“Shared Responsibility” messaging ignores our Basic Human Responsibilites – to look out for the more vulnerable among us.

Let me paint you a picture of a hypothetical situation.

I’m a large man – I’m over 6 feet tall, and nobody has ever mistaken me for a sprinter.  Linebacker is a more apt comparison.  So imagine that I’m in a crowded mall, maybe during the holiday rush.  I’ve got a lot on my mind and on my plate – I’m trying to get all of my shopping done quickly so that I can go home and make dinner for my family.  I’m moving through the crowd at a brisk pace, passing slower-moving shoppers, my thoughts keenly trained on getting to the store where I know the last gift on my list is waiting.

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A hypothetical mall where hypothetical me is shopping for hypothetical gifts

As I round the corner near the food court, a toddler, maybe 3 years old, makes a break from his mother – he’s heading towards the mall Santa at considerable speed.  As I’m walking past an older lady pushing a walker, the child, not looking where he is going, runs smack into the side of my right knee as it swings forward into the next stride.  The boy is knocked down, and begins to cry.

Now in spite of the fact that it was the child that ran into me, that I was simply walking in a straight line and he ran directly into my path, I can guarantee you that it is me who apologizes in this situation. I certainly apologize to his mother, I make sure he’s OK, and I generally feel awful about the whole situation. And, in all likelihood, I should feel awful.  In most instances, I’m alert enough and aware enough of my surroundings to preemptively see a runaway toddler and avoid that collision. But in this case I was hurried and distracted, and I missed the cues.  We all do this often, I’m sure.  When we’re in an area like a mall or an amusement park, we’re hyper-aware of fast moving young people, and we take steps to avoid them colliding with us. As larger, stronger individuals, we take it upon ourselves to make sure that our actions don’t cause injury to a more vulnerable person.

And that brings me to the point of this post: It seems as though that sense of duty and care that we all apply while we’re walking up and vanishes when we get into a car.

Lately, there’s been a barrage of messaging from various agencies, whether they be in Ontario or beyond, taking aim at the behaviours of people walking and cycling. From messages about wearing bright, reflective clothing to talking about the (invented) scourge of distracted walking to asking pedestrians to remove their earbuds while walking, much of the focus of these messages are on the behaviours of people walking.

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Bright orange flags help keep full-grown people, who would otherwise apparently be invisible “safe”. Cross without this vital safety device at your own risk!

Now let’s be clear – people do have a responsibility to look out for their own safety. I don’t advocate wearing headphones, blaring loud music while playing Candy Crush on your phone and walking out into free-flowing traffic. But to continuously shift the onus onto people walking by demonizing the very things that make walking so enjoyable – listening to music, staring up at the buildings, enjoying conversations and the sights and sounds of your environment, the ability to simply get up and go without needing to strap on lights, reflective safety vests and protective helmets, belies the fact that the vast majority of injuries to people walking occur because the person driving didn’t obey the law.  They most often failed to yield the right of way at an intersection, although there are lots of other causes as well.

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How collisions involving people driving and walking occur in Brampton, which happens to be in Peel Region.

One of the worst examples of this culture of victim-blaming I’ve seen to date came, unfortunately, from Peel Regional Police.  During their “Pedestrian Safety Week“, Peel Police offer such gems of advice like “Don’t rely solely on traffic signals or stop signs.  Ensure that it is safe to cross the road before crossing”.  At the end of their list of advice, which includes the usual “wear reflective clothing”, “cross at crosswalks” and other helpful tips, they offer one last piece of counsel, just in case there was any remaining doubt that their campaign has little interest in tackling the root cause of injuries to people walking – dangerous behaviours by people driving.

Peel Regional Police are urging pedestrians to be extra vigilant. Keep in mind that just because you have the right of way doesn’t mean it is safe to utilize it.

Let that sink in for a second. Rather than running a campaign to encourage people driving to drive more attentively, to be extra careful of people walking and to always, as a default, yield the right of way to a more vulnerable road user, the police emphasize that, as someone who is not encased in a metal box, you need to be extra vigilant to protect yourself against those who would break the law and fail to yield the right of way, potentially endangering your life.

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Asking people walking to remove their earphones ignores the fact that even with earphones in, you still hear more than a person in a car with their windows up. Asking people to wear bright, reflective clothing ignores the fact that if a person driving can’t see a large object “until it’s too late”, then they’re arguably driving too fast for the light conditions or their own abilities. Asking people to cross at crosswalks ignores the fact that there are many “signal crossing deserts” in modern urban environments, where safe crosswalks may be separated by a kilometer or more.  All of these asks serve the same purpose – to absolve those driving and those who design the systems where rapid movement of cars are prioritized, of their responsibility to plan for the more vulnerable.  When you’re driving, speeding puts people at risk. Looking at your phone puts people at risk. Turning up the radio or fidgeting with your controls puts people at risk. If you drive at a speed that allows you to react and prevent a collision and you keep all of your attention on the task of driving, you’re planning for those more vulnerable – you’re doing what I didn’t do in the shopping mall example, watching constantly to make sure you don’t get involved in a collision with someone more vulnerable than yourself.

And when planners and engineers design roads for travel at 65-70km/h through residential areas, when they space safe crossings far apart, when they fail to provide sidewalks or bike lanes or off-road trails, they’re failing to plan for those more vulnerable populations as well.

One last point, before I offer my modified suggestions for pedestrian safety, and it’s an important one.

A lot of these requests make it seem like it’s hipsters looking down at their phones being injured or killed on the roads when they’re out walking.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  When you look at the data for who dies while walking all across Ontario, one group stands out as dramatically over-represented: Seniors.  Take a look at this map of pedestrian fatalities in Toronto in 2016: as of the writing of this post, 12 of the 15 deaths were people over 55 years old, with 10 of the deaths being people over 65 years old.  It’s not young, healthy people making poor choices being killed on the roads while walking – it’s predominantly grandparents and great grandparents moving slowly in dangerous areas.

So without further ado, I’ll present my #PedestrianSafety Tips:

When driving be sure to:

  • Constantly scan the roadway ahead, keeping a close eye for people walking. Especially in residential neighbourhoods, where children can be expected to be playing, keep your speed limited to 30km/h to maximize your response time and minimize the risk of death to people walking.
  • Maintain full attention on the task at hand.  Inattention and distraction is now the leading cause of collisions in Ontario, so focus on the road ahead.
  • Yield the right-of-way when required by law.  When in doubt, yield the right of way to people walking anyways. Their safety and ability to get home to their families is worth the extra few seconds of delay it may cause you.
  • If conditions are sub-optimal (rain, dark, snow etc), adjust your driving habits accordingly. Drive more slowly, and pay extra attention.

When walking be sure to:

  • Remain attentive while continuing to enjoy the most basic and human form of movement.
  • Identify areas where safe crossings are required and call your community’s traffic department, planning department and local councillors to let them know about the unsafe conditions.
  • Program your community’s local law enforcement’s non-emergency number into your phone and vigorously report any person driving who fails to yield the right of way.

Did I miss any tips? Send them to me on Twitter using the Hashtag #RealPedSafety!

 

Our Streets Have an Identity Crisis – Part 3

Every good story needs a Denouement.  We’ve gone through the exposition (Part 1), the Crisis (Part 2) and now, dear readers, I present to you the final part of my “Our Streets Have an Identity Crisis” series.  This post focuses on solutions – ways that communities are reclaiming their public spaces, and the incredible things that can result when we think about our streets as more than simply a space for moving cars.

While visiting Toronto late in 2015, I stumbled across this sign:

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And it struck me: if we have to remind people to slow down when they’re driving immediately beside a public park that children play in, we may have created a problem.

This isn’t a street that’s particularly easy to speed on. It’s relatively narrow, there’s vehicles parked on the side basically at all times during the day, and there’s stop signs all along the length, yet speeding is still a problem. This is a case of the overarching condition of our infrastructure contributing to a cultural problem – one where the speed of those traveling through our communities takes precedence over the safety of those who live, work and play there. Streets like this one, which happen to be a linear, parallel route a couple of blocks away from a major thoroughfare, become used as shortcuts.  It’s commonly known as “rat-running“, and it usually results in a particular set of impatient, frustrated, high-speed people driving through residential communities.

When people treat residential streets as a shortcut, bypassing routes that are designed to accommodate higher volumes of traffic and have adjacent land uses that are more conducive to higher volumes and higher speeds, it creates friction – friction between the people who live on those streets and the people who are driving through them. The problem is that the people driving through those neighbourhoods don’t linger long enough to engage in a meaningful conversation – they’re gone in a flash, leaving the residents there to cope with the increased danger and decreased quality of life for their families and friends.

But all across North America, neighbourhoods are fighting back. From Speed Humps to area-wide traffic calming to turn restrictions on residential streets, communities are getting creative about how to slow traffic down.

In communities like Portland and Vancouver, Neighbourhood Greenways are making walking, cycling and playing in the street more comfortable by restricting access, ensuring that automotive traffic cannot move straight through an area using residential streets and installing significant traffic calming features.

On-street parking is maintained for those who live there, cut-through traffic is reduced and these streets become major thoroughfares for people cycling and walking. It’s really a win-win for everyone. Just look how beautiful they are:

Here in Ontario, Hamilton has done some great things with their North End Traffic Management Plan.  An entire community stood up and said “no more” to vehicles traveling at speeds in excess of 65km/h though their neighbourhood, and the results so far have been impressive, to say the least. Average speeds have gone down anywhere from 5-25%, bringing speeds down closer to 30km/h, and much more in-line with those compatible with a “life sized city”

 

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Photo via Copenhagenize

Where traffic moves slower, people are more comfortable walking or biking. They know their neighbours across the street as well as next door. Kids play ball hockey, basketball and street soccer, front yards are used as social space, and you see more people moving around their community, making connections with the people around them. I’ve been fortunate to live in areas like that, and I can assure you that it’s a wonderful way to live.

If this all sounds kind of utopian, I would suggest that it really wasn’t that long ago that the kind of traffic flow that we experience now was viewed as a dangerous, dystopian future. In 1923, over 40,000 residents of Cincinnati signed a petition demanding that cars be mechanically limited to 40km/h. The auto industry responded by blaming pedestrians, launching the great Jaywalking campaign to assert that roads were the exclusive domain of cars. For hundreds of years of civilization, streets were places for people. And in the span of a generation, the expectations had been switched.

I assert that the pendulum has swung too far. We’ve given up too much of our public space, our safety and our quality of life in our own neighbourhoods to facilitate the rapid movement of people driving through the places we live. It’s time to stop treating every strip of asphalt as a highway, and time to start thinking of our streets as a public space for everyone again.

 

Our Streets Have an Identity Crisis – Part 2

Last week, I bombarded you with nerd speak about Level Of Service, making the point that it’s a disastrous metric by which to judge the success of our streets.  For those of you who are not transportation nerds, I sincerely apologize.  This week’s post will be written in plain English, with little exploration of policy and other such nerdiness, and more of a focus on the real-world impacts of the choices that we’ve made.

At some point in the not-so-distant past, we decided that the needs of people moving through our communities was more important than the needs of the people that live there.  One of the examples I find the most egregious, and one that I’m most familiar with, is Cannon Street in Hamilton.

When you look at Cannon Street (circa 2012) on Google Streetview, you’ll notice that it’s a huge roadway – 4 lanes wide, one way traffic.  You’ll also notice that the vast majority of Cannon Street is lined with residential homes.  Those homes, many of which are relatively close to the street because the houses built along that corridor were constructed in the days before 18 wheelers would regularly drive by their front door at 60km/h or more, are ostensibly filled with people. People with families, jobs, wishes and dreams not so different from those of the people whizzing by their house.

Data about Cannon Street was alarming – a neighbourhood group used a radar gun to monitor speeds, and found that vehicles were averaging 72km/h along that corridor.  Coupled with the fact that only between 12 and 20,000 vehicles per day used that route (a healthy number is 8-10,000 vehicles per lane per day), it contributed to a street that was either 4 lanes of silent asphalt  or a thundering mass of speeding vehicles with very little in between. The installation of a protected bike lane in 2014 has helped make Cannon safer, but the number of streets with a similar problem is staggering.

Victoria Street in Belleville – where 40km/h is a suggestion, but highway-sized lane widths make traveling at 60-70km/h easy


Streets like that send a clear message – these aren’t for the people who live there.  They require the residents to sacrifice the livability, the sense of community and the safety of their children (a pedestrian struck at more than 60km/h has almost zero chance of survival) in order to facilitate the rapid movement of others.  In an urban environment, there will always be trade offs when it comes to mobility, but the pendulum has swung too far. We’re willing to sacrifice the safety and livability for people who live along a street 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for the needs of those who spend 3-5 minutes a day driving through them.  And that’s not a sacrifice I thin we should be willing to make anymore.

Slowing down traffic in urban areas is always a contentious issue. There’s cries of outrage when attempts are made to reduce speed limits from 50km/h to 30km/h, despite the substantial amount of evidence that shows that speeds of 30km/h an under have significant benefits for improving walking and cycling and making all road users safer. A pedestrian struck at 30km/h has an 95% chance of surviving – a pedestrian struck at 50km/h has about a 50/50 chance.

Simple math – as cars go faster, people die more. How much extra time on the roads is a preventable death worth?

It’s high time we stop treating every single street like a highway. It’s time we start prioritizing safety over speed and livability over mobility. Now that doesn’t have to start on arterial roads – I fully recognize that those will still be needed to keep goods and people moving, but residential streets – places where people live, where children play and where urban life plays out, those are the places where the potential for change is the highest.  Those streets can be streets where parents feel safe letting their kids walk or bike to school, where families can play in their front yards, and where the kinds of everyday interactions – a conversation with your neighbour, a wave to a dog-walker, a smile to a passing cyclist – are achievable without having to shout over the roar of speeding vehicles.

Our residential streets used to be as much an extension of our front yards as a part of the transportation network.  They served as a public space, helping to knit communities together.  This might sound idealistic or utopian, but why should it?  Why shouldn’t we expect better of our public space? In my next post I’ll turn my attention to what happens when people demand better, and what it can look like when communities stop treating every street as a highway.

Our Streets Have an Identity Crisis – Part 1

A century ago, our streets served many purposes.  They were gathering places, places for commerce, places for play, places for discussion. Where streets were lined with residences, they were places where children played, where people traveled, where neighbours met and where the complex interactions that make urban life worth living played out.  In short, our streets were messy places, where a myriad of uses competed for space, for attention and for visibility.  Just venturing out onto the street required you to interact with your community – you talked to your neighbours, saw other residents of your community, and purchased items at local retailers.

Front Street in Belleville, 1913.  Photo from Library and Archives Canada

Fast forward a hundred years or so, and the relationships on our streets have been dramatically simplified.  Gone are the streets as a market, as a playground, as a meeting space.  The complexity that made urban streets inherently interesting – the interactions with other people, with buildings around you, and with local shops, has been replaced with streets who serve one purpose – moving automobiles from one place to another as quickly as possible.

CannonDeath

A simplified street in Hamilton – one purpose, one type of user catered to.

In North America, where our communities are spread out and goods need to travel long distances, there is an important place for roads whose sole objective is to encourage rapid and efficient movement of automobiles.  Our network of highways have played a significant role in advancing our economy, of that there can be no doubt.  But the problem comes when we start treating every single piece of road in the same way that we treat a highway – applying the same engineering standards, quantifying its “success” by the same metrics and ignoring the vital role that our streets play in creating social cohesion in our cities – and that is exactly what we’ve done for the past 40 years, to disastrous effect.

To many readers that are NOT transportation nerds like myself, the term “Level Of Service” might be a new term.  It’s little known outside of the transportation and engineering realm, but its consequences shape the way we use our streets every single day.  Level of Service refers to a road’s capacity to move automobiles.  Level “A” means that the road experiences free-flowing traffic at all hours of the day.  Level “F” means stop and go traffic. Now neither one of these extremes are ideal for urban life, but problems arise when we dig into how the problem is described, because it has tremendous (negative) influence on the solutions put forward.

When it comes to Level of Service, the problem is often defined quite simply – there are too many vehicles for the capacity of the road.  The solutions are to either decrease the number of vehicles or expand the road’s capacity.  Since communities in North America have been loathe to introduce policies like road pricing or congestion charges that would have any impact on the number of vehicles, it leaves you with only one option: expand the road’s capacity.  Of course, this then plays into the iron-clad law of induced demand, where increasing road capacity results in a similar increase in the number of vehicles, leading to debacles like the Katy freeway in Houston, where after nearly $3B was spent to widen the freeway to a ludicrous 23 lanes, travel times actually increased by nearly 30%.

Click through to see stunning aerials of Houston's busiest highways.Traffic on the IH-10 Katy Freeway viewed facing west near Loop 610 on Thursday, April 11, 2013, in Houston. ( Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle ) Photo: Smiley N. Pool, Houston Chronicle

Houston’s Katy Freeway – a multi-billion dollar exercise in futility.

All this to say that Level of Service is a disastrously flawed metric for measuring how well our streets work.  It starts with a flawed premise, and delivers doubly flawed results, especially when applied within an urban context.  When the only metric considered is the number of vehicles traveling at free flowing speeds, you ignore metrics like safety and comfort of people walking and cycling, accessibility for people with exceptionalities and impacts on social cohesion and placemaking. All of these measures, some of which are much less tangible than simply counting cars and recording their speeds, are much more important markers of what makes a great community, not a great highway, which Level of Service arguably quantifies.  And since we live in communities, not highways, I would argue that we should pay much more attention to Quality of Place rather than Level of Service – an idea I’ll turn my attention to in part 2 of this post next week.

Winter: An addendum

Yesterday, I wrote about riding through the winter, and I actually feel like I need to clarify a couple of things.

First, know when NOT to ride.  When the snow is piled higher than your front wheel, or there’s ice patches lurking under the snow, or the freezing rain has turned the streets into a curling rink, it’s maybe not the best idea to hop on your bike, especially if you don’t have specialized equipment like studded tires or a Fat Bike. Riding in the winter is a lot like everything else that’s good for you – it’s only good for you as long as you don’t overdo it.  Be flexible, be pragmatic, and try to continue enjoying it.

Second, riding in the winter means that you have to put more time and effort into choosing your route.  It’s a fine balance between roads that are busy enough to be clear, but not too busy to feel dangerous.  If you live somewhere where trails, bike lanes and protected bike lanes are cleared as a priority, then this is less important.  But for most of us, route planning becomes extremely important when the right-of-way gets narrowed by snow and the spaces closest to the curbs can be a gamble.

Third, and related to the above points, some places just are not hospitable to riding in ANY weather conditions, much less when there is snow and ice to contend with.  I’ve been very fortunate to have winter commutes that were relatively well maintained (in Hamilton) or featured decently quiet residential streets with enough width to accommodate me comfortably, even when vehicles are passing me in either direction (in Belleville). For many people and in many places, there’s literally no safe route to get from point A to point B, even when weather is ideal. If you live somewhere where this is a reality, you’re not likely to ride in the winter.  So either move somewhere you can, or start asking, in as polite yet firm a tone as you can muster, for your community to move into the 21st century and start accommodating a wider range of transportation choices.

Biking in Oulu, Finland

A rider in Oulu, Finland on a well-maintained path doing something I could never attempt with my 2 squirrel-focused dogs. Photo by Pekka Tahkola, found here.

When confronted with the inevitable “Nobody rides their bikes in the winter” argument, my favourite retort is to ask them how many people they think would continue to drive compact cars through the winter if the roads were never plowed.  Would people put up with a transportation network that only accommodated those who owned Jeeps, Humvees or snowmobiles? Of course they wouldn’t.  People purchase and use compact cars through the winter because they know that their routes will, with the exception of massive winter storms, be passable.  If people riding their bikes had that same reassurance, you can bet that they will ride more.  Don’t believe me? Go visit Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Or Madison, Wisconsin.  Or Oulu, Finland.  They treat their cycling infrastructure like it should be treated – as a vital component of their transportation network, and, lo and behold, their residents treat it the same way. Wouldn’t it be nice if that were the case where you lived too?

Until next time, safe riding. And stay warm.

Winter: What’s the Big Deal?

Recently, an article in Maclean’s Magazine caught my eye.  It was titled “Canada: A Nation of Winter Wusses“, and it got me thinking.

2016 marks the fourth year in a row I’ve ridden my bike all through the winter. What stands out for me about this year is the number of times people have expressed “You’re still riding your bike?!?” as if it’s some magical yet scandalous action.  Truthfully, this winter has been fairly mild in my part of Ontario, with some significant snowfalls being interspersed with mild periods, most of which have resulted in significant melting. I’ve been able to see bare ground in my back yard for more days in February alone than I did all last winter, and the snow mountain I create with the snow cleared from my deck and bike storage pad (which I deem Mount Moron, in honour of my dogs, who love to climb it), has never risen to a peak higher than my eye level. Last year it was over 8 feet high.

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Mount Moron, nearing the pinnacle of its height last year.

All that to say that this winter hasn’t been that bad. The roads have been clear, the temperatures mild, and the amount of ice on the roads has been virtually non-existent.  Couple that with the fact the Belleville actually does a pretty good job of keeping their trails clear of snow, and you’ve got the ideal conditions to ride year round.

So with all that in place, what is it about riding in winter that makes people look at you like you’re either moderately insane, some sort of super-human or both?

At a family event over the holidays, an older relative, when he discovered what I do for a living, asked “well what about the winter?” – to which I responded “well what did you do in the winter when you were younger?”

Of course, he comes from a generation of children that walked to school, they walked to their neighbour’s house, they played outside – and those activities didn’t grind to a halt when the snow started flying. But somewhere along the line, the idea of moderate discomfort – of bundling up to go outside for a short walk, of arriving to your destination a bit out of breath, of traveling in any fashion that’s not heated, enclosed and motorized – got lost.

So I ride through the winter as a protest against the “Winter Wussy” trend Maclean’s identifies. I ride because I want to stay active, and that doesn’t stop just because it’s below zero. But mostly, I ride because it’s actually not that hard. It’s quicker than walking, usually just as quick as driving once you factor in parking and such, and the feeling that comes with Viking Biking just can’t be beat.

So I encourage all of you to take back winter – it’s incredible how much less I dislike winters now that I make a concerted effort to walk or bike more often. Get some decent winter gear, (more guides here and here) and buck the trend against winter wussiness.  We’re Canadian, after all.  We’re a people that were once described as “…a northern people, as the true out-crop of human nature, more manly, more real than the weak marrow-bones superstition of the effeminate south,” by lawyer and essayist William Alexander Foster in his 1871 address “Canada first or, our new nationality.”  Of course, watching my pregnant wife ride through all of last winter also proved that one doesn’t have to be manly to be a bad-ass winter cyclist.

So be the real, (wo)manly out-crop of human nature we’re meant to be.  Become a winter cyclist.

And don’t forget to laugh at yourself while you do it.

My Story, My choice, and the freedom of others

Knowing what I do for a living, people often ask me how I got to this point. Did I grow up in Amsterdam, Portland or Montreal? Were my parents hippies who got around by bike? Have I received a driving ban for some taboo reason, and am now forced to rely on other modes of transportation?

In fact, I grew up in Southern Alberta, in a town where turning 16 meant you faced a choice: either get your drivers license and get whatever vehicle you (or your parents) could afford, or enjoy your status as a social outcast. I opted for the first option, earning my driver’s license at 16 years and 2 days old, immediately purchasing a 1984 Chrysler Fifth Avenue. It was less of a car than it was 2 massive couches on wheels, but it got me around and provided the means for my friends and I to escape our town on a regular basis to head into the big city for the occasional movie or night on the town. Once you had a car, bikes were something that kids used for fun, not a means of getting around. I can distinctly remember driving from my school to the convenience store down the street – a distance that Google Maps tells me is about 320 metres. So no, I didn’t grow up in Amsterdam. In fact, my late teens and early adulthood were spent in some of the most auto-centric places I’ve ever seen, even to this day – a place where people will literally drive from the grocery store to the post office – a trip of all of 75 metres.

Once I made it into University in Edmonton, things were close together and parking was expensive, so I left the old Fifth Ave at home. But it was always there during the summers, and my transportation habits didn’t change much. Sure, I walked a few more places while at University, but I never ventured far outside the University area bubble, unless it was to go to West Edmonton Mall, and that trip was often taken by car or, if I couldn’t get a ride, by bus.

It wasn’t until I moved to Toronto that cycling became something I was interested in. It was a few months into my time in the City, and I had been relying on a combination of the TTC and walking to get around. I was playing in a band at the time, and our rehearsals and shows were about a 45 minute TTC ride away, depending on the traffic and how long you had to wait for the next streetcar or bus. One night it took me almost an hour and a half to get there, and that was when I decided, at age 23, to get back on a bike.

The dreaded “Platoon” of streetcars – well known to any TTC rider. Image from the Toronto Star

I was fortunate to live on St. George Street in Toronto – a relatively calm street with bike lanes on either side. Every day I watched a steady stream of cyclists going about their lives – heading to class, to work, to get groceries, and I thought to myself “none of them are waiting 45 minutes for a streetcar!”. So the next week I went out and I bought myself a bike. It was an early 90s Raleigh 10 speed hybrid – the perfect bike for someone wanting to commute around town without drawing too much unwanted attention to the bike (This was back in the Igor Kenk days in Toronto, when bikes went missing even more than they do now). After a few shaky rides, I discovered that riding a bike was just like, well, you know. And before you knew it I was riding every day. And what a difference it made.

That bike completely blew the city wide open for me. It was like someone had lifted the curtain off of all these incredible neighbourhoods that I had no idea existed, many of which were just outside my own area but were just a bit too far to walk to regularly.

I discovered Little Portugal, Corso Italia, The Beaches and many other areas I had only heard about. I frequented the areas I really liked more – I became a regular shopper in Kensington Market, Little Italy and Chinatown, where before I rarely had the time to walk all the way down to those areas. I got to know shopkeepers, bartenders, baristas and servers all over the city, and I loved the feeling that came with knowing that I was getting to my destination faster than anyone else. I regularly beat my friends who took taxis to our destinations, and unless it was a long journey along a subway line, I was always confident that I would always arrive before I would have if I had taken transit.

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My Silver Peugeot – the second bike I ever bought, and the one I still rider today!

A side effect of all of this was that I was healthier than I had been in years as well. Just by building active transportation into my daily routine, I was thinner, fitter and happier than I had been in a long time. Add all of these benefits to the $60 or so each month I was saving on transit, and it becomes pretty easy to understand why I grew to love my bike so much, and why I now work every day to share that joy with others.

While my story is certainly not unique, it is indicative of the transformational nature of active transportation, which is why I feel compelled to share it. The only problem with my story is that most of the people that would tell you a similar story – someone who just one day decides to give this cycling thing a try – would have a great deal, at least from a demographic standpoint, in common with me, especially at the time I started riding. More often than not they’d be male, 18-35 years old and likely wouldn’t have children. They would likely fall into the least risk averse demographic, and often become the “1%” of the cycling world – the strong, fearless riders who will ride anywhere in any conditions. When cycling advocates talk about the different types of cyclists and potential cyclists, this is often the chart that gets brought up:

4 types of cyclists

While I previously would have put myself comfortably in the 1% category, I’ve moved out of my 20s and have added the responsibility of being a father – so I’ve found that I’m actually less willing to ride anywhere in any conditions. I’m more careful about selecting my route, and my heart beats a little quicker when I’m on a busy street without bike lanes, even when I’m not riding any faster. If someone like me, a 31 year old who has been cycling for 8 years in mixed traffic, isn’t comfortable on those roads, what makes people think that the lack of cyclists means that there’s a lack of demand?

It’s a lot like looking at a raging river and saying “well, I don’t see anyone swimming across it, so I suppose we don’t need to build a bridge to the other side.”  If you aren’t seeing a large number of cyclists in your community, it’s not because your residents are so exceptional that they will never get out of their cars if given other options. In cities from Montreal to Phoenix and in smaller centres like Corvallis, Oregon and Boulder, Colorado and in hundreds of other communities all over the continent, people are proving that when safe cycling infrastructure is built, people exercise their right to choose how they move around, and start traveling via different modes.

In all my time working on cycling issues, I have yet to find a single community where a significant, sustained investment in cycling infrastructure has not yielded a significant increase in the number of cyclists. Often the increases are much more significant than planners expected, further highlighting the pent-up demand for cycling all over North America.  Providing safe infrastructure for cycling provides people with the freedom to choose how they get around, whereas maintaining road space solely for the use of cars traps people into one mode of transportation, forcing them to take on added expenses and often resulting in them using the wrong tool for the job when it comes to many trips (More on this in a future post).

I was fortunate enough to be able to make the choice – I had some infrastructure that made me feel safe, I’m an able-bodied, fit young man who is able to ride relatively quickly, and is brave (/stupid) enough to ride in mixed traffic. But not many people fit that profile. And if we aren’t thinking about how we can provide them with more of an environment of choice, then we’re still practicing discriminatory transportation policies that rob people of the freedom to choose how they get around their community safely and effectively. We need to restore that choice, and that means a serious re-think about how we use our road space. More on that to come.

Until then, enjoy the ride.

An introduction of sorts.

I think it’s extremely valuable, when one is starting a new writing endeavor, to provide some context and background as to why said endeavor came about, and why it’s relevant enough for you to expect readers to care enough about it to dedicate any amount of their time to reading and thinking about what you’ve written. I’m not so vain as to believe that this site is going to have any significant influence on decisions that get made, but I do hope that it can serve as a valuable resource for those who share the same goals and passions as me.

I’d like to start off by answering 3 questions that I recently asked myself as a result of reading Carmine Gallo’s “Talk Like Ted“.

Question 1: What do you do?

I work at a non-profit organization in Ontario that promotes cycling.

Question 2: What are you passionate about?

I’m passionate about making cycling more accessible and safer to more residents of Ontario and Canada.

Question 3: What is it about what you do that makes your heart sing?

Ignoring the cheesiness in how the question is phrased (I bristle when someone uses a term like “what makes your heart sing?” or “what makes your spirit soar?”, especially in a business or professional context), I still had to think a lot harder about this question than I did the second.  And I arrived at one very simple conclusion.

What inspires me about what I do is that I have seen the results that arise from communities that make walking and cycling a priority. I see neighbours that know one another, I see local shops thriving, supported by people that know the shopkeeper by name. I see kids getting to school actively and safely, the way I did as a child, and I see healthier, happier and more prosperous people. A community where walking and cycling are prioritized is one where the streets are alive, and where people look out for one another because they know their neighbour’s faces and their stories, not just their vehicle make and model. It’s this vision, the vision of a connected community that makes my heart sing, and it really is my raison d’être.

So now that you know that about me, I’m excited to put the rest of this site together. My goal is to keep this updated with opinions, articles, links and other updates that relate to cycling in North America with a particular focus on things going on in Ontario. I hope that you find this site interesting, informative, thought provoking and occasionally humorous (I make no promises on that, though. I have an odd sense of humour), and that I can provide you with at least some reason to spend your valuable time pondering thoughts I post on my little corner of the interweb.  I hope to post once a week, sometimes more and hopefully seldom less. But we’ll see how things go!

Enjoy the ride!