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Toronto's removal of bike lanes marks opening salvo in 'war...

The Guardian: Toronto's removal of bike lanes marks opening salvo in 'war on cycling'

Mayor of Toronto is doing little to diminish tensions between cyclists, pedestrians and drivers

Toronto hit the news recently, with proposed budget cuts that may affect the city's libraries, police and public transit. The city councillor Doug Ford even made international headlines when he attempted to slough off criticism by the Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood. He said: "If she walked by me, I wouldn't have a clue who she is."

In the wake of the controversy, Atwood said: "You start with [undermining] … Gay Pride and bicycle riders and me … The message is: 'We don't want you people here.'

"My question to the council would be: Are people like me welcome in this city?"

That is a good question, particularly if you cycle in Toronto. Relations between cyclists, pedestrians and drivers have grown fraught, and indeed deadly, in recent years. In January 2010, 14 pedestrians and one cyclist were killed in separate incidents. Regrettably, the new mayor and his administration have done little to diminish tensions between Toronto's road-users.

Throughout last autumn's municipal election campaign, Rob Ford, the mayor and Doug Ford's brother, frequently complained of a "war on cars" in the city. At his inauguration, Ford's invited guest speaker confirmed the concerns of many cyclists. Don Cherry, CBC Television's colourful ice-hockey pundit, made a typically brash appearance. Cherry referred to Ford's opponents as bike-riding "pinkos" and wished the mayor luck against this formidable bunch. His comments sparked a strong reaction from council members and citizens alike.

Since then, Ford has done his best to halt the "war on cars" and keep bike-riding "pinkos" on our toes. Last month, the city council approved the removal of bike lanes on a major thoroughfare in downtown Toronto, but not until a separated lane is installed on a smaller, parallel street. Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, who chairs the committee that recommended scrapping the Jarvis Street bike lanes, said: "The cars are going to move faster and I think that's a proper investment."

Minnan-Wong's statement strikingly reveals the city's inadequate support for cycling initiatives. In light of obvious environmental issues and Toronto's severe traffic congestion, why would the city approve policies that encourage its citizens to rely increasingly on cars? Could the city's marginalising of cyclists account for an increasing number who break the rules (by riding on the pavement, using their phones while cycling, not signalling their left-hand turns, etc)? This approach should not only be seen as misguided, but dangerous, particularly in light of a troubling accident last month.

At a busy intersection in the heart of Toronto's Chinatown, a pedestrian was critically injured when she was struck by a cyclist riding at speed through a red light. The pedestrian suffered life-threatening injuries, including a fractured skull. Thankfully, she survived. The cyclist received a $400 (£250) fine for violating Ontario's Highway Traffic Act, which governs all roads in the province.

This incident galvanised local cyclists. Enzo di Matteo, the Toronto journalist and activist, described it as "a watershed moment for cycling in the city" with media, city councillors and citizens debating bylaw enforcement, licensing cyclists and other related issues.

Indeed, there are too many cyclists who don't recognise that they are operating a vehicle, as defined by the Highway Traffic Act, and should cycle appropriately. Having said that, I would argue that cyclists who behave carelessly are either consciously or unconsciously responding to an equally careless attitude to cycling at a municipal level.

In the midst of a summer that has been dominated by tensions between Toronto's liberal and conservative voices, two local artists inadvertently found themselves in the midst of the debate. Caroline Macfarlane and Vanessa Nicholas, who both work at OCAD University's student gallery, found themselves in the headlines when they gave a face-lift to an abandoned Raleigh locked outside the gallery. They turned the rusted bicycle into a striking display by spray-painting it neon orange. The bike, still locked to its post, was inevitably ticketed by the city's Transportation Services department. It would be removed at the artists' expense, in violation of rules regarding bicycle storage on city property. In response, Macfarlane and Nicholas mounted a campaign to save the bike. Within days, the ward's councillor stepped in and the bicycle was spared.

Mayor Rob Ford, in savvy recognition of an opportunity to curry favour with cyclists and artists promptly commissioned the Good Bike Project, which will reclaim abandoned bicycles, paint them bright colours and lock them in various public places around the city. The mayor even straddled the orange bicycle for a photo-op in council chambers, which was probably his closest encounter with a bicycle in some time.