When the annual Copenhagenize Index was released this year, carefully ranking 25 of the world’s most bicycle friendly cities, local advocates reacted with surprise and indignation at Vancouver’s omission. We are, after all, a city that talks endlessly about cycling, and one used to seeing itself near the top of such global quality-of-life lists. Having just spent two weeks on two wheels in Toronto and Montréal, I can definitively say that Vancouver isn’t even the best bike culture in Canada, and still has tremendous work to do to establish the bicycle as a normal and reliable mode of transportation.
The Big Smoke
You might laugh at the notion that Vancouver’s bike-touting Mayor has something to learn from his SUV-driving counterpart in Toronto. Yet I left both amazed and perplexed at what they have accomplished, against all the odds. The streets of Toronto defy all conventional wisdom when it comes to building a meaningful and substantive bicycle culture. ”Dedicated infrastructure is essential to getting people of all ages and abilities on bikes,” is the refrain so often heard; nevertheless, in some of the harshest conditions imaginable, “The Big Smoke” is a thriving, diverse, and chic cycling city.
Allow me to be perfectly clear: cycling in Toronto is not for the faint at heart. Their idea of a bicycle network is a few painted lines and a single cycle track, all regularly blocked by motor vehicles, without fear of punishment. Cycling along busy arterial roads like Spadina Avenue and Queen Street is a necessary evil, with bustling streetcars on one side, and a row of parked cars on the other. Lose concentration for one second, and you risk getting a wheel caught in the streetcar tracks, or being struck by a careless driver swinging their door open into traffic. And all of the above is overseen by a complacent and complicit Toronto Police Service, who, when a collision occurs, have the unfortunate habit of laying the responsibility on the most vulnerable road user.
Despite this omnipresent sense of danger, I was blown away by how unperturbed locals were: young women – the ‘indicator species’ of citizen cycling – in flowing sun dresses running with the bulls, their hair blowing in the wind without a care in the world. I photographed more people riding amidst the chaos of Queen Street than I see daily along the traffic-calmed 10th Avenue Bikeway in East Van. They were using whatever they could get their hands on as a tool for urban living: be it a shiny new Linus Roadster, or a beat up old Raleigh Cruiser. It didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was they were hopping on a bike, which was the fastest, cheapest, easiest way to get from A to B.
Le Paradis du Vélo
My Toronto visit, however, didn’t nearly prepare me for the wonders that awaited me in Montréal. From the moment I stepped out of Mont-Royal Metro Station, I immediately felt I had been transported to another world: row upon row of bicycles locked in the plaza, a hectic bike-share station for transporting commuters that last mile, and a selection of complimentary green bikes offered to visitors by the local Business Improvement Association. With my camera working overtime, I hopped on a slow, sturdy BIXI bike, and rode the length of Rachel Street, a cycle track lined with busy restaurants, sidewalk patios, and boutique clothing shops. I was in (bicycle) paradise.
Much like the previous weekend, I was struck by the variety of people I encountered on my two-wheeled travels, and how downright ordinary they made it look: professionals, seniors, young women, hipsters, and countless children, most of whom were without any special equipment or clothing. Some parents were even comfortable enough to let their kids cycle along dedicated pathways without the obligatory headgear, and not a single person was wringing their hands or wagging their fingers at them. It’s no wonder Montréal is consistently named the best bicycle culture in North America; it was an absolute joy to experience, and by the end of my short stay, I didn’t want to leave.
Doing It All Wrong
Sadly, were they transported to Vancouver, the vast majority of these citizen cyclists I documented on my travels would be told that they’re doing it all wrong. The simple act of getting on a bicycle in normal clothes (and nothing else) remains a defiant act of rebellion; one that invites strange looks, unsolicited safety advice, and the occasional traffic stop by the Vancouver Police Department. It is a remarkably frustrating and isolating experience, shoehorning those who do cycle into the all-pervading sporting paradigm. Worse still, it turns many away from cycling altogether, wrongly believing that dropping $300 at Mountain Equipment Co-op is a prerequisite to even giving it a try.
Both Toronto and Montréal also reinforced my belief that urban cycling cannot flourish as long as it is relegated to a city’s back streets. As Andreas Rohl poignantly stated: if we are ever to mainstream bikes in North America, we need to take them Off-Broadway, and put them on Broadway. Montréal is well aware of this, and is quietly building miles and miles of new cycle tracks every year, along the busiest of arterial roads. It allows cyclists to see clearly where to go and to be clearly seen, eventually becoming an anticipated and expected part of their city’s consciousness. In order for this to happen, though, the media must tone down its baseless anti-bike hysteria, and local merchants must stop overestimating how much their business depends on convenient car access.
Finally, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it is hard to overstate how our unnatural obsession with head protection is stifling the growth of our bicycle culture. It achieves little, except deterring the most casual cyclists, who also happen to be the slowest and safest ones on the road. Shaming and/or fining those who take this relatively minor risk isn’t going to get them in a plastic hat: it’s going to stop them to stop cycling. There’s a reason both Ontario and Quebec considered, and rejected adult bicycle helmet laws: the myriad benefits of cycling (even bareheaded) far outweigh the risks
Planting The Seeds
Toward the end of our stay in Toronto, my wife and I were taking a morning stroll along Dundas Street, when we witnessed the most amazing sight: an elderly Italian man, dressed in his Sunday best, dragged a rusty old single-speed out of his garage and onto the street in front of us. Without missing a beat, he hopped onto it and pedaled down the road, undoubtedly making his weekly pilgrimage to church. This is something we just don’t see here, and won’t until we accept the bicycle as a means of transportation, and not just recreation. We are complicating and politicizing the act of citizen cycling into obscurity. Perhaps once we stop treating it as a big deal, it will then cease to be one.
I returned to the sunny west coast with the harsh realization there are no longer any physical barriers to getting Vancouverites onto bikes, but plenty of psychological ones. The hills (have you been to Paris lately?), the weather (how about London?), and the lack of infrastructure are no longer valid excuses, as many cities around the world are doing far more, in conditions that are far worse. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about our ability to surpass these efforts: our temperate climate, compact size, grid layout, traffic-calmed residential streets, and newly-completed seawall network. We just need the collective will to make it so. In the meantime, I will continue to invest my time and energy into planting those seeds, and hope someday they will germinate into a blossoming, healthy, vibrant bicycle culture that my children can enjoy.
Words & Photographs by | Chris Bruntlett