Story by Katie Wittmann. Photos by David Keogh. Graphic design by Marie-Ève Assunçao-Denis.
“A bicycle is something, and almost nothing”, shared Matt Pinder, Co-host of BIKE MINDS, as he kicked off Episode 3: Bikes+Discovery.
He opened with a brief history lesson: When we look at Amsterdam today, we see the bicycle capital of the world – but even in Amsterdam, the 1960s were a time of car-centric planning. What changed the course of history was the way the people of Amsterdam pushed back. They resisted, they protested, and they formed strong countermovements. One such group, Provo, experimented with an early model of the now popular bike sharing systems. They placed white painted bicycles all around the city for people to use, completely free. In doing so, they depersonalized bikes and made them nothing more than another element of the city, like a bench or a sidewalk. They showed that a bicycle is something, and almost nothing.
In a similar vein, the BIKE MINDS series is not about bicycles, but about the people who ride them. The stories of the Episode 3 storytellers reminded us of the joy, relationship-building, and exploration that comes with riding a bike.
First up was Alex Nolet, a Transportation Safety Engineer and family cyclist, sharing his journey to a car-free life. It was anything but straightforward, he explained. The urban form greatly impacted his ability to transition away from vehicle use, both in terms of where he lived and where he worked. His first few homes and jobs were in suburban, curvi-linear neighbourhoods, which made it difficult to travel by any mode other than a car.
“Trying to bike in such an environment is like trying to play tennis with a badminton racquet”, Alex explained. It wasn’t until he got a job in downtown Toronto and he and his family moved to the Danforth that they were able to swap out their car for a cargo bike. Now, he and his wife cycle the city with their two daughters (yes – even in winter), and they love it.
The second storyteller, Caitlin Allan, shared the story of the Toronto Bicycle Music Festival (TBMF) and her experiences as Co-Director. She has long had a love affair with the bicycle, but it was truly confirmed when she moved to Toronto and attended her first Bicycle Music Festival in 2012.
The Festival features local, diverse, up-and-coming artists, whose sound is amplified with pedal-powered speakers that participants take turns riding. Last summer, the Festival expanded from its one-day event to include a four part Sunset Series in the months leading up to the big day. The last few years have seen a focus on exploring and animating spaces outside of the downtown core, with rides to areas such as Flemingdon Park, Bell Manor Park, Humber Bay West Park, and more! These joyous musical bike parades provide access to mini-concerts outside the core that many people would otherwise not get to experience, and help participants explore areas of Toronto they may otherwise not have discovered.
Third up to the stage was Sylvia Green, a “plangineer” and founder of Your City in Motion. When Sylvia was younger, she used to bike to work along the Rogers Road bike lane, which she unhappily noted was always filled with potholes. Her pothole-filled route sparked her interest in civil engineering, so she could learn about ways to fix roads like Rogers.
Uninspired by her heavily quantitative education, she took to bike touring and found other outlets for her sustainability passion, before going on to do a Masters in Norway. She met amazing people along the way, discovered new kinds of bike infrastructure, and saw new opportunities for integrating cycling into the city narrative. She started a small project called “Cyclists of KW”, which captured the photos and stories of everyday cyclists on social media. Her project has since expanded to “Cyclists of Your City” and she captures the stories of people all around the world, including Copenhagen’s Mayor for Environmental and Technical Affairs!
Sarah Climenhaga, a European family bike tourist, was the fourth storyteller of the evening, and took us on a 4,000 km journey from the Netherlands to Denmark. With her husband and three children, they biked for three and a half months, mostly next to rivers and through as many trails and protected bike lanes as possible.
They brought all of their camping gear, and didn’t plan accommodations ahead of time. They used the website Warm Showers, and were blown away by the number of families that offered to take them in. People made them dinner, baked them bread, and guided them through their communities. The generosity of strangers was incredible. And the routes they rode were incredible, too! They learned how it feels to be safe, supported, and celebrated. Sarah wants us to be able to feel this way in Toronto, and plans to run in the upcoming mayoral election.
“Cities have personalities”, began Ryan Whitney, a PhD student in Geography & Planning at U of T. Mexico City (where some of Ryan’s research is focused), is one of the largest and fastest growing cities in the world. It is also one of the most congested cities in the world, with significant air pollution and major mobility issues.
Now Mexico City is going through a bike revolution, with lots of experimentation in cycling infrastructure and programs. They have Ciclovias every Sunday, one of the largest bike sharing systems in the Americas, a new focus on climate change policy, and a mix of painted and separated bike lanes. The bicycle and sustainability are being packaged and sold as part of the city’s new identity. But the infrastructure is not being prioritized everywhere. There remains a significant disparity between rich and poor neighbourhoods. Ryan left us with the question, “What does bicycle planning mean for equity?”
Chris and James Potvin
The headliners of the night were Chris Potvin and his son James, sharing their story, “Saving a Starfish: The #RideJamesRide Story”. The Starfish reference comes from The Star Thrower, a well-known essay by Loren Eiseley. It describes an old man who comes across a young boy throwing starfish back into the ocean in an attempt to save them. He tells the boy what he’s doing is not making a difference, as there are miles and miles of starfish-covered beach. But the boy continues, and as he throws another starfish in, he says “It made a difference for that one”.
James is a high-functioning, autistic child. He manages to work through things until sometimes the jumbled confusion takes over. His world is like a lot of puzzle pieces that he can’t always put together. School and friendships haven’t come easily for James, and he’s often told “you can’t”. So last summer, when he asked his father Chris if they could bike from Whitby to the Giver 150 Park in Ottawa, Chris decided to show him the power of “I can”.
A friend suggested they use this 450 km journey to raise some money. Chris started with a goal of $1500, which would go to the Grandview Children’s Centre (where James has received support over the years). To help with fundraising, Chris asked the local radio DJ if he could mention it once on the air. The DJ did much more than that – he mentioned it many times, invited them out to events, helped get more media traction, and their story really took off.
During the trip, Chris and James stayed with several families, all of which had their own kind of struggle. One of their nights was spent with the grandparents of a Grandview child. The grandparents weren’t familiar with autism or how they could support their children. Chris was able to help them. Another family they stayed with had a boy with down syndrome, who taught James drumming (with sensitivity aids). With each family, they had an exchange of giving and receiving support.
When Chris and James rolled up to their final destination, they had a huge welcoming committee with lots of surprise guests. They ended up raising $10,800 for Grandview! The best parts of the journey were the people they met along the way, the fact that they finished it, and the confidence it has instilled in James. One year ago, he would barely say a word during conversations. Now, he’s speaking in front of audiences and enjoying it.
Next summer, they’ll be biking to Coney Island and raising more funds for Grandview and an autism organization in New York. You can follow along and tweet using #RideJamesRide.
The #RideJamesRide adventure has made a huge difference in James’ life, and has touched the lives of many others, including children receiving support from Grandview. What can we learn from this inspiring story? Find a starfish, and make a difference.
The Spring 2018 BIKE MINDS series concludes next month with its finale event, Bikes+Identity, at Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works, on April 18th. Registration opens April 2nd at 9AM – don’t miss out!