Will a populist candidate opposed to bike lanes end up running for the NPA?
On my blog I published a few posts a while back regarding whether Vancouver was ready for a Rob Ford-style campaign in the upcoming civic election.
Could a Vancouver Rob emulate the populist (and popular) Toronto mayor by denouncing a “War on the Car” and the “Gravy Train at City Hall?”
Well, within a week, an actual Rob popped up as a possibility. Developer and Dunsmuir-Street hotel owner Rob Macdonald had penned an op-ed on how “Downtown bike routes are a disaster” and sent the blogosphere into fits. Within hours, journalist Frances Bula suggested “Developer with rumoured political ambitions weighs in on the bike lanes.” Was Macdonald positioning himself for a run at a council seat? Maybe even for the mayor’s job?
Here’s a taste of Macdonald’s florid style: the bike routes, he maintained, were the cause of “a substantial drop in sales revenues; … job losses; business closures; shopkeepers’ life savings wiped out; falling property values, with a resulting loss of property taxes for the city; and a downtown traffic plan that is so compromised that many people won’t go downtown unless they absolutely have to …”
Whew! In this kind of tirade, quiet facts get drowned out by the noise of the charge. Recent data reveals that more people are coming to downtown than ever (up 10% since 1996) in fewer cars (down 25%). Despite the myth of an exodus to the suburbs, there are more downtown jobs than ever (up 26%) and, of course, a lot more people living there (up 75%).
Clearly the crowds that fill downtown streets (if not the parking garages) are taking transit and walking and cycling – enough to justify some modest street reallocation to handle the change. Clearly that’s also unsettling for some people – and not just in Vancouver.
“Bikelashes” are occurring wherever separated lanes appear, even in that centre of sophistication, New York City, where a cycle track in Brooklyn has split the chattering classes and political elites with polarizing populism. Similar controversies around North America and Europe suggest that something deeper is going on than just disputes over asphalt. And perhaps Macdonald wants to mine that vein.
Could he win a civic seat over a bike route?
Maybe – even if the lane is well used in the summer and the consequences are minor, which is thus far the case. The Hornby bike lane has led to a mere one-minute delay during the afternoon rush. Given the complexity of traffic – and how easily it can be disrupted – that’s astonishing. And no doubt frustrating to the critics, who would like a little doom with their gloom.
But still, why the angst? Cycling, after all, is only one degree of separation from weightier issues: climate change, energy prices, obesity. But rather than take on serious policy, the mad dogs prefer to bark at the two-wheelers and their city hall supporters with charges of “social engineering” and wasting taxpayer’s hard-earned dollars.
Maybe there’s something generational happening here.
Though Macdonald himself is a long-distance cyclist, he doesn’t seem to relate to those who use two wheels for actual transportation – those who are predominantly young and see themselves as advocates for a more “sustainable” way of life.
Is this a case of affluent boomers dismissing the lifestyles of those who will have to deal with the debts passed on to them, whether measured in carbon or credit, by those who would throw them back into traffic?
Imagine the boomer generation saying to the millennials: “Work hard (with less benefits) to help pay for our health care and security, but don’t expect us to tolerate your desire to travel safely and cheaply while staying fit and doing your bit for the environment. Stay out of our face and out of our way.”
That should make for a fun election.
Macdonald hasn’t as of this writing said whether he’ll run – and if he did, whether he would bulldoze the separated lanes. In fact, no critics have said they’ll kill the lanes – but it probably doesn’t matter. The rhetorical battle has been engaged, and in victory the message would be clear.
The Robs are in charge, and we ain’t going green.
- Post by Gordon Price. He is Director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University. He also writes, teaches and consults on urban development and planning. He served six terms as Councillor for the City of Vancouver, from 1986 to 2002, as well as on the board of the Greater Vancouver Regional District (now Metro) and TransLink, the regional transportation authority.
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