Monday, May 30, 2011

A Culture of Cycling: Building Healthy Communities, or Partisan Political Hot Potato?

After a long weekend spent driving around our fair province, it was a pleasure to return home and bike into the office this morning. Even a mild spattering of rain couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm on “Take Your Bike To Work Day”. I have been cycling to work now, periodically, for the past three years, after a long sabbatical away from bikes, which lasted from about my early 20s to my mid-30s. After purchasing a hybrid a few years back, at the urging of my wife, I was quickly left wondering why I hadn’t resumed biking a long while ago.

When I left the house this morning, the West End bus passed in front of my driveway. On many days, I would have been standing at the bus stop across the street, and boarding that bus. Today, I turned right and headed up my street towards my office, located downtown (very near the bus depot). Following my regular route (which isn’t the most direct), I still managed to beat the bus in by a good 5 minutes.

Had I taken a more direct route, along Douglas and Brady streets, rather than up along Lorne Street, I might have beat the bus in by another couple of minutes. However, I still feel the need to defer to safety – the lane widths on Lorne are slightly larger than those on Brady, and although traffic moves just as fast on both streets, there is more of it on Brady. Fast moving traffic, smaller lane widths, and an almost non-existent culture of cycling in this City have led me to choose a less direct route to and from the office.

The Need to Create a Culture of Cycling in our Communities

The Sudbury Cyclists Union issued a press release last week about Take the Bike to Work day. It was picked up by one of our local papers, the Northern Life (“Ditch the emissions, take the bike on May 30th”). For me, ditching the emissions is one of the reasons that I try to walk, bike and take transit to the office as much as I possibly can.

However, Sudbury still has a long way to go when it comes to creating a safe environment for cyclists. Note some of the comments on the websites running the story (including the SCU’s press release appearing on the Sudbury Star’s UR Sudbury site – “Bike to Work Day”). While some of the more vicious, anti-cycling comments have been removed by the Star’s administrators, the fact is that there is a clear and marked lack of respect for cycling in our community.

I like to think that it’s just a small, but perhaps overly vocal minority of individuals who have a problem with cyclists on our roads. Or I sometimes believe that the problems are generally isolated to cyclists who don’t (or won’t) follow the rules of the road. But lately, I’ve become less certain that this is actually the case, and that perhaps the anger expressed by motorists might be part of a larger backlash against those seen as taking part in “green” initiatives.

On the Road to Cycling Success in Greater Sudbury

Before I go on, though, first let me say that I sincerely think that things are getting a lot better for cyclists in Sudbury. That might seem like an unsupportable statement, given that we’ve just seen the resurfacing of several major streets (Paris, Notre Dame, Lasalle, MR80) and even some minor arterials (Kathleen) without the benefit of any additional cycling infrastructure. No new bike lanes have been created on Sudbury’s streets since the few kilometres were painted on Howey and Bancroft about 6 or 7 years ago now. Nary a sharrow has been added either.

Clearly, the resurfacing of our major routes as part of the economic stimulus was an opportunity lost for our community. And we may never have the benefit of experiencing this kind of comprehensive initiative again.

But the lost opportunity has spurred action. Rainbow Routes was asked by our Council to lead an exercise to produce a Sustainable Mobility Plan, which identified the need for pedestrian, cycling and transit improvements for our community. When presented to the Priorities Committee back in 2010, one of the astounding bits of information reported were that one in three Sudburians don’t have access to a motorized vehicle for transport. For a City built for the benefit of cars, this little bit of information really seemed to resonate.

The Coalition for a Livable Sudbury has been a strong advocate in our community for sustainable transportation choices. Complete streets lead to complete communities, and reducing urban sprawl isn’t just good for the health of residents, it’s really the only serious way that we’re going to be able to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions over the long term. Replacing sprawl with a culture of conservation is a necessary and fundamental step towards improving the health of our families, our economy, and our nation.

The Sudbury Cyclists Union began to take shape last year as well. With hundreds of members, the Union took a big step towards incorporating yesterday, with its second annual general meeting. The SCU has become a strong and respected voice of the cycling community in Greater Sudbury. In part through the SCU’s sustained efforts, it’s recently been announced that the upgrading of Regent Street between Bouchard and Telstar will now include painted sharrows on the widened inside lane, a small but important first step towards improving cycling infrastructure on our major thoroughfares at the time of road construction. Creating cycling infrastructure in this way is the most economically feasible model available, and makes sense from all perspectives.

The City has been working on a Master Plan for the downtown, and through innovative public engagement processes, Sudburians are being kept apprised of where the Plan is heading. Clearly, promoting cycling in the downtown, and providing linkages for cyclists to the downtown, is going to be a priority recommendation of the Plan.

With the recent presentation of the former Bicycle Advisory Panel’s bike plan to Council, it’s becoming clear to me that our municipal leaders are taking cycling in our community very seriously – more seriously than ever before. The voices of cyclists, urbanists, environmentalists, social justice advocates – all are joining together in an effort to transform our City into a community prepared to meet the challenges of a low-carbon future. Yes, it’s going to take time, but we’re making a start.

Which is why the upcoming 5-year review of the City’s Official Plan is so important for the cycling community. Currently, the City’s Official Plan does not identify any city streets where cycling infrastructure should be prioritized. Indeed, cycling appears to be treated more as a recreational activity than a transportation option in the City’s Plan. That has to change. And it will change if sustained pressure and common sense are used. Certainly, including proposed locations for bike lanes on Transportation Schedules of the OP are going to be a significant departure from what has come before, but it’s the only way to ensure that the opportunities which were lost just recently through the economic stimulus are not repeated in the future. And now the Official Plan can be informed by the Sustainable Mobility Plan and the BAP’s Bike Plan.

Respect for Cyclists and a "green" Backlash

Cycling must be treated with respect as a viable form of transportation in our community. Indeed, I believe that cycling, along with transit and walking, need to be treated as priority forms of transportation in our community, given that they are far more healthy and sustainable options than personal vehicle use.

However, as I wrote earlier, what I think we’re seeing throughout Canada lately is a bit of a backlash against healthy and sustainable “green” initiatives In Toronto, for example, Council has started to discuss removing recently installed bike lanes from Jarvis Street, and getting rid of the 5-cent fee on plastic bags. At the provincial level, some of the political parties have been openly discussing the need to curtail green energy initiatives, and the need to remove the HST from home heating. Nationally, it’s just been reported this past weekend that Environment Canada has been withholding data from the United Nations regarding Canada’s greenhouse gas contributions from the tar sands. And there’s been a lot of grousing lately about the high price of gasoline.

Taken each on their own, these individual issues are troubling enough. But when you look at them together (along with other, similar issues), you might begin to notice a troubling trend which can only be interpreted as a backlash. And it’s the kind of backlash which appears to have political motivation behind it.

Why Cycling is a Political Statement

Now, you might not think that riding a bike is a political statement. For you, riding your bike to work might be more about saving money, reducing your carbon foot print, or just saving a few minutes a day by beating the bus into the office. Perhaps it’s just something you enjoy doing, because it makes you feel good and healthy or you enjoy the wind on your face. That’s great, but guess what? Whether you know it or not, you are making a political statement which is upsetting a number of your neighbours and pundits across Canada (and the world, for that matter).

At Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s inauguration back in December, hockey analyst Don Cherry was on hand to discuss how Ford was going to take on those “bike riding pinkos”, even though many of those “pinkos” were no doubt Ford supporters. That’s just one example of how cyclists, whether they know it or not, are participating in a politicized activity. Right-wing neo-conservatives have defined you as being on the “left”, and whether you are or not isn’t important. What you stand for, while riding your bike on our streets, is a threat to neo-conservative values.

As many of my regular readers know, I’m very involved with local and national efforts to help reduce the economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change. I’ve stated in the past that climate change isn’t a partisan issue, and I’ve made these statements based on the science of climate change which has been produced in the past several decades, and overwhelmingly concludes that the planet is warming, and that human industrial processes are responsible for it. That’s a fact, and facts don’t belong to any specific group or political organization. So the planet’s changing climate can’t be a partisan issue. Right?

Well, what we’ve been seeing on the climate change front in the past several years are significant efforts by right-wing partisans to deny the “facts” themselves. By questioning our factual reality (with a fair degree of success, I might add, given their access to mainstream media, and the significant economic resources which they can bring to bear), the very scientific fact of climate change has become a partisan issue. If you don’t “believe” in climate change (as if a warming globe is some kind of tooth fairy-story), chances are you will be supporting a neo-conservative right-wing political party, as the feeling is that they’re not going to waste money doing something about a “non-existent” threat (and they’ve largely got the track-record to prove it, too).

So, if you believe that climate change either isn’t happening, or that it might be happening but there’s nothing that we can do about it, so why worry, chances are you’re going to be more attracted to a right-wing political party which shares your views (perhaps with a “nudge-nudge, wink-wink”, but nonetheless). If you believe that climate change isn’t a problem, why would you want any government to spend money to do something about it? Indeed, you’re more likely to look with contempt at those individuals and organizations that maintain that climate change is a reality, and that we’re heading for some pretty big pain if we don’t do something about it. Contempt, of course, is a pretty strong emotion.

If climate change isn’t happening, why bother prepare for it? Why the need to prioritize cycling infrastructure, or funding public transit for that matter? Or putting a five-cent fee on plastic bags? If you live in a reality where climate change isn’t happening, where oil prices are only high now because of speculation or lack of investment in exploration, if you inhabit a world where resource depletion is something which your grandchildren won’t need to worry about because humanity always finds a way forward (or where “mother nature cleans up a lot of her own mess; and she cleans up a lot of ours, too”, as stated by failed federal Nickel Belt Conservative Party candidate Lynne Reynolds), why on whatever mythical earth you live on would you ever want to change your lifestyle?

Cyclists come face to face with this attitude every day. And it’s not just in the online comments section of local newspapers. Every time a car passes us with only inches to spare, or worse, every time we are smacked by a monstrous side-mounted rear-view mirror on a pick-up truck, or every time a horn blares at us in an attempt to move us over further into the dust and debris on the curb lane, we must wonder what is motivating these motorists. Is it just an issue of safety, or perhaps a driver who lacks experience dealing with slow-moving cyclists? Is it maybe just impatience with being inconvenienced by a cyclist on the road?

Perhaps it’s just one of those things. Or perhaps it’s a lot more. Maybe it’s the contempt for changing the status-quo that is fuelling the rage of the driver behind the wheel who believes that cyclists have no place on the road, or at least that cars need to be given preference on our City streets. Perhaps there’s something going on at a more fundamental level, where you the cyclist is regarded as the embodiment of cash-and-spend pinkos who are out to create a nanny-state where freedom of choice is jeopardized by rules and regulations which penalize the individual.

Addressing the Backlash

It’s one thing for contempt to manifest itself in political debate. It’s completely different to experience that contempt while trying to ride a bike along a city street with narrow lane widths.

Like it or not, cyclists, you are making a political statement every time you mount up and venture into traffic.

The right-wing neo-conservative backlash at all things green has meant that those who oppose change toward a low-carbon future have already labelled you a political enemy. Along with being an obstacle on their streets, you represent an obstacle to their ability to continue to live their life as they have done in the past.

Never underestimate the power of change to motivate people to want to keep things the same. Neo-conservative populists understand this, and that’s in part why they have begun to harness the power of the anti-green backlash, and successfully equate a greener lifestyle with having to make unpopular changes. It’s a false argument of course; but it’s a politically popular one.

Again, let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting that every close encounter between a cyclist and a motorist is caused by right-wing anti-green anger. That would be utter nonsense. What I am suggesting, however, is that the anti-green backlash we’re witnessing in Canada and throughout the world means that it’s going to continue to be a difficult task for cyclists to find room on local roads, as investments in infrastructure are only going to be incremental, at best. And that’s way organizations like Rainbow Routes, the Coalition for a Livable Sudbury, and the Sudbury Cyclists Union are going to have to continue to be strong advocates for the creation of a culture of cycling in this community.

Cyclists need to understand the politics behind their choice to leave their cars at home when they head into the office every morning. Creating a culture of conservation includes creating a culture of cycling. And that’s a threat to many Canadians who just don’t (or won’t) see the need for change.

(Opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)


Oemissions said...

i bought a new, well, almost new electric bike today
went over on the ferry and paid the owner of the craigslist ad then took it on the Canada line and bus to the ferry
Cost for bike on the ferry was $2 whereas a car costs about $78 yet i was the only person with a bike on the ferry
big trucks waiting in line idling for over half an hour right beside the kids playground

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