Monday, May 19, 2008

Cycling Advocacy - Montreal vs Toronto

How do we move from a world with poor cycling infrastructure to a world where it is safe to ride everywhere? Where the car and bikes and pedestrian (the whole active transportation thing) share the road and street network?.

Here in Montreal we have benefited from the existence of Velo-Quebec. It's our bicycling NGO. Velo Quebec has been promoting and planning and developing and supporting and advocating and lobbying for better cycling facilities in Montreal and Quebec, for over 25 years. In fact they hhey have succeeded, far beyond anyone's expectations.

Toronto is getting a top-level cycling group, an umbrella group trying to bring everyonein the bicycle scene together so the bicycle community can speak "with one voice." This group is called the Toronto Cyclists Union.

Cycling's union movement

Staff Reporter

Biking on the streets of Toronto are mad-eyed couriers, spidery-legged racers and baby-toting moms and dads. Some cyclists sit upright, some lean into the wind; some wear helmets and others spurn them; some resent any red light that impedes them and some are scared witless in traffic. There are earnest commuters with trousers tucked into their socks, kids who cycle to school and weekend pleasure riders.

Can this array of independent-minded bike riders find common cause in a single club?

The Toronto Cyclists Union created a buzz long before its launch at City Hall this Tuesday. It's modelled on the Canadian Automobile Association and if the CAA can be an advocate and offer benefits to its disparate car-driving members, the bike union hopes to do the same for Toronto cyclists.

There are already dozens of bike organizations in Toronto – from Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists (ARC), a lobbyist and cyclists' rights group, to Wenches with Wrenches, a free, women-run bike repair workshop. Cycling advocates tend to be a fractured community, with different objectives and different members – and the task of bringing them together in a unified voice may have worn out the union's founder, Dave Meslin. He spent nearly a year researching bike unions across the United States and created a model he thought would suit Toronto – one that's co-operative, not competing with the rest of the field.

The cycling union is different from other bike groups because it's member-driven, Meslin says. Its goal is to speak up for cyclists from Etobicoke to Scarborough and challenge City Hall.

"Cyclists don't feel safe on the streets and if they know there is a group fighting for safer conditions for them, I think they will join," says Meslin.

The union aims to hold city councillors, many of whom may be surprised at how many cyclists they have in their wards, accountable. "We've got this incredible bike plan that council passed in 2001– it's visionary," says Yvonne Bambrick, one of the co-ordinators of the cycling union. "We want to work with folks in different wards and get the plan in place."

To help achieve this, they're marshalling 44 "ward captains" representing each of the city's wards to be a link between local cyclists and the city council. "To make sure their voices are heard," says Meslin. "In the end, councillors respond to voters."

Through this ward program, they hope to represent the wider city – not just the Type A white males in the downtown core. One of their ideas is a cycling-with-newcomers program hooked up with the settlement agency CultureLink to encourage cycling among new immigrants. "We're looking to be a unified voice, a nice, pragmatic, sensible voice," says Bambrick.

The union proposes to create a cyclists' roadside assistance plan, similar to the one offered by the CAA. Insurance, an online dating service for cyclists and a trailer-lending program for moving larger loads by bike may all be offered later.

In the meantime, they're starting a lock removal program – similar to the CAA's service of retrieving keys locked in cars. (Members have to prove the bike is theirs or register their bikes with the police to be eligible.) They're also offering cycling maps for members travelling to other cities, family-friendly social rides – a fund-raising ride up the Humber River Valley and down the Don Valley is planned, and celebrations every time a new bike lane is opened. "We're good at complaining and getting critical," says Meslin. "But how about a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a cake and patting the councillor on the back and encouraging him to do more?"

Meslin, 33, planned the union without pay while doing chores in exchange for room and board. One of the founders of Spacing magazine, where he's no longer involved, he's also stepped away from the leadership of the bike union. "I get excited about starting up, research and bringing in the right people. Once that's in place, my role evaporates."

Like Meslin, everyone involved in the union is a volunteer. The union is housed at the Centre for Social Innovation on Spadina Ave. and has a desk in the centre's workspace.

That's still tiny compared with the biking scene in Chicago, where the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation has 6,100 members (up 29 per cent in the last five years), 40 full-time employees, about 1,000 volunteers, 2,000 miles of bikeways in the metropolitan region and a $3-million budget. Its staff works on such issues as biking in the suburbs and in the Latino and black communities, and planning special events, including the Bank of America Bike the Drive, which draws 20,000 cyclists for a car-free ride along the city's lakeshore. The federation is funded by members' dues, starting at $30 a year, plus grants and consulting work. Dues in Toronto will start around $25.

"Bicycling as a form of transportation is picking up nationally, at both the policy level and from elected officials. People are wanting to see cities become more bike friendly," says federation spokesperson Margo O'Hara. Furthermore, people are fed up with traffic congestion and high gas prices; they worry about their contribution to global warming, feeling "eco-guilt," she says.

Here in Toronto, Meslin admits it's nothing short of a miracle that the union has come to be. `We've been talking about this for years."

He and other cycling advocates say the bike union's arrival in Toronto's busy cycling scene is more collaborative than competitive. "The union can be more outspoken," says Fred Sztabinski of the Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation, a coalition of about 50 organizations. "We can talk about policy."

With 51 kilometres of new bikeways planned for Toronto this year, there's an air of optimism, unusual in the cycling community as the City of Toronto's Bike Month begins May 26. (Another sign of change, it used to be Bike Week.) "The pace is quickening, and there are degrees of political will," says Meslin. "Things are getting together."

Will the union be effective – to ensure that bike lanes are built, plowed in the winter and pothole free – among other tasks?

"They'll need to show a little more backbone," says Darren Stehr, a cycling advocate and member of ARC. To succeed, the union needs "a clear win", like a proper ban on cars parked in bike lanes, he says.

"The union is a fantastic idea as long as they hold politicians to account. They have to keep the pressure up."

That was the Toronto Star. This is the Globe and Mail:

Cyclists get in gear to speak with a unified voice
Goal of new group is to lobby for more bike lanes, negotiate an insurance plan and start a CAA-style roadside assistance system


Ask any cyclist, and they'll tell you the hardest thing about riding a bike in Toronto is that you feel invisible.

"A lot of drivers just don't look," says Vanessa Fong, an architect who rides her black folding bike to work every morning. She says motorists don't see bicycles the way they see pedestrians or other cars. She has been cut off, pushed around, and nearly run over.

Stepping forward on her behalf now is a group fighting for cyclists to be seen - and heard. Nine months in the making, the Toronto Cyclists Union will officially launch on Tuesday. Its goal is to represent cyclists' interests at city hall.

Toronto has put bikes on the back burner, Yvonne Bambrick, one of the group's co-ordinators, said. "Our first and most clear objective is to get the city to put in place all the things they voted on in the bike plan that was passed in 2001," she said. "It's stagnated for far too long now."

The city's bike plan was meant to provide better infrastructure for cyclists, with more lanes and places to park. Its aim was to have 1,000 kilometres of lanes in place by 2011, but only a few dozen have gone in so far, Ms. Bambrick said.

Councillor Adrian Heaps, who chairs a city hall cycling committee, says plans are to build 50 kilometres of bike lanes by the end of this year, 75 more next year and 90 the year after that. Work will start this weekend, with the painting of white lines and bicycle icons on Rogers Road from Old Weston to Oakwood.

Cyclists are thankful for Mr. Heaps's energy in pushing forward the bike plan, Ms. Bambrick said. So, with the committee moving forward, why start a union now?

Simply put, cyclists need to get organized, Mr. Heaps said. "Most other interest groups have managed to galvanize their interests under one umbrella. They come to meetings and it's coherent. With cycling, for some reason, we seem to get people saying the same thing five times."

In the past, there have been as many as six or seven groups of activists representing cyclists just in the downtown core, Ms. Bambrick said. They all did good work, she added, but needed a unifying voice.

The new union hopes to negotiate an insurance plan to cover cyclists, start a CAA-style roadside assistance service for bikes, and try to teach motorists how to interact safely with bicycles. Membership costs a minimum of $2 a month.

The union comes at a time of increased momentum for cycling in Toronto. At the end of April, the Toronto Bicycle Summit brought together cycling advocates from around the world. The city's old Bike Week has been extended to a month this year, with more than 150 events between May 26 and June 21. And the Toronto Off-Road Biking Association will officially launch on Thursday.

"There's an attitude shift taking place as gas prices go up," Mr. Heaps said. Biking can be faster than travelling by car, and suburban commuters can combine cycling with public transit to avoid rush-hour frustrations. "At some point or another, people are going to say, 'I don't want to sit for three hours in traffic,' " he said.

Mr. Heaps agrees with critics like Ms. Bambrick who say the current "patchwork" of bike lanes is ineffective. "We are a city that's been built around the car. What we're doing now is retrofitting it," he said.

First, ride the rails

A Toronto cycling advocate is trying to turn drivers into part-time cyclists, and he aims to do it by putting them on trains.

Every Sunday, starting June 1, Donald Wiedman will be encouraging people to take a GO train to Ajax's lakeside bike paths. They will be given maps from the train station to a 15-kilometre ride on the Trans Canada Trail. A student will also be on hand to answer questions.

"I'm hoping people enjoy it so much that they make a link in their minds between their bicycle and the transit system," Mr. Wiedman said, adding that many people don't know they can take their bikes on the GO train.

The paths go from Ajax to Scarborough's Rouge Hill station, where cyclists can hop the GO back to the city to avoid busy roads - their only option when waterfront paths cut off for a long stretch of suburb.

"Some people may call me the new Henry Hudson. I've discovered the northeast passage through Scarborough!" Mr. Wiedman laughed. As a ward captain with the new cyclists union, he plans to lobby for that gap to be filled in so cyclists can enjoy uninterrupted rides.

For now, he hopes weekend cyclists will start to think about using their bikes for commuting as well as recreation. "My dream will be realized when I see 100 or 150 bikes parked at the GO station on a weekday," he said. Susan Krashinsky
Isn't that interesting.


Post a Comment

<< Home