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Posted Toronto Political Panel: Is there a 'culture war' looming

National Post: Posted Toronto Political Panel: Is there a 'culture war' looming in this mayoral race?

Posted: March 01, 2010, 6:06 AM by Barry Hertz

On the theory that there is much to talk about between now and the Oct. 25 municipal election, Posted Toronto has assembled Chris Selley, Anthony Furey and Jonathan Goldsbie (their biographies are below) to regularly dissect the race. Their conversations will appear on our city blog, PostedToronto.com,and also in the newspaper. This week, our panel discusses Rocco Rossi’s campaign strategy.

Goldsbie When Karen Stintz addressed the Economic Club last summer, the aspiring mayoral challenger complained that “the last three years of City Council has been focused on bags, bottles and bicycles instead of the real needs of the city.” In addition to giving council far too much credit for its progress on each of those matters, Ms. Stintz (pictured below) was clearly testing out a potential wedge-issue mantra, a local alliterative analogue to the Republicans’ “God, guns and gays.” Unfortunately, Rocco Rossi has now adopted the same tactic of divide-and-conquer pandering, provoking the question: What is the benefit to framing issues in terms of a culture war? And why, in particular, are cyclists singled out?

Furey The benefits are that you polarize the electorate and force it to choose sides. I think a lot of people like that. The average voter leads a busy life of family and work and it’s much easier to deal with issues in strict dichotomies. From a strategy perspective you can’t blame Mr. Rossi’s team for embracing this. Complex issues, with a plethora of components and stakeholders, never sell. John Tory (pictured below) admirably approached all of his campaigns that way and nobody cared to listen. But let us be clear: the cyclist lobby group is not a victim. They, too, approach issues as black-or-white. Mr. Rossi’s official stance on cycling is not “no bike lanes,” but “no bike lanes on arterial roads.” By ignoring rather than discussing this nuance the cyclist lobby is also playing divide-and-conquer.

Selley First, I’m not sure cyclists are being “singled out” by Mr. Rossi any more than, say, unionized garbage collectors. And I’m not sure he’s trying to start a culture war either — indeed, he framed his “no bike lanes on arterial roads” pledge as a “truce in the war on the car.” This isn’t exclusively a 905-vs.-416 issue, and I don’t think it’s particularly contrived either. Traffic in this city moves appallingly, with equally dire consequences for private and public transit alike. Jarvis is one of few streets that’s actually reliable — and we’re going to lop off a lane for the use of an unknown quantity of cyclists for half the year? I think everyone from pickup-driving suburbanites to the audience at an Empire Club luncheon can see that bike lanes have become an ideological battle more than a practical debate. This latte-sipping, non-car-owning urbanite is more than ready to get behind a “get Toronto moving again” message, no matter how “pandering” it might sound to some.

Goldsbie Side streets generally don’t require bike lanes (at least not with the same urgency), so the reference to “arterial” roads is arguably a red herring. As is the phrase “war on the car”; citing Jarvis Street as an example of such a conflict is akin to stating with a straight face that Church Street constitutes a “war on the heterosexual.” Bike lanes are not an “ideological battle.” If there were actually a dichotomy in which bikes had to be supported at the significant expense of cars, or vice versa, then it might be — but that is not at all the case. Everyone deserves access to the same public space; Mr. Rossi’s separate-but-equal plan doesn’t cut it. Furthermore, to characterize the minor reconfiguration of Jarvis as “lopping off a lane for the use of an unknown quantity of cyclists for half the year” is disingenuous: one lane is not being obliterated, it’s being efficiently transformed into two; both the precise present quantity and the projected future quantity of cyclists are known; and, although the prevalence of cyclists varies seasonally, many people do bike year-round.

Selley So, to recap, I say the plan is to take a lane of Jarvis Street away from cars and give it to an unknown quantity of cyclists. You counter that the plan is in fact to take a lane of Jarvis and “efficiently transform [it] into two [bike lanes],” and also that City Hall can see the future. I’ll let our readers assess the severity of my disingenuousness, and yours.

Furey Chris, when the city makes user rate projections, it’s not playing crystal ball, it’s trying to plan long-term. This strategy is needed more than ever and the lack of it is mostly to blame for why we have such gridlock and insufficient transit. The bike lane discussion should not be “everywhere vs. nowhere,” but “how?” I would refer to Harbord and Beverley — the most efficient bike lane streets downtown — as non-arterial. Bloor is a tough street to place a bike lane on, but what about Dupont? The lanes are wide, it is only busy at rush hour and only a couple of areas are dense with street parking.

Goldsbie For the record, the city does have an official road classification system, and it categorizes both Harbord and Beverley as “minor arterial.” Dupont, which could most certainly benefit from a bike lane, is branded a “major arterial.”

Selley Funny you should mention Dupont. I bike along it all the time, and it’s a thoroughly pleasant experience ... without any bike lane to be seen. I guess I remain to be convinced that bike lanes really matter as much as people seem to think. (Again, I think it’s fascinating that Mr. Rossi’s comments on this got more attention than his comments on privatizing waste management.) The last thing we need is for the issue to become the bridge-to-the-Island-Airport of the 2010 election.

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• Anthony Furey has written on municipal issues for the National Post and The Globe and Mail. He has worked on various Liberal campaigns. Follow him at twitter.com/anthonyfurey

• Chris Selley is a member of the Post’s editorial board. He writes on both national and municipal issues. Follow him at twitter.com/cselley

• Jonathan Goldsbie is a public space advocate and freelance journalist whose rabble-rousing frequently brings him to City Hall. Follow him at twitter.com/goldsbie