael Gil)

In a move that seems guaranteed to invite backlash from cyclists, a newly released city staff report recommends that the city make it legal for owners of so-called e-bikes—those electric scooters with tiny, vestigial pedals—to ride in most bike lanes.

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Q&A: Toronto’s chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat on public transit, The Voice and taking a pay cut

Q&A: Jennifer Keesmaat

You left a rather prosperous job as a partner at a private firm six months ago to become Toronto’s chief planner, and you took a pay cut of more than 40 per cent in the process. Who does that?
I don’t know! Look: my friend died of cancer last year, at age 39. Gone. I know this sounds heavy, but I want every day to matter. I didn’t hate what I did, but I love what I’m doing now.

For a professional planner, you’ve got a surprisingly haphazard office. I count four paintings on the floor waiting to be hung. What’s the deal?
Oh no! I’m mortified, because I am actually extremely particular. I’ve got big dreams for this office, but I’m busy planning a city. The walls used to be yellow and there was bad art everywhere, so I painted everything white and ordered new furniture, and I don’t want to hang anything until it arrives.

You’re a big fan of bike lanes and walkable neighbourhoods, which can sometimes put you at odds with the mayor. Your husband played football against Ford in high school. Did that connection help break the ice?
It did. When I told him who I was married to, he said, “Oh, Tommy Freeman! He was big and fast!” My husband’s team won the Metro Bowl, and he was a starting rookie fullback at the University of Guelph. He was hard to miss if you were following football at the time.

Where did you two meet?
At Muskoka Woods summer camp. I was a basketball instructor; he was a waterski instructor. We got married 18 years ago. Today, he runs a company that sells products to five-star hotels—everything from lighting to art.

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Read emails from Rob Ford’s office about several past civic dramas 

The Globe and Mail recently published an inside look at Rob Ford’s communication approach based on memos obtained through freedom-of-information requests. Now, the paper has released several of the emails themselves, which provide talking points on hot-button topics such as the Jarvis Bike lanes, Gary Webster’s firing and Ford’s refusal to bow to Toronto Public Health’s request to hire two full-time nurses (the memo helpfully points out there’s no such thing as “free money”). [Globe and Mail]

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Is Rob Ford waging a war on bikes?

(Image: veggiefrog)

It’s always fun when news agencies outside of Toronto pay attention to the city’s political scene, but this BBC clip about Toronto’s “war on bikes” just makes us sad. Setting the tone with some tense background music, the two-minute video features a series of Torontonians talking about how dangerous it is to get around on a bike in the city (which is certainly true) and placing all of the blame on Rob Ford for being “awful.” Since Ford refused repeated interview requests, the BBC did the next best thing: used old, grainy footage of him railing against cyclists and saying “it’s their own fault” if they get killed. And while the article accompanying the video gives a brief shout-out to council’s decision to upgrade and separate some existing bike lanes, it’s mostly a rebuke of the city’s cycling infrastructure, with Ford cast as the sole villain—even though the city’s pre-Ford track record on cycling was also spotty. We agree that the Ford administration, with its “war on the car” rhetoric, hasn’t been a cyclist’s best friend, but we’re not sure rallying beneath the “war on bikes” banner is the way to get Toronto’s inadequate infrastructure improved. It’s likely to create more hostility, not bike lanes. Watch the video [BBC News] »

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Editor’s Letter (May 2012): the city is in the midst of a cultural renaissance—except at city hall

Sarah FulfordThe spectacle at city hall has become a common obsession, even among people who never before cared much about municipal politics. It’s part comedy, party tragedy, and overall the weirdest show in town. The carnival-like atmosphere reached its apex when Rob Ford jumped on a giant scale and turned his weight problem into a public exhibit. David Miller, for better or for worse, was at least sensible enough to drop his extra pounds before discussing it with the world. In our cover story this month (“The Incredible Shrinking Mayor”), the writer, Marci McDonald, makes the case that beneath all the Ford family buffoonery is something quite dark. And also sad. The portrait that emerges from her sweeping narrative is of a man who would rather be coaching football than running the city. In fact, he’s a failed football player and reluctant mayor, much like George W. Bush was a reluctant president who really wanted to be baseball commissioner. And it’s no fun to watch someone ill-suited to his job struggle on a daily basis, particularly when the stakes are so high.

If you closely follow the day-to-day skirmishes at city hall—over subways, the waterfront, bike lanes, labour unrest—you might start believing that Toronto is hopelessly debilitated, which just isn’t the case. This is, I believe, a great moment for Toronto. The city is more energetic, creative and prosperous today than maybe ever before. In a recent issue of Toronto Life, we ran a profile of the city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who said something that stuck with me: “Right now city hall is completely out of touch with the urbanism and energy that I feel in our neighbourhoods. We’re in a period of cultural renaissance and transformation.”

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The battle over the Jarvis Street bike lanes begins again

(Image: Half my Dad's age)

Now that it’s clear—abundantly so—that Rob Ford can be beat, the Toronto Cyclists Union has decided to revive last summer’s fight to save the Jarvis Street bike lanes. The group is brandishing a letter from a law firm that says the bike lanes can’t be painted over and the centre vehicle lane put back in without an environmental assessment. Though the delaying tactics may work in the short term, it seems unlikely that the union would find the necessary council support to save the cycling path—even a fiscal conservative like Karen Stintz, who may have been swayed by the exorbitant cost of removal, has been unwavering in her view that the Jarvis lanes are unnecessary (and a danger to families). Read the entire story [Toronto Star] »

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Stephen Marche: an unflinching assessment of Jack Layton’s dubious legacy

The next NDP leader will be obligated to adopt Jack Layton’s Toronto-born brand of socialism—childlike, sentimental, and entirely ineffective

The Second Coming of LaytonJack Layton, posthumously, has more influence over Canadian left-wing politics than any living person. When Nycole Turmel, the NDP’s interim chief, announced the date for the party’s March leadership convention, she said, “We will not replace Jack Layton,” the implication being that Layton is irreplaceable. And yet, the main leadership candidates appear to be trying their hardest to prove they can replace the irreplaceable. Brian Topp, the quintessential backroom operator, recently gained prominence as a member of Layton’s inner circle and the author of How We Almost Gave the Tories the Boot: The Inside Story Behind the Coalition. (Note to file: books with the word “almost” in the title are almost never worth reading.) Thomas Mulcair, the MP from Outremont, promotes himself as the creator of Layton’s strategy for taking Quebec, and therefore the most likely candidate to maintain that legacy-defining victory. Peggy Nash, MP for Parkdale–High Park, is the candidate most similar to Layton personally: an urbanist, supported by artists like Sarah Polley, and inspiring in a safe sort of way. (She wants to make Canada a global leader in innovation. Who doesn’t?)

No matter whom the NDP delegates select to replace Layton, his memory will shape the aims of the party for the foreseeable future. So the time has come to evaluate his legacy clearly, unflinchingly. The popular narrative—certainly the party’s narrative—of his time in federal politics casts the story as an unadulterated victory. And in one sense it was: when Layton took over, the NDP held 14 seats in the House of Commons. Within a year, he had nearly doubled the party’s share of the popular vote. Seven years of steady rises culminated with the NDP winning 103 seats in 2011. The expansion of the party under Layton was much larger than anyone could have imagined.

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The Anti-Ford: Kristyn Wong-Tam believes Toronto is in better shape than you’re being told

In her first year on city council, Kristyn Wong-Tam hogged the spotlight with proposals to ban shark fin soup, save bike lanes and found a municipal bank. She’s a charismatic lesbian immigrant art lover who once lived on the street—the exact opposite of our mayor in every way

Kristyn Wong-Tam | The Anti-Ford

(Image: Naomi Harris)

The first time Kristyn Wong-Tam clashed with Rob Ford, she lay down on the carpet outside his office in protest. It was March 2008, and Ford was a councillor from Etobicoke, an outspoken character on the fringes of city politics with a talent for alienating his colleagues. Earlier that month, Ford had famously delivered a rambling speech in support of the economic advantages of holiday shopping hours that could have been cribbed from a 19th-century pamphlet about the Yellow Peril. “Those Oriental people work like dogs. They work their hearts out. They are workers non-stop. They sleep beside their machines,” Ford said on the floor of council, punching the air with his fist for emphasis. “I’m telling you, the Oriental people, they’re slowly taking over.”

That last phrase rankled Wong-Tam. At the time, the 36-year-old Chinese-Canadian was a successful realtor with no ambitions to become a city councillor, a job she saw as demanding far too much time for too little compensation. She did, however, have a long history of rabble-rousing—for gay rights, for women’s equality, for immigrants’ rights—and she believed that Ford’s comment was a xenophobic stereotype that needed to be corrected. She decided to ask for an apology.

After her emails and phone calls went unanswered, Wong-Tam brought a group of around 20 Asian protesters down to city hall. Showing a talent for media-friendly political theatre, they walked down to the press gallery wearing white dress shirts and ties, what Wong-Tam called the “Asian office uniform,” and announced they were looking for Councillor Ford. “Essentially, we’re a group of people who are working very hard,” Wong-Tam quipped, walking to Ford’s office as members of the press trailed behind her. When they found that Ford wasn’t in the building, the group brought out various contraptions—blenders, sewing machines, toasters—and lay down to sleep beside them. Cameras flashed. The video ran on loop on CP24 all afternoon.

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Turns out installing, and then promptly removing, the Jarvis bike lane is wasteful and expensive 

Last week the Toronto Cyclists Union revealed the cost of removing the Jarvis bike lane to be $272,000, significantly more than the $200,000 estimate put forward when council voted to scrap the lane last summer. The debate over the politically motivated decision included much posturing and chest thumping, and it turned out the lane had little effect on driving times on Jarvis anyway. Oh, also, the $272,000 cost of removal can now be added to the $86,000 installation cost. Read the entire story [Toronto Cyclists Union] »

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Apparently, Markham and other Toronto suburbs are stealing downtown’s “mojo” 

The Grid has some upsetting news for all the latte-sipping, bicycle-riding, downtown pinkos who are pining for more “urbanist” policies: Markham is looking better and better. The weekly reports that Toronto suburbs are adopting policies and tackling projects that would make Jane Jacobs proudlike networks of bike lanes and improved rapid transit. Even more interesting, though, is that while these sorts of civic initiatives may seem sacrilegious to Rob Ford, they’re being undertaken by a Markham mayor who’s simultaneously slashing spending and cutting staff. Which makes us wish the politicians in the clamshell would focus more on the possibility of progress and less on service cuts and regressive policies (even with a fiscal conservative at the helm)—because, seriously, it’s kind of embarrassing when Markham is kicking your ass. Read the entire story [The Grid] »

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Wong vs. Wong: Denzil Minnan-Wong calls Kristyn Wong-Tam’s Bank of Toronto stupid, insane and illegal

Earlier this week, Kristyn Wong-Tam suggested that the city establish its own bank. Critics responded with choice quotes like, “it’s certainly the worst idea I’ve heard today” (the vice president of research for C. D. Howe) and “the whole basis of this is incredibly flawed” (a U of T finance professor). But, naturally, Wong-Tam’s adversary on council, Denzil Minnan-Wong, had the choicest response of them all: “It is one of those stupid, insane ideas that not only is illegal, it is beyond comprehension.” Combined with the councillor’s push to remove Jarvis bike lanes in Wong-Tam’s ward and his call for a study of the scramble intersection without consulting her, it’s starting to look like Minnan-Wong really has an axe to grind with his rookie colleague. Or maybe a great big crush. Read the entire story [Toronto Sun] »

(Images: Christopher Drost)

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Urban guru Richard Florida joins the chorus of voices warning that the London riots could happen in Toronto

(Image: Ed Schipul)

We were somewhat skeptical when the Toronto Star’s Christopher Hume made the argument two weeks ago that Toronto could see London-style riots in the near future. But with other city sages also putting forward similar arguments—including Richard Florida, the head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and senior editor at The Atlantic, in this weekend’s Globe and Mail—the idea that the city’s class divisions could someday prove catastrophic is starting to seem a little more serious.

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Josh Matlow wants a $500 fine for drivers who park in the curb lane—but will that ever get past city council?

Josh Matlow wants to make curb-parkers pay, big time (Image: Toronto.ca)

Look out, road hogs—Josh Matlow is coming after you. The rookie councillor is set to put a motion before city council next month that would increase the fine for drivers who take up a lane (including a, gasp, bike lane) of a major road during the morning or afternoon rush hour. The current fine, which is rarely if ever levied, is $40 to $60, and Matlow wants to pump that number up to a whopping $500. So he’s not inventing a new crime, only punishing one much more severely. But, of course, the rub is that the current city council hasn’t exactly shown an appetite for punishing motorists.

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