Toronto’s dismal service levels spark vigilante repair posses

Do-It-Yourself City strikes again.

Toronto cyclists know that even after a protected bike lane is built, it still needs regular maintenance, but maintenance of all kinds can be hard to come by in this city.

The gold standard of protected lanes, at least for Toronto, are those where concrete barriers have been installed. The city has also commissioned artists to paint many of them, creating lovely, linear murals.

All good, but though the concrete is heavy the barriers are often rammed out of position, a testament to the low skills possessed by Toronto drivers, who routinely lose control and hit them. In a perverse way, this proves why protected lanes are so critical, and they’ve surely saved lives. However, as they are designed to give way during crashes to protect drivers from a solid impact, the barriers are often askew, sometimes in the bike lane itself.

And that’s where they will stay, often for days until a crew gets around to moving them back — never mind if they’re blocking the lane or dangerous for thousands of cyclists. Too long, for one Toronto man: Tim Warman cycled down to the Richmond and Portland Streets with a steel pry bar and levered three dislodged barriers out of the lanes on the night of Nov. 28.

“I love all the new bike lanes, but got fed up with the city’s complete lack of interest or concern in maintaining them,” said Warman, a geologist and father of three kids who recently bought a cargo bike. “These displaced curbs are especially unsafe, I could see they weren’t getting fixed, so I just figured I’d do it myself.”

Warman said he probably doesn’t fit the profile of a radical cyclist, but that he’ll definitely do it again. “Lots of people have volunteered to help, so it should be easier next time.”

But should citizens have to create ad hoc vigilante posses like this to do the most basic of civic maintenance?

Toronto’s dismal service levels remind of my recent experience with Rogers this week. Calling about an issue with my phone plan, I was on hold for one hour and six minutes, listening to the customer service music play. An eternity — long enough to get from the westside to downtown by streetcar, eventually hanging up because I arrived at my destination and had to get on with living my life.

A joke could be made about city services declining to the level of Rogers and Mayor John Tory, a former executive at that telecom who still takes $100,000 a year as an adviser of the Rogers family trust (something Toronto’s integrity commissioner is currently investigating).

Fed up with the city not maintaining bike lanes, Tim Warman went out one night and shifted the concrete barriers back into place himself.

“The city of Toronto, brought to you by Rogers.” Something like that. There’s a deep and growing dysfunction within the city throughout his eight years of leadership that is no joke, though.

Some municipal leaders are big thinkers, dreamers, people who vault the city to a new level and transform it. Others are content to ensure municipal services work, the basic function of city hall for many residents who care not for dreams but just want the snow cleared, garbage picked up and so on. Beyond making regular, repeated pronouncements to the contrary, Tory does not seem interested in either role.

A joke could also be made here about those who say government should be run like a business, and that if only we’d elect, say, a businessman for mayor things would change. Alas, if only that were the case.

As for the bike lanes, maintenance work on the barriers is contracted out. When inspecting, crews drive by in trucks rather than cycling or walking themselves and inspecting closely. They quite obviously miss dislodged barriers routinely, or simply don’t care. Problems are often only flagged if a resident calls 311, a once-useful service that can’t call up the resources needed to fix things quickly (cue another Canadian telecommunications company service joke).

So, Toronto remains a DIY city.

Last weekend, walking home a bit tipsy from a birthday dinner, my partner and I passed through the new bike infrastructure around Dufferin Grove Park that has created bike- and pedestrian-only routes. Another good thing, but piles of wet leaves were more than ankle deep and as slick as ice where people are supposed to pass through.

Fueled by a few gin martinis, we got a snow shovel and walked back to the piles and cleared a path through. It turns out wet leaves are as heavy as wet snow, so our work was limited but it felt like an accomplishment, albeit a small one in a city where the gutters and drains are full of rarely cleared leaves that quickly turn into thick pancakes.

This isn’t my job though, nor is it Tim Warman’s to repair bike lanes or any other vigilante Torontonian fixing something. But do we sit round and watch Toronto decline? We have to live here, after all. It’s a conundrum.

If only we had a businessman mayor who could make the city work like it should.


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