In Praise of Apathy

Late Tuesday afternoon, a friend of mine posted on Facebook about what a gloriously happy sunny day he was having in Toronto. To me, that was a bizarre statement, for at that same moment, I was sitting in front of my computer, watching a juddery video feed of Toronto city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam patiently explaining to her colleagues why a vote to remove bike lanes on Jarvis Street was a vote for ruining my neighbourhood. Not only was it clear that most of council weren’t in agreement with her, many were talking and ignoring her altogether. At that moment, I could only wonder why I was bothering to watch any of this at all.

The decision to remove the Jarvis bike lanes was entirely framed as a battle between the stale, fixed ideologies of bike vs. car, left-wingers vs. right-wingers, but for me and my neighbours living on Jarvis, the new lanes had meant moving speeding cars away from the edge of our sidewalks and creating a new feeling of safety. Living next to a highway for years, we were beginning to have the feeling of living in a real neighbourhood.

While some motorists complained of a traffic slowdown caused by the removal of that weird reversible middle lane (which tended to confuse tourists and newbie Jarvis drivers anyway), the delay in travel time was measured at an average of two minutes. Two minutes. Despite mayoral candidate Rocco Rossi‘s cries of Jarvis gridlock (calling the bike lanes “sheer madness!“), I watched daily as cars continued to move steadily, with rush-hours no more crammed than before, only now hundreds of cyclists were using the street as well. One evening, I watched a family of four ride by on rented Bixi bikes, delighted. Surely this was worth a two-minute delay? Not to mention that restoring that reversible lane would cost taxpayers over $200,000 at a time when the city’s making massive cuts? Councilor Mary Fragedakis called the decision to go back to the old street “a war on common sense” but one a good chunk of council was apparently chomping at the bit to fight.

Despite my opinionated nature, I’m always prepared to back down when I hear a compelling counter-argument. Sitting in City Hall yesterday morning for the final vote, I didn’t hear one. Not a single one. In fact, the whole thing was a farce.

The first half-hour was taken up with a rambling hissy-fit from Giorgio Mammoliti over the “embarrassing” video Shelley Carroll played of him advocating for the bike lanes in 2010. Apparently, in Toronto city council, discussing a politician’s voting record is considered out-of-bounds and it only got worse from there. Mammoliti began pontificating how he and council were effectively bullied into supporting bike lanes by former Ward 27 councillor Kyle Rae, blaming him and Carroll for leading Toronto down this “destructive path” and its current “predicament.” Dude, they’re just bike lanes.

Councillor James Pasternak looked at the audience of nervous cycling advocates and said, “Where are the shopkeepers? Where are the people with young families?” as if none of those people ever ride a bicycle. He insisted that bike lanes prevent shipping trucks from making their deliveries, framing the discussion as conservatives always do: defending a delicate economy jeopardized by dirty hippies.

Sorry, make that dirty filthy hippies, because Councillor Frank Di Giornio then blew all our minds with an inane rant about how bike lanes will mean people biking to work and arriving  sweaty and smelly. Until workplaces can install adequate shower facilities for all employees, he said, biking to the office would be an odourous problem. Yes, the city is blowing $200,000 because Di Giornio doesn’t appear to understand a stick of deodorant and a change of shirt.

Upping the emotional high-stakes in a room devoid of any logic, Councillor Karen Stintz (chair of the TTC!) told of how the bike lanes have harmed one of her constituents now facing an extra four minutes of travel time, a delay that (for reasons I missed in the rambling) means she is unable to see her children at dinner (She has a four-minute window to see her own children??). So here it was — the anti-bike-lane lobby’s best argument and worst-case scenario: four minutes. Even their reaching was minor and Globe and Mail columnist Tabatha Southey wryly tweeted, “Well, if one Moore Park mother gets home to eat dinner with her children 4 minutes earlier it was all worth it.”

I must give some credit to Council Mary-Margaret McMahon for trying an equally emotional plea to council to consider the environmental cost of their decision but really, with recycling on the potential chopping block, did she really think they would care? I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at journalist Lisan Jutras‘ take: “Cllr McMahon sees your orphaned children at dinnertime and raises it with the asthmatic children of the city who need the bike lanes.”

Cheers to Councillor Mike Layton, who tried to get Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong to commit to a timeframe for his promise to build dedicated bike lanes on Sherbourne instead. While the media touted this as a great victory for cycling in Toronto, construction on those will take a couple years, if it happens at all, and Minnan-Wong could only say, “There are no guarantees in this business.” I hope he’ll forgive me when I say that, after watching him in action this week, I don’t trust him on that project. At all.

By the end of the day, council not only voted down bike lanes but also the offer of two new public health nurses fully paid for by the provincial government. As Councillor Janet Davis later tweeted, “Dumb, dumb, dumb.” And for the sake of time, I won’t even start on Mammoliti trying yet again to defund Pride.

Recently elected Councillor Josh Matlow likes to position himself as a voice of reason (always a good place to start) but in his hopes of a proper debate of facts and ideas, his tweeting on July 12 was downright adorable:

Jarvis bike lanes: If council believes in accountability & good planning, I hope they’d allow for genuine public input- not play politics
I love the work we do in our community to protect & improve our neighbourhoods. But I must admit, the partisan debates at council are trying
I deeply believe council should make evidence-based decisions, on the merits of arguments, rather than blind ideology or political teams.

Hear, hear! But as the dismal votes came in against bike lanes and nurses and, well, progress, you could watch his faith in council’s reason dwindle before your eyes:

I voted against the removing the Jarvis bike lanes. There was no public consultation allowed before council’s vote.
If council rejects an offer of health nurses, at no cost to Toronto, it’ll mark a point of radicalization never before seen at city hall.

And lo, the scales fell from his eyes! If Matlow keeps this up, he may free himself from the Project 23 list, an entirely sensible reaction to our current council and a great new piece of political strategy in combating this kind of willful idiocy so terrible that writer Ivor Tossell had to create a whole new word for: uncompetence.

Those two posts are essential reading, as is the definitive summary, “The Jarvis Vote: What the Hell Happened?” in which Matt Elliott exhaustively details the actual voting and concludes:

Today’s decision does little except increase the speed of automobile traffic, foster a substandard pedestrian realm and prop up Jarvis Street’s mid-century-to-now legacy as the tragic story of a once-great street in perpetual decline.

The neighbourhood I’ve been arguing for, the neighbourhood I love living in–perpetual decline. The vote not only removes bike lanes but throws away years of work on the earlier Jarvis St. Streetscape Plan & Environmental Assessment. As Kristyn Wong-Tam told the CBC, “What we’ve seen today is a reversal of city building and a reversal of good government. We now know that Jarvis as a street has been violated.”

I did what I could as a citizen. I called. I wrote. I explained. I ranted. None of it amounted to much. And for the first time in a long while, I feel like just throwing my hands up and not giving a shit. I’m too depressed and not about losing this particular vote, however important to me. I haven’t biked in a few months now and, having spent years living on a highway before, I’ll spend years living on a highway again, no biggie. No, this is about watching my municipal government in action and seeing a chamber largely comprised by petty, illogical children.

How council went about discussing bike lanes on Jarvis is how they discuss every issue that matters to Torontonians and it’s easy to see why so many people don’t bother to watch. Toronto is beautiful in the summer and it’s better to get out there and enjoy it than to watch its decline at the hands of jackasses like Mammoliti, presided over by a mayor who reminds me more and more of Biff Tannen:

I’ll get over this by the weekend, I’m sure. There’s too much we all need to do to save our city.

About Scott Dagostino

An arts & culture journalist who's the bastard love child of Van Morrison and Jessica Mitford
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5 Responses to In Praise of Apathy

  1. Having been heavily involved in advocating for active transportation infrastructure in my hometown of Sudbury for the last couple of years and as a grad student in urban planning and future Toronto resident, I have recently taken a keen interest in urban issues in Toronto. My twitter feed was taken over by tweets about this issue and for the first time, I tuned into the live stream to watch the debate about the Jarvis St. lanes take place at City Council. I couldn’t believe the complete lack of evidence and logic being presented by councilors for removing the lanes. Furthermore, I have never seen such an utter lack of respect and act of childishness from adults. It was a total farce. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Cities all over the world are moving away from cars and towards promoting sustainable lifestyles. Its just incredible, the complete selfishness and lack of forsight that was displayed by some councilors. All so that people in cars can save that extra 2-4 minutes. It blows my mind.

  2. Jesse says:

    Good article Scott. God this world wastes so much time on such obvious things. Just the sound of that meeting makes me want to pull my eyes out….how are people seriously this stupid and selfish post-inconvenient truth? One day the future will look back at the automobile/industrial world we live in and be mystified at how reckless and stupid we all are, how wasteful and “the world is flat” we will look to them! THE STREETS ARE FOR THE PEOPLE!

  3. Michael Nesbitt says:

    And, yet, the populace gets all excited at election time, believes when the politicians and potential politicians “listen” to the people, and goes and votes for another round of the usual.

  4. Kenn Chaplin says:

    Yup, we definitely watched the same meeting. It was as if the skull, the suburbs, was increasingly squeezing on the brain, the former City of Toronto (and, oh yes, Scarborough which also lost bike lanes).

    We are living out the worst fears of other amalgamated cities and being dictated to by suburban councillors (and single-occupancy vehicle drivers) who see Toronto neighbourhood streets merely as a means – a maximum-speed transportation vessel – to an end – home, sweet lots o’ lawn home. Cyclists? Pedestrians? Fuck us and the birds we are flipping!

    Sorry for all the commas and dashes. I do so like to elongate sentences!

  5. LV says:

    Like you, I watched at home for the first day and was present for the second. You’ve written a great account of what happened, an account which is missing from the mainstream media. And not just on the debate about the bike lanes but apparently about everything that goes on in council. The virtual absence of municipal politics in the papers (I don’t have a TV) is shocking — I never realized how much I missed until I went to council for the first time yesterday.

    Oh, and how about Mammoliti’s accusation against Davis when the Integrity Commissioner was there? It amazes me how Speaker Nunziata can threaten DeBaeremaeker with being removed by security for his comments to Ford about dead cyclists, yet she simply shrugged when Mammoliti slandered another council and said she couldn’t make him apologize??

    Like you, I’m willing to hear another side of the story. I’m a left winger who grew up in a family of right wingers so I’m pretty tolerant, but what I saw happen yesterday disgusted me. I’ve been trying to calm myself down ever since. I’d like to cover my ears and ignore all levels of government from now on (I swear it’s bad for my health) but alas I feel I have a responsibility. It’s probably futile however, since I’m apparently powerless because i live in a downtown ward with like-minded people. It doesn’t matter that I grew up in the suburbs, lived in them until a few years ago, have a young family and own a small business. Nope, I’m just some useless artsy bohemian.

    For the record, if those councillors were my students in a debate I’d fail them. I swear that children behave better than many of the councillors did.

    Must. Stop. Ranting. Sorry. But thank you for the great article.

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