Cycling Schizophrenia And Colour Blindness

I am quite perplexed at Toronto City Council’s recent schizophrenic voting behaviour when it comes to embracing and enhancing bicycle riding in our fair metropolis. Here’s why:

On May 11th just passed, I was delighted to see that city council voted overwhelming (38-8) to support a plan that would see about 1,000 bicycles available for rental at 80 stations across Toronto. A start up loan of $4.8 million was guaranteed by Council as long as the Public Bike System Company generates a minimum of 1,000 subscribers and private sponsorship support of $600,000 by end of November, 2010.

Evidently a large number on council agreed with councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker, an ardent supporter of the proposal. De Baeremaeker feels that the plan “is going to be very, very successful.” He and his other supportive council members have every right to be optimistic. The same Public Bike System Company has initiated a similar, highly successful operation in Montreal. At the end of its first year, 20,000 subscribers in that city made use of the rental operation. The company now makes available 3,000 bikes at over 300 sites. As in aforementioned Montreal and also Berlin and Paris, our urbanites and visitors could grab a bike, cycle and then drop it off at the nearest station to their destination.. The proposed fee structure is $78 annually, $28 per month or a fin for a day rental. The operation will hopefully become available by May 2011.

I was glad to see our city council giving the thumbs up to a progressive, much-needed plan such as this. Providing an opportunity for Torontonians and visitors to take a bike ride between destinations grants them another way to enjoy this great multicultural city of ours, adds a little healthy exercise to their lives and may help decrease some traffic congestion and pollution by potentially reducing some vehicle usage. A plus all round, I happily concluded.

My joy was to be short lived, only 24 hours to be exact. The very next evening, on May 12th, the same Toronto City Council turned down a motion to install two temporary bicycle lanes on University Avenue smack in the middle of the downtown core. Under the proposal, cyclists would have ridden in the two centre lanes on University Avenue, next to the pedestrian median that runs down the middle of the street. The bike lanes would have been separated from vehicles by posts. (Many other cities around the world have implemented these protection lanes.) By having the bikers use the centre lane, curb side parking would not have been affected. The lanes were to be set up from July to September this summer as a trial project.

I agreed with Yvonne Bambrick of the Toronto Cyclists’ Union who had stated earlier that she felt that with protected, bicycle-only lanes, ridership in our city would soar. “A lot of people want to get out of their cars and the number one thing we hear is, ‘I would do it if I felt safer. If there were bike lanes there I’d get on my bike more often, if I felt safer.’ So we need to be providing Torontonians with choices,” said Bambrick.

Well, Ms. Bambrick, sadly it is not to be. For some strange reason, close to half of the 44-member city council and Mayor David Miller were absent from that night’s vote. A close vote of 15-13 against was made even more exasperating when Councillor Paula Fletcher confessed she had accidentally pushed the red ‘opposing’ button instead of the green ‘in favour’ button thereby defeating the motion instead of resulting in a tie vote. (Note to Ms. Fletcher: Given your confusion regarding red and green lights, you’ll understand my trepidation at getting into a car with you behind the wheel. No wonder potential cyclists are scared.)

So how schizoid is that? One day, council gives thumbs up for an excellent proposal to increase bike use in the city and the very next night denies a pilot project that would grant safe, accessible bike routes to exactly those bikers the city wishes to attract. Don’t know about you, but I’m certainly scratching my head over that one. Surely, trying out this proposal for a mere three months was not asking too much. We’ve had road construction that paralyzed traffic on main city routes (such as on Bloor and St. Clair) that have lasted much longer than three months. The proposed University Avenue bicycle route never got a chance to be evaluated and not because it was a bad idea. Nope, it was defeated because not enough supporters on council (and also avid bicyclist David Miller) never bothered to show up to vote for its implementation, thereby allowing one councillor’s temporary colour blindness to sink the plan.

Concern now abounds if this proposal will be resurrected under the to-be-elected new mayor and council next October. If it does see the light of day again on council’s agenda, I suggest all supporting councillors arrive for that vote wearing eyeglasses with corrective lenses.  

– colour correctly submitted by Distant Cousin

Budget Proposal Goes Public

Hey-ho! Off to City Hall we went for day 2 of public deputations for the council’s budget committee’s proposed 2010 operating budget. Hopefully the sparks will fly like they did the previous evening when councilor Paula Fletcher got into it with one of the deputationees and a heckler from the gallery. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!!

Unfortunately upon our arrival, a subdued air hangs over the council chamber. Budget chief Shelley Carroll who is chairing the meeting reads a letter of apology from Councilor Fletcher and then lays down the law to the other councilor’s present about their comportment. This seems to have a chilling effect on the proceedings as the first few deputations come and go with nary a question posed by council.

First up, a representative of a branch of CUPE civic workers with serious questions about transparency. The budget proposal has been drawn up absent public scrutiny and, according to CUPE, contains confidential documents about cuts to staff and services that won’t be released until after the budget has been passed by council in April. For CUPE, this is not participation. It is rear-guard reaction to a done deal.

It’s hard to argue with this point as the afternoon unfolds. What kind of impact will a string of 5 minute presentations before the 7 members of the budget committee and a smattering of other councilors have on the final budget? A cynic might call it little more than an exercise in political theatre. Yet compared to the federal budget coming down at us this week that’s been drawn up in the darkness of a prorogued parliament, these public deputations represent the height of inclusive and participatory democracy.

The comparison is even more apt given what we witnessed during the course of our stay in the chamber’s peanut gallery. Our impression of the proceedings was one of a city council desperately trying to hold together the fraying fabric of the social safety net shredded to pieces by big ticket decisions made at Queen’s Park and in Ottawa. It was no longer a question of attempting to save everyone at risk from falling through the cracks but simply minimizing the number who do.

Child care advocates were out in full force, alarmed by the budget committee’s proposal to end council’s coverage of the rent for child care spaces in Toronto District School Board properties. This would be catastrophic for many low income households, we are told, while also deepening the city’s budget crisis as it would send parents back out of the workforce and onto social welfare rolls. Budget chief Shelley Carroll and councilor Janet Davis tried explaining that their computations were such that only full pay parents would be forced to pay more for their childcare and only then some $2+ per child per day.

Oddly enough (or maybe not) the male councilors present kept silent, asking no questions nor offering any answers on the childcare matter. Or maybe they were still a little gun shy about over-stepping decorum with the budget chief’s instructions still fresh in their minds because they were none too interactive with the other deputations either. Youth at risk programs. Social housing and homelessness. Children’s Aid. Marginalized communities and groups all facing even more dire straits with the inevitable belt tightening that’s in the offing with the proposed budget.

It was unfortunate that we didn’t catch sight of either George Smitherman or Rocco Rossi present while we were there. (Although we will give a shout out to Sonny Yeung, All Fired Up in the Big Smoke’s first Meet A Mayoral Candidate profile, who was dutifully in attendance.) It might’ve been instructive for Mssrs. Smitherman and Rossi to hear firsthand the possible results of their fervent dedication in finding “efficiencies” at City Hall. But this afternoon, clearly, council chamber was not filled with their crowd.

Those folks were out at Monday night’s meeting. Overburdened taxpayers, business owners and radio show host John Tory (doing his schtick from the City Hall rotunda) listeners gave their own deputations, imploring the city to reign in out of control spending or else face capital flight and economic collapse. This was the too much group. Too much was being asked of them to keep the city running. Tuesday afternoon was the too little group. The city was providing too little for them to survive.

This is the balancing act city council’s now attempting to pull off. Appeasing the solid middle and upper classes may lay waste to the growing number of have-nots we share the city with. Caving into the special interests of the less fortunate will send home owners and businesses heading to the hills of more tax friendly jurisdictions. Depending on what tipping point you think we’re poised upon (and every year come budget time, we seem poised on a tipping point) will determine the deputation you want to deliver even if it’s all just for show.

deputationally submitted by Cityslikr