Keeping up with the Jones Ave

One of the pleasures of writing a blob has got to be that of wringing forth a clever title occasionally. “Keeping up with the Jones Ave” is one of those times when I feel certain my parents, who lived on beans and rice for five years while paying my way through a bachelor’s degree in English Literature at a private U.S. liberal arts college, are shaking their heads with pride, smiling at each other and saying “It really was worth it.”

It’s inspired by Jones Avenue in Toronto, near where I live, which has been described (in the aforementioned eye magazine) as “the ugliest street in the city.”

Jones Ave, which used to run from nowhere on the Danforth straight down to nowhere on Queen East, with four lanes of car traffic and a bus route that connected Donlands subway station with the Leslie Street Spit, had a makeover about five years ago, with the removal of two lanes of car traffic and the installation of bicycle lanes on both sides.

Jones Ave is still among the ugliest streets in Toronto (given the forced amalgamation of the five Metro cities about the same time as the Jones Ave. bicycle lane installation, many more ugly streets have been added to the trove, so I can’t give it top honours). I once held out hope that with the bikelane installation, a kind of “thickening” of the street would occur, with slower traffic creating an off-shoot increase in programs and street activity similar to the “thickened ” streetscape of “Greektown on the Danforth” or “Olde East York Village” (a stretch of small shops and community activities is at the north terminus of Toronto’s Coxwell Ave).

This hasn’t happened. Instead, the Toronto Transit Commission eliminated Sunday service of the Jones Ave bus.

But what has happened, and I think it is related, is that the aforementioned “nowheres,” at Danforth and Jones and at Queen and Jones, have begun to blossom. Queen and Jones has emerged as the nexus of Leslieville, a hip stretch of art galleries, cafes, busy restaurants and antique stores. Danforth at Jones is jumping, with the three-year-old Sakawaya Bistro (known to some as home of the best, most inovative Japanese food in the city), a two-year-old bookstore with the embarrassing name “Books R Gold” that sells hardcover art books and other new books at half-off the cover price [alas, too embarrassing for even Jones Ave: the bookstore pulled up stakes and left us with the “Elite Music Academy” in its place: a nice place to buy a guitar or learn to play a musical instrument –ed.] , and now, the assurance that the corner has truly “arrived,” a new Starbuck’s where the Gino’s pizza used to be.

But what is it, to keep up with Jones Ave? Will all streets that install bicycle lanes have this effect on their start- and end-points? What are we saying about Cosburn at Broadview or at Woodbine? What are we predicting for Dundas at Kingston or Broadview? What about Royal York at Lakeshore or at Bloor? These streets have bikelanes; will their termini develop into “hot zones?”

The short answer is “yes.”

And it’s not just me who says so.

I’ve just read an interesting piece in the New York Times Business section from Monday, June 13 2005. It’s the “All Consuming” column by David Leonhardt, available here (for the time being anyway; and you will need (free) registration to access the piece). The headline reads: “See the New Car in the Joneses’ Driveway? You May Soon Be Driving One Just Like It.”

Leonhardt’s argument, based on just-released statistics from the United States, is that we are more influenced in our consuming habits by our immediate neighbours than we are by advertising or media relations. The article is aimed at that ALLDERBLOB nemesis, General Motors, but its conclusions would seem valid for many other modes and means of consumer behaviour.

Leonhardt argues that “…among all the other hurdles [GM vice-chair] Mr. Lutz and his colleagues face, including health care and pension costs and growing foreign competition, a less obvious one may be the biggest threat to their marketing plans: the unforgiving nature of consumer behavior.”

He continues:

Marketers have long understood that groups of friends and relatives tend to buy the same products, but understanding the reasons has been tricky. Is it because they are so similar in how much money they make and what television ads they watch that they independently arrive at the same decision? Or do they copy one another, perhaps out of envy or perhaps because they have shared information about the products?

Leonhardt goes on to describe recent research of Finnish and American economists, who found, in a nutshell, that car-buyers “do not covet thy neighbor’s car so much as they ask their neighbor about his car. ”

In other words, it’s word of mouth and leading by example that drives the convergence of taste and consumer behaviour.

Which is to say, as bikelanes get painted in greater number across this fair city, expect the emergence of little fiefdoms of nonconformity to spring up in their wake. People see other people biking to work and ask them how they do it, what route they take, what bike store they frequent. Then they get a bike and start riding too. Soon the block, then the street, then the neighbourhood becomes a neck of bicyclists, walkers and fans of “slow” culture.

And at the beginning and ends of the bikelanes, where modes shift and the current of traffic churns around corners, little shops and restaurants and boutiques find new homes.

It’s not just the ALLDERBLOB that says so. We read it in the New York Times.

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