From dandyhorse issue 13 we have a profile on Darnel Harris and the work he's done in northwest Toronto to help secure the community better cycling infrastructure. Get dandy at your door or at better bike and book shops in Toronto.Forging Concessions for Jane and Finch
By Amelia Brown
Harris has graduated, but remains committed to improving the North York campus and adjacent neighbourhood. He remains active in plans for a community bike centre on campus, as well as a project to improve the design of bike lanes slated for installation on Finch Avenue by 2021. At the corner of Pond and Sentinel, a building is being constructed that will mostly serve as a student residence. Part of the building – currently an empty gravel pit – will house a bike centre. The purpose of the centre will be to offer bike repair, education and programming. Once complete, Harris hopes the centre will become a community hub for cycling, allowing both students and the wider community to explore different mobility options.
While at Glendon, Harris won funding through the TD Go Green challenge to restore the forested area around the university, making the case that the forest was the campus’s greatest sustainability asset – and challenge.
But the mobility problems students experience at York University are not limited to campus. York lies on the east border of ward 8, bordering the Black Creek community to the west. The Black Creek community is better known by its defining intersection: Jane and Finch.
Darnel Harris talks transport in dandyhorse issue 13. Photo by Vic Gedris.
Harris’ community-mindedness led him to run for the Humber River-Black Creek riding in the 2015 federal election as an NDP candidate. While canvassing, Harris got to know the community, and realized that the people in it had an excellent understanding of the problems and challenges facing their community. “Planners don’t do nearly a good enough job of using the expertise of community members as resources, relying instead on professional knowledge, and that’s dangerous,” he says.In ward 8, and especially the Black Creek neighbourhood, the average income is only 60 per cent of the city average. “Less than half the people in the community have a driver’s licence. Some people get around by car if they can afford it, some people get around by bus, if they can afford it,” says Harris, “Or they just stay put.”“Whenever I would need to go to Jane and Finch, the effect of traffic congestion on the neighbourhood and the lack of walk-ability – the inability to get around quickly – it really struck me.”A bus ride from York campus to Jane and Finch could take anywhere between 20 and 50 minutes, but riding there on a bicycle would take 10 minutes “without even breaking a sweat” Harris says. But to feel safe, it was necessary to ride on the sidewalk.
Harris saw the mobility challenges and the environmental challenges, as an opportunity for change that could have a lasting benefit to the community.
“Over my years biking around the community, looking at who bikes has always been interesting,” Harris says. “It’s usually a middle-aged male with bags hanging off his handlebars. It’s practical biking.” Harris observed local folks who wanted to bike for utilitarian purposes, to get groceries, do errands, visit friends, go to school or work, but who didn’t have the infrastructure in place to do it safely. The inner suburbs in Toronto are infamous for lack of active transportation. Jane and Finch is clearly no exception.
For his master’s thesis project, Harris tackled the challenge of mobility in the Black Creek area, specifically seeing how bikes could be incorporated into the neighbourhood landscape. To measure the potential, and the reception of the community, Harris undertook a comprehensive study, influenced in part by Ryan Gravel.Gravel is known for the BeltLine project in Atlanta, Georgia, that took 35 kilometers of unused rail tracks and turned it into multi-use paths connecting every part of the city. The BeltLine project was a concept Gravel came up with during his master’s thesis in the late 1990s, and turned into reality 15 years later.Gravel was building on other concepts for transforming unused rail tracks and rails-to-trails programs around the US and other parts of the world. What made Atlanta’s Beltline so successful was grass-roots support.“Forging concessions,” Harris says, was key for Gravel’s project – he built it through interacting with the community in church basements and schools and neighbourhood groups. People throughout the city, in different communities, of different socioeconomic status were all on board, and the political support followed.
For his thesis, Harris consulted almost 200 people in the Black Creek area. He met with community members in a school, a seniors home and at the Black Creek Farm festival, taking feedback from a wide range of people. When Harris asked them questions, he used techniques like role-play and open-ended dialog.
Harris recalls a particularly contentious town hall meeting he attended for the Toronto Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy 2020 that influenced his own methods of connecting with the community. “It was contentious. People were angry. The process involved narrow focus questions in small groups, and that’s not such a great model for a group of people who, generally speaking, might already feel marginalized.” Harris, inspired by Gravel’s methods of gaining community involvement and support, saw an opportunity to do things differently.
The local councillor admits adding more bike lanes might benefit his community. “Currently, the local cycling culture is still very young and as such there aren’t many residents asking our office for more bike lanes in the neighbourhood. However, if more infrastructure was available that would make people feel safer about cycling, it might influence more local residents to consider cycling as a form of personal transportation,” says ward 8 councillor Anthony Perruzza.
For Harris, the idea of biking has to be introduced to the community as a resource. “If you’re going to have biking in the community it has to fit the traditions [and existing culture] of the community so it’s not something they feel invaded by,” says Harris, adding that asking questions like, “How could you benefit from healthy transportation?” are important first steps in community consultations like this.
What Harris discovered during his community meetings was an overwhelmingly positive reception to bicycle lanes – under certain conditions. The lanes had to be separated from the road, cleared year-round and wide enough for side-by-side riding and cargo bikes.
Finch is slated for bike lanes as part of the Crosstown LRT installation. The entire street will be replaced, and the current plan involves on-street painted bike lanes. But in his dialogues with members of the community, wide bike lanes separated from the street with rain gardens instead of grassy medians – were unanimously chosen over the current Metrolinx design.
Councillor Perruzza supports a Finch design that physically separates bike lanes from the street to protecting cyclists from traffic.
If both the community and the councillor support protected bike lanes on Finch, this begs the question: When will this community get them? The city’s cycling manager in transportation services, Jacquelyn Hayward Gulati, says that protected bike lanes are now being planned for the Finch makeover, and she noted that more bike lanes are planned for in and around York University too. Let’s hope that this is part of a larger trend to give Toronto’s inner suburbs the bike love they so desperately need.
Our new issue of dandyhorse has arrived! dandyhorse is available for FREE at Urbane Cyclist, Bikes on Wheels, Cycle Couture, Sweet Pete's, Hoopdriver, Batemans, Velofix, and Steamwhistle. Our new issue of dandyhorse includes cover art by Kent Monkman, interviews with Catherine McKenna and the women behind Toronto's first feminist bike zine, lots of news and views on Bloor - including this story above - and much, much more! Get dandy at your door or at better bike and book shops in Toronto.