14. November 2012 · 2 comments · Categories: cities

Well here’s an interesting example of how much power a newspaper editor has to change the political discourse. And how powerless actual expertise and evidence is when stacked up against emotive newspaper headlines.

This week, Toronto is removing the bike lanes on Jarvis Street. The removal will a cost around $275,000. These bike lanes were only installed three years ago, after an extensive consultation exercise and environmental assessment that cost $950,000, and a construction cost of $86,000. According to analysis by city staff, the bike lanes are working well, with minimal impact on motor traffic travel times, and a significant reduction of accidents. Why would a city council that claims it’s desperately short of funding, and a mayor who vowed to slash unnecessary spending, suddenly decide to spend this much money removing a successful exercise in urban redesign, against the advice of city staff, against the recommendations of their environmental assessment, and against the wishes of local residents?

The answer is that the bike lanes on Jarvis have become a symbol of an ideological battle.

Up until 2009, Jarvis street had five lanes for motor traffic, with the middle lane working as a ‘tidal’ lane – north in the morning, to accommodate cars entering the city from the Gardiner expressway, and south in the evening when they were leaving. The design never worked very well, was confusing to motorists, and dangerous to cyclists and pedestrians. There was widespread agreement that the fifth lane had to be removed, as part of a much larger initiative to rejuvenate the downtown neighbourhoods along Jarvis Street. The main issue in the public consultation was the question of whether the new design should go for wider sidewalks or bike lanes. After an extensive consultation the city settled on bike lanes, and the vote sailed through council by a large majority.

A few days before the vote, the Toronto Sun, a rightwing and rather trashy tabloid newspaper printed a story under the front page headline “Toronto’s War on the Car“, picking up on a framing for discussions of urban transport that seems to have started with a rather silly rant two years previously in the National Post. The original piece in the National Post was a masterpiece of junk journalism: a story of about a local resident who refuses to take the subway and thinks his commute by car takes too long. Add a clever soundbite headline, avoid any attempt to address the issues seriously, and you’ve manufactured a shock horror story to sell more papers.

The timing of the article in the Toronto Sun was unfortunate – a handful of rightwing councillors picked up the soundbite to and made it a key talking point  in the debate on the Jarvis bike lanes in May 2009. The rhetoric on this supposed ‘war’ quickly replaced any rational discussion of how we accommodate multiple modes of transport, and how we solve urban congestion, and the debate descended into a nasty slanging match about cyclists, with our current mayor (then a councillor), even going so far as to say “bikers are a pain in the ass”.

The National Post upped the rhetoric in its news report the next day:

What started out five years ago as a local plan to beautify Jarvis Street yesterday became the front line in Toronto’s war on the car, with Mayor David Miller leading the charge…

The article never explains what’s wrong with building more bike lanes, but that really doesn’t matter when you have such a great soundbite at your disposal. The idea of a war on the car seems to be a peculiar ‘made in Toronto’ phenomenon, designed to get suburban drivers all fired up and ready to vote for firebrand rightwing politicians, who would then defend their rights to drive whereever and whenever they want. This rhetoric shuts down any sensible discussion about urban planning, transit, and sustainability.

Having seen how well the message played to suburban voters, our current mayor picked up the phrase as a major part of his election campaign, making a pledge to “end Toronto’s war on the car” a key part of his election platform. Nobody was ever clear what that meant, but to the voters in the suburbs, frustrated by their long commutes, it sounded good. Ford evidently believed that it meant cancelling every above-ground transit project currently underway, no matter how much such projects might help to reduce congestion. After his successful election, he declared “We will not build any more rail tracks down the middle of our streets.” Never mind that cities all over the world are turning to surface light rail to reduce congestion and pollution and to improve mobility and liveability. For Ford and his suburban voters, anything that threatens the supremacy of the car as his transport of choice must be stopped.

For a while, the argument transmuted into a debate over subways versus surface-level light rail. Subways, of course, have the benefit that they’re hidden away, so people who dislike mass transit never have to see them, and they don’t take precious street-level space away from cars. Unfortunately, subways are dramatically more expensive to build, and are only cost effective in very dense downtown environments, where they can be justified by a high ridership. Street-level light rail can move many more people at a small fraction of the price, and have the added benefit of integrating transit more tightly with existing streetscapes, making shops and restaurants much more accessible. Luckily for Toronto, sense prevailed, and Mayor Ford’s attempts to cancel Toronto’s plan to build an extensive network of light rail failed earlier this year.

Unfortunately, the price of that embarrassing defeat for Mayor Ford was that something else had to be sacrificed. Politicians need to be able to argue that they delivered on their promises. Having failed to kill Transit City, what else could Ford do but look for an easier win? And so the bike lanes on Jarvis had to go. Their removal will make no noticeable difference to drivers using Jarvis for their commute, and will make the street dramatically less safe for bikes. But Ford gets his symbolic victory. Removing a couple of urban bike lanes is now all that’s left of his promise to end the war on cars.

As Eric de Place points out:

“There’s something almost laughably overheated about the ‘war on cars’ rhetoric. It’s almost as if the purveyors of the phrase have either lost their cool entirely, or else they’re trying desperately to avoid a level-headed discussion of transportation policy.”

Removing downtown bike lanes certainly smacks of a vindictiveness born of desperation.

For a talk earlier this year, I put together a timeline of the history of climate modelling. I just updated it for my course, and now it’s up on Prezi, as a presentation you can watch and play with. Click the play button to follow the story, or just drag and zoom within the viewing pane to explore your own path.

Consider this a first draft though – if there are key milestones I’ve missed out (or misrepresented!) let me know!


We spent some time in my climate change class this week talking about Hurricane Sandy – it’s a fascinating case study of how climate change alters things in complex ways. Some useful links I collected:

In class we looked in detail about the factors that meteorologists look at as a hurricane approaches to forecast likely damage:

  • When will it make landfall? If it coincides with a high tide, that’s far worse than it it comes ashore during low tide.
  • Where exactly will it come ashore? Infrastructure to the north of the storm takes far more damage than infrastructure to the south, because the winds drive the storm surge in an anti-clockwise direction. For Sandy, New York was north of the landfall.
  • What about astronomical conditions? There was a full moon on Monday, which means extra high tides because of the alignment of the moon, earth and sun. That adds inches to the storm surge.

All these factors, combined with the rising sea levels, affected the amount of damage from Sandy. I already wrote about the non-linearity of hurricane damage back in December. After hurricane Sandy, I started thinking about another kind of non-linearity, this time in the impacts of sea level rise. We know that as the ocean warms it expands, and as glaciers around the world melt, the water ends up in the ocean. And sea level sea level rise is usually expressed in measures like: “From 1993 to 2009, the mean rate of SLR amounts to 3.3 ± 0.4 mm/year“. Such measures conjure up images of the sea slowly creeping up the beach, giving us plenty of time to move out of the way. But that’s not how it happens.

We’re used to the idea that an earthquake is a sudden release of the pressure that slowly builds up over a long period of time. Maybe that’s a good metaphor for sea level rise too – it is non-linear in the same way. What really matters about sea level rise isn’t its effects on average low and high tides. What matters is its effect on the height of storm surges. For example, the extra foot added to sea level in New York over the last century was enough to make the difference between the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy staying below the sea walls or washing into the subway tunnels. If you keep adding to sea level rise year after year, what you should expect is, sooner or later, a tipping point where a storm that you could survive previously suddenly become disastrous. Of course, it doesn’t help that Sandy was supersized by warmer oceans, fed by the extra moisture in a warmer atmosphere, and pushed in directions that it wouldn’t normally go by unusual weather conditions over Greenland. But still, it was the exact height of the storm surge that made all the difference, when you look at the bulk of the damage.