Recently, in my neighbourhood in Toronto, as part of a multi-year expansion of the much-neglected cycling infrastructure, the city installed bike lanes on both sides of a moderately-busy street named Woodbine, which many drivers use on their commute between downtown and the suburbs.
The installation has caused a firestorm on social media, specifically in a Facebook group named The Beaches, Toronto. This closed group of about 19,000 members includes posts such as merchant endorsements, queries about services, photos of sunrises, and reports of missing pets. Controversy springs up frequently (offleash dogs, street parking, privileged whining about minor view obstructions suffered by wealthy waterfront owners), and are deftly-handled by moderator Denise Angus.
An anti-bikelane petition has been started (link deliberately omitted; it has at this moment about 2800 signatures), and a pro-lane counter-petition (currently 1600 signatures).
The anti-laner petition cites increased traffic as the primary concern. The petition also mentions safety issues for children on side streets due to rerouting drivers, as well as parking reductions, and increased air pollution caused by cars stuck in gridlock. It also includes juvenile rhetoric such as: “The hills from the bottom are massive and even the most in shape person would end up a sweaty mess by the time they got to work.”
The anti-laners have a simple request – get rid of the lanes. The pro-laners ask that they remain.
The point missed by the anti-laners is that change is desperately needed, and everyone knows it. We are currently experiencing a season of unprecedented hurricane activity, with storms of four-plus magnitude battering the Caribbean and parts of the United States. Drought plagues the west, wildfires are chewing through our forests. And this is only the beginning – we know this. If you want a sobering picture of what’s in store for this planet and our civilization, read The Uninhabitable Earth in New York Magazine.
Meanwhile, traffic in Toronto continues to worsen; gridlock paralyzes streets and highways alike.
But even small gestures like a few kilometres of bike lanes are met with aggressive opposition to those it (apparently) inconveniences. People know there are problems, big ones – but many appear to be too apathetic, ignorant, or selfish to make any kind of sacrifice to tackle them.
While increased congestion is the overt reason to oppose the lane, plenty of anger at the erratic, law-defying behaviour exhibited by a small percentage of cyclists compounds the opposition – some cyclists don’t obey laws, ergo, cyclists should not be provided with safe spaces in which to transit.
And some say that cyclists are entitled, as if the means to own and operate a motor vehicle is not, in a global sense, the ultimate in entitlement.
Of course the vilification of cyclists is standard “us” versus “them” rhetoric. “Us” are the drivers. “Them” are the cyclists. In war, we dehumanize the enemy in exactly this way, by inventing separation and alienating the other. The anti-laners complain that bike lanes benefit “them” to the detriment of “us,” when in fact the installation of bike lanes benefits everyone.
Anti-laners also complain that they see few cyclists using the lanes, compared to the number of cars on the same stretch of road.
The fact that bike lanes hope to combat this enormous problem (too many cars, not enough bikes) by making cycling safer and more attractive escapes these opponents. They’d rather see low-usage as a reason the lanes should not exist. Meanwhile, statistically, cycling continues to increase in Toronto, at a faster pace than driving – this is a good thing, and it must be accommodated. And the anti-laners fail to recognize that an increase in cycling serves their own selfish agenda, that is, to improve traffic flow for those who refuse to do anything but drive, by getting more people out of cars and onto bikes.
Then there are those who oppose the Woodbine bike lanes only (not bike lanes in general) because in their judgment city planners don’t know what they’re doing. These opponents (whose position I’m certain has nothing to do with how the lanes personally inconvenience them) explain with authority that this street or that street would’ve been a better choice, as if those weren’t considered.
I’d like to think that city council approved the bike lanes on Woodbine specifically to force the issue – make it harder to drive, create a disincentive to driving. Make alternatives – cycling, in this case, but the plan should be broader: more carpooling, better public transit – make these all more attractive. Make driving annoying to the point that people give it up. No politician would ever admit to antagonizing their majority voters even for the greater good (which is why our political system will fail to save us from climate change), but it really is what we need – active disincentives to the habits that degrade our planet. Fuel prices for anything but transit and commercial transport should be exorbitantly high, with the proceeds funding alternatives like bike highways and fantastic transit systems – but the political career of anyone attempting such measures would be brief.
Some claim that everyone has a good reason for driving that has nothing to do with selfishness. Their job is far away; their job requires them to travel around the city during the day; they have kids to drop off and pick up from school and daycare; they need to do errands on the way home.
Lots of people, even those who own cars, manage a life where they commute by bike every day, while still managing to get their kids to school and daycare (kids who can walk to school should!), run errands, pick up groceries (get a good set of panniers), and so on. They’re healthier and stronger for it, too.
And people without the luxury (never forget it’s a luxury!) of a car manage to hold jobs and take care of their kids and do errands, because they have to.
The point here is that you can (if you have the physical ability to do so) reduce or end your dependency on a car if you have the willpower to do it. You adapt. You plan. You might still own a car, but you only use it when necessary. You do big grocery shops on the weekend. You drive only on the days you need your car throughout the workday, or when you have some distant appointment.
Those against bike lanes are so wrapped up in vilifying cyclists and bike lanes that they’ve lost sight – if they even had sight – of the true enemy: the car.
Passenger vehicles are exceptionally large machines for the job they need to perform, which, at least in Toronto, is most often to convey a single passenger a moderate distance. And unfortunately, due to the inflexibility of workplace schedules, most people must travel during two specific, high-density periods of the workday.
Our city was planned and constructed for a lower-density of cars than it can now comfortably accommodate, and there is no space left to increase that infrastructure to accommodate current traffic density.
These factors – not bike lanes – are why traffic on Woodbine crawls. Bike lanes might magnify the problem, but they are not the cause. In fact, they are – albeit in an idealized way – the solution, and were human nature different, were humans more enlightened and sensible about their own self-preservation, if humans were willing to make sacrifices for the greater good, then these lanes would be a solution. More would cycle. Fewer would drive.
The Woodbine bike lane controversy is emblematic of human nature. It illustrates the way humans will vociferously fight a single issue that affects their short-term convenience, even if it represents a small step toward conquering a massive threat.
Planning, consultations, and media about the Woodbine bike lanes began more than a year and a half ago – where were all the anti-laners then? In a couple of decades, when civilization is dying and it’s too late to fix, the anti-laners and their ilk will be be crying foul, claiming they were never properly informed. Their anti-end-of-civilization petition will have billions of signatures. But where will they send it?