How did I end up in cycling advocacy?
By accident really. I cycle to work. When the weather is nice, we go out for bike rides. Rarely more than 40 km. That is very do-able in Ottawa. Since 2009 I am a member of Ottawa’s bicycle advocacy group, Citizens for Safe Cycling, because I believe that cycling has enormous potential in Ottawa. Others believe that too, so I thought that sharing my bike experience from the Netherlands with others is a good idea. Before I knew I became the president, not because I ever had the ambition to do much volunteer work, let alone being a president of a cycling group, but because the former president was hired by the city as a bicycle planner and I was the VP; I had no choice.
I also have a day time job at an embassy of a country that is known for its extensive bike network and extremely high bike modal shares and billion dollar investments in bike infrastructure, for their relaxed approach to cycling, for their beautiful bike bridges and their 29,000 kilometres of segregated bike lanes across the country. The Netherlands is only now slowly waking up to the fact that they are the best bike country in the world. If you live in the Netherlands, you honestly have no idea that the rest of the world is envious. They have hardly even bothered seriously marketing the cycling knowledge abroad. So I took it upon me to advocate cycling in Canada.
Soon I learned about vehicular cycling, desire lines and design standards. About manuals for engineers. About the reasons why we have cross walks but not cross rides. About the golden rule that car traffic always has to flow. All of a sudden people think you are an expert, because you come from the best bike country in the world. It is like people thinking you are a cowboy because you come from the US. Or that you can cook because you are from Italy. So I went along with it, fell back on contacts in the Netherlands, particularly Johan and Angela of http://www.Mobycon.com, who provided me with many great ideas and concepts. I had to show up in panels, on TV, on radio. We received awards and nominations for our bike advocacy group. I am called in as an expert by planners sometimes. I know lots of reporters in town and we wave to each other from our bikes. Even at so called right wing news outlets I have friends. It is all about how you deliver the message. Smile. Always smile.
Feminine hygiene pads
My background is marketing, but in general I don’t like marketing types. I once saw a picture of a brand manager guy in an ad magazine sitting on the floor, holding up feminine hygiene pads (with some kind of a wing design) like a plane. (Wings. Airplane. You get the picture).That was it. I decided to move to another country and start a new life.
It is kind of hard not become radical in advocacy in general, but that is not my style, you never want to burn your bridges. I’d rather keep showing examples of best practices. Some call me laid back and engaging, a super star cycling advocate, a delight, an extremely good facilitator, an inspiration, a creative thinker, a treat. In the three years that I put more serious effort in the Urban Commuter Blog, I am approaching 50,000 hits, about 1500 to 2000 a month currently. Not much to some, but what the heck, perhaps I convert a few souls along the way. I also post only every two weeks or so.
I made large number of friends, too many to mention. All dedicated people, who put countless hours of spare time in advocacy. They study drawings, repair bikes, attend public meetings, advise, write to council, present at committees, are educating at events. While paid staff, paid councillors and paid consultants listen between 9 and 5, these volunteers get up early, stay up late and sacrifice weekends to work around their jobs for the good cause. They take afternoons off to make their case at council. Some councillors look at their Blackberries if you talk for city council, forgetting you actually took a day off to bother coming to council.
That is why I love and appreciate bike advocates. They put effort into making the community better. If you have never heard of grass roots, come to bike advocacy and you know soon what the word means: very little money, tons of dedication.
I also got to know a lot city councillors and city staff and some MPP’s and MP’s. The best thing in Ottawa is that many in public office work towards better cycling in the city. Progress is painfully slow and bureaucracy is stifling, delays are more a rule than exception. While being fairly progressive under Mayor Watson, some councillors are pushing back, not based on facts but emotions (fear for the unknown, fear for not being re-elected, fear for spending). We now have a few kilometres of bike paths built by the city. Mostly as long as they are not in the way of parking.
Part of a change
Ottawa is changing, it is now the third biggest bike commuter city in Canada already, with a higher percentage than Vancouver and Montreal (StatsCan) with, brace yourself, 2,4% bike modal share. Some areas have an 8% and higher bike modal share, like the core area. That doesn’t take into account the tens of thousands of recreational cyclists.
I’d like to think I am part of that change, and how often in life do you get a chance to be part of a change, without going to some unstable country? Some talk about a paradigm shift, but I never really know what that means.
On the scale of things, not enough happens. The transportation budget is around 250 million dollars a year, cycling gets, whoopy, 6 million. We don’t have one single official cross ride, we don’t have one single bike traffic light. Signs are put in the wrong place, there is no thought put in gates and bollards, city owned trucks park in bike lanes, a bike trough takes 12 (!) years to put in, because one former manager didn’t think it was necessary.
Bike lanes are barely maintained in winter, containers are left in the middle of a bike lane, we believe that sharrows are a great solution and we design main streets so narrow (parking on two sides) that cyclists now worry about dooring. Gates are installed across a bike path at the bottom of a hill, cars block cross overs and lowering speed can not be discussed, even though there is overwhelming proof that it saves lives. We discuss 14 hours about a 1 km bike lane of less than one million dollars, but approve an 80 mln dollars widening of a survan road without discussion. A wider road makes it easier to get to a widened Queensway and then we get all stuck at downtown exits. That is Ottawa today. Cycling is not engrained one iota. And still people cycle and more and more people cycle. Thousands. Tens of thousands.
Presenting in Canada
I often combine work related trips to other Canadian cities with a speaking engagement on cycling in the Netherlands and/or Ottawa; the topic depends a bit on the public. Over the last three years I talked to about two thousand Canadians and even some Americans about the advantages of cycling, including to CAA members in Vancouver, to the Perth Chamber of Commerce, to attendees of the Nova Scotia Planners Directors Conference, to members of the public at Dalhousie University in Halifax, members of city council and staff in Regina and members of the public in Calgary, Kingston (at Queens U.) and Mississippi Mills, Kitchener-Waterloo, Fredericton. I was also in Charleston, SC and we loved it so much that our two cats are called after the cities of Charleston and Beaufort. My style is fairly unconventional, because I will also tell what doesn’t work.
What else do I do
I renovated a house in Italy, my vocabulary of Italian consists of words like tubi, mattone and cemento.I also write about cycling once in a while in Healthwise Magazine. I give interviews as training material for Ottawa journalist students. I maintain a newsletter for about 900 Dutch people in Ottawa and Montreal. I have built our own shed and screened in porch. I installed our IKEA kichen. I also read mostly non fiction but don’t have enough time currently, enjoy travelling to quiet places as I have enough of mass tourism, European cathedrals, busy Asian cities, overcrowded beaches, overpriced terraces and waitresses who expect 15% tip for bad service (‘How are you guys doing today’?’. ‘Can I get a coke? Not a problem’). I really like New Zealand because I met my Canadian wife there. It is also a fantastic country to travel.
I fiddle with computers, but less and less as after 25 years I have enough of tweaking Microsoft. I don’t like cell phones, although they boot up fast. I run an Ubuntu computer from 2005. I don’t really enjoy cooking, fortunately my wife enjoys it a bit more. I am less and less interested in politics, and more and more in animals as long as they have fur. The exception are chickens, they are funny to watch. Perhaps one day I will become a vegetarian, but I am always hungry after two days without meat. I miss those proteins too much. I also enjoy Blue Skies in Ontario even though I don’t play an instrument. I am learning more about bike mechanics from Shane and Alex and Berry.
Bike advocacy has been a wonderful addition to my life now I come to think of it. Perhaps you’d like it too. I also don’t want to be the president forever.