May. 28, 2008 - Issue #658: Beija Flor
Bike Month rides the wave of cycling popularity
To the uninitiated, cycling on the increasingly car-choked streets of
Edmonton might seem like an undertaking tantamount to attempted
There’s the crumbling infrastructure that can turn the right-hand lane into a pothole-littered, rim-bending slalom. There’s the issue of the particularly Albertan affinity for oversized trucks to contend with. There are the kilometres of wide-open, multi-lane sprawl that extends out in all directions, where it seems as though city planners are actively discouraging travel by any means save the automobile.
These impressions even seem to be borne out by recent Statistics Canada numbers, which identified Edmonton as the most car-addicted city in the country, with 77 per cent of residents making all their daily trips exclusively by car.
But despite it all—or perhaps because of it—Edmonton is home to a vibrant bike culture with a long history.
“I’m an original Edmontonian, and I’ve worked in shops since the late-‘70s and have owned this shop for 11 years,” says Cliff Vallentgoed, the owner of Redbike, one of Edmonton’s many speciality bike shops. “And I would say that Edmonton has always had a bike culture. Back when I was first in the business Edmonton had the reputation of being the city with the highest per-capita bike ownership of any Canadian city. Now, how much riding people were actually doing back then might come into question, but there was a bike culture that people wanted to be a part of. Of course the culture changes and now it changes more rapidly than ever, but there definitely is one. Just take the Edmonton Bicycle Commuters and Critical Mass and People’s Pedal and stuff like that—take all that into account and you can start to see the shape of it.”
While much of the cycling in Edmonton is still recreational—mountain bikers tearing up trails in the River Valley and families making use of the extensive multiuse trails the city boasts—Vallentgoed says in recent years he’s seen a shift in the types of bikes people are looking for when they come into his shop.
“I have a lot of people coming in and saying to me, ‘Hey, I’m looking for a bike to ride to work.’ People are buying for utility a lot more than they used to. That’s not to say that people aren’t buying mountain bikes to go out and play, but we sell a lot more city bikes that have been accessorized specifically to make it easy for a person to get to work and be clean when they get there and have all their stuff with them,” he says.
It’s a trend that shows that the barriers that keep people from embracing cycling as a way to get around the city are falling at the same time as there are more reasons than ever—from skyrocketing gas prices to the costs associated with owning and operating a car—for people to start cycling.
“Over the years even without high gas prices we’ve seen more and more people wanting to ride. I don’t know if I could speak to the general trend city-wide, but for us we’ve definitely moved our average age upwards over the last few years. People for whom the excitement of their first car and that sort of thing has faded enough that they’re starting to see the downsides and want something that’s a little more economical. I think people come to the other benefits of cycling after that, at least some of them.”
Vallentgoed says the upswing in Edmontonians who think of bikes as more than just a recreational activity can best be seen during the harshest months in the city.
“What’s really more indicative for me is the increase in the number of people who are willing to ride in the winter. That to me is the real indicator. It’s always hard to tell in the summertime because everyone loves to ride in the summer ... but in the wintertime, then you can really tell. And we’ve seen increases every year.”
Claire Ellick, a sustainable transportation engineer with the City of Edmonton, says that such observations about the jump in the popularity of everyday cycling are reflected in the statistics.
“Based on the 2005 household travel survey cycling trips per day are up certainly—they’ve increased by 150 per cent between ‘94 and 2005, so that’s great to see.”
While cycling still accounts for just over one per cent of trips in the city—up from 0.4 per cent in ‘94—Ellick says that 25 000 trips are now made by bicycle every day in Edmonton.
The long-awaited update to the 1992 Bicycle Transportation Master Plan, which guides how bicycles are integrated into the overall transportation system, is set to go before city council in July. Ellick hopes that the plan will continue the trend of the past decade.
“Certainly we hope that with a shift in policies and with the bike plan taking a little bit of a different direction, we hope to be able to encourage more of the on-the-fence cyclists who are not at the state where they’re ready to get out and ride their bikes to work to pull more people over to the cycling side of things.”
Encouraging more people to get behind some handlebars instead of a steering wheel is also the goal of this June’s fourth annual Bike Month, the month-long festival which grew out of the popularity of the day-long Bikeology Festival, which has been around since 2001.
“The whole beginning of Bike Month and Bikeology has to do with wanting to make biking more accessible,” explains Molly Turnbull, one of the organizers with the Bike Month Coalition. “We can talk until we’re blue in the face about what infrastructure there is, about what facilities, about myths about how people think they’re in trouble in traffic when really they have to be watching for other things—those things are very important—but how do you get that out there and how do you get people engaged and committed to wanting to do something that they already know is fun and rewarding, but it’s that commitment to get them out there?”
The answer Turnbull and other Bike Month organizers came up with was to simply create venues where cyclists of all kinds—from committed commuters to track racers to timid first-timers with a new cruiser—can come together to celebrate and discuss the varied and vibrant bike culture in the city.
“That’s why the core of Bike Month is actually arts and celebration, creativity, different bike cultures—plural—coming together and being celebrated ... and various events where you can talk about different things and be in a space where there are a lot of bikes,” Turnbull continues. “Because without a feeling that you’re doing something together with other people it’s your own motivation, it’s just me getting up in the morning and not turning the keys to the car. So, what’s going to invigorate people—that’s the whole celebratory angle to it.”
The result is a calendar (see sidebar) full of social events designed to simply give cyclists a reason to stop and spend some time with like-minded people.
“We like to have the bike-to-work breakfasts and mocktails in a place where a lot of cyclists go by, so we do them in and around the High Level Bridge. It’s a great way to introduce people to the community of cyclists because people on their commute stop and you can see it on their face, they’re just so pleased to hang out.”
Turnbull is also excited about the increasing focus on the arts the festival is embracing, including artistic endeavours such as a writing competition about cyclists’ experiences with cars, a writing circle focusing on penning odes to the bicycle and a workshop on making jewelry from used bike parts hosted by Harcourt House.
It’s all an attempt to bring a social aspect to what can often be a solitary experience, which Turnbull hopes will give individual cyclists the energy to keep pushing for the changes in their personal lives which will make them more likely to keep pedalling.
“I’ll hear once in a while ‘Oh yeah, I just keep on my boss about having a shower at work.’ People are talking, there’s an awareness that work is much more satisfying and much more productive if you have some exercise. So they’re pushing that on their employers and saying, ‘I want safe lockups for my bike, I want a shower, I want a locker, I want somewhere to store my suit jacket and that sort of thing’” she says.
“And that’s really wonderful to hear—when the bike cultures have upped the ante enough that they’re visual, even if you only read about cyclists doing these wonderful things in the newspaper, you still feel a part of it. And so you feel like, ‘Yeah, I’m part of a whole and this is the right thing to do and I’m going to take some action at work or I’m going to insist to my partner that I need those extra 15 minutes to get ready to get on my bike,’ or what have you.”
Those little initiatives, in turn, make the switch to cycling easier for other people.
“There’s a normalcy about commuting. Once you have it in your life and you’re used to packing up in a certain way and you get around the sweatiness by changing at work or what have you, there’s quite a normalcy and an everyday-ness about it. It isn’t strange or foreign and it certainly isn’t dangerous and it isn’t for a fringe crowd, there are lots of different subcultures within the community. It’s really good to be able to touch base with all kinds of people doing all kinds of cycling in different ways, then it’s so normal.”
While Bike Month is heavy on creating a sense of community and a celebratory atmosphere around the bicycle, ultimately it’s also about making fundamental changes in how people get around and how the city is designed.
“I think there’s definitely a political aspect, because we’re trying to forward the use of the bicycle. Just by creating a feeling of larger community, if you have that feeling of togetherness then there’s a propensity to work together in the future and build up new and exciting events and facilities in the future,” she says.
“We’re trying to overcome barriers in our mentality to become a big city, to become a big livable city. We’ve started to take a trajectory around that with city planning and with non-profit groups and other groups coming together to build cycling culture so that we can have more people on the streets, and there’s nothing better for the city than that.” V
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