Vengeance is Ford’s

July 17, 2011

Upper Jarvis Street was a lovely avenue when my grandfather’s grandfather, William R. Johnston, built his mansion on it in 1875. He and his family lived there until 1916, when they were part of the exodus of Toronto’s high society north to the suburbs of Rosedale and Forest Hill. Today, neighbours call 571 Jarvis, at the corner of Isabella, The Grey Lady and it serves as office and training space for Casey House. Meanwhile, Jarvis St. became a battleground for competing visions of what Toronto can and should be.

One sides sees Jarvis as a 1950s-style “traffic corridor,” a glorified highway to zip central Toronto residents downtown and provide suburbanites an alternative to the Don Valley Parkway’s congestion. Another vision, championed by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam among others, would have Jarvis as a pedestrian-friendly cultural corridor. Of course, we didn’t hear much about cultural corridors at city council this week, just rage over bike lanes.

Jarvis was actually an unlikely site for such a crusade. Despite the whining of the soccer moms in Councilor Karen Stintz’s North Toronto ward, the bike lanes weren’t really that disruptive for carists. Maybe they added a couple of minutes to the commute, but the five-lane system was far from elegant and left the lanes too narrow to really be safe. As Councilor Josh Matlow noted, the bike lanes actually improved the road for drivers. Meanwhile, let’s face it, if we could install just one north-south bike lane between the one on Sherbourne and the one on St. George and Beverly, we wouldn’t put it on Jarvis—we’d want it on Bay or Yonge. Besides, bike lanes aren’t essential to a cultural corridor; in fact, they meant the sidewalks weren’t widened as originally planned.

Nevertheless, the cyclists picked my great-great-grandfather’s old street to make their stand. Inevitably, they were frustrated that the carists showed absolutely no understanding of even the most rudimentary elements of transportation planning. Mayor Rob Ford’s allies treated self-serving anecdotes as data and dismissed contrary evidence as corrupt. They also delighted in their procedural deviousness. So while the cycling community held out hope that the vote would be close, the bike brigade never had a chance.

For Ford Nation, this skirmish was about far more than bike lanes or even just a clash of competing visions—it was a triumph of vengeance over vision. Ford and his faction on the previous council felt so dismissed by the Miller administration that once they grabbed power, they were going to make damn sure to treat the council’s left wing the same way. Only worse. (This comes as no surprise to anyone who understands Ford’s essential childishness.) More than that, the mayor is determined to undo as much of Miller’s legacy as he possibly can, no matter the merit or the cost. Transit City’s four LRT lines? Now just one. The Fort York bridge? Gone. Jarvis as a cultural corridor? Nope. Instead, the five lanes will return at a cost of $500,000 to respected taxpayers.

Those of us who saw Don Cherry’s rant at Ford’s investiture as classless and inappropriately partisan missed the real message: he was signaling that Ford’s reign would be all about spite. But vengeance is not only a disastrous way to run a city, it’s a foolish political strategy.

So the bad news is: a lot of things in Toronto are going to get much worse before they have a chance to get any better. By shrinking the planned expansion of transit (and even cutting back on existing service), by making our streets more inhospitable to cyclists and by completely ignoring pedestrians, Ford ensures that our roads will become even more congested.

But the good news is: Ford’s government by vengeance ensures that voters will react by giving a strong and clear mandate to a city builder with a vision of Toronto as a place that works for everyone, not just those behind the wheel. And someday Jarvis will become a cultural corridor because those are the kinds of streets great cities nurture. I’m pretty sure that’s what William R. Johnston would want for his old ‘hood.

— submitted by Tim Falconer is the author of three books, including Drive: A Road Trip through Our Complicated Affair with the Automobile.