Words by Katie Wittmann, Photos by David Keogh
On August 26th 2018, BIKE MINDS returned to the stage in Toronto, in collaboration with the City of Toronto’s Bike City: How industry, advocacy and infrastructure shaped Toronto’s cycling culture, an exhibit currently running at The Market Gallery. It was held at a beautiful venue most of us had never visited before – Todmorden Mills Heritage Site. It’s located in the lower Don Valley, easily accessed off the trail by bike.
Jane French, Museum Administrator at the City of Toronto, opened the evening by giving us a taste of what we can discover by exploring the Bike City exhibit. From vintage bicycles to archival photos to recent milestones, Bike City leads us to reflect on Toronto’s history with the bicycle, and to ponder what the future has in store.
Matt Pinder, Co-host of BIKE MINDS, then stepped to the stage to introduce the evening’s storytellers and the special theme of how cycling has transformed people’s lives.
First up was Madeleine Cho, a Youth Volunteer at Charlie’s Freewheels and mental health advocate. Madeleine shared her personal story about challenging times in her life, and the role bikes have played in overcoming them. She grew up playing competitive sports, and moved to Toronto to play field hockey for the University of Toronto. Despite the excitement of moving and starting school in a new environment, Madeleine started to face challenges with physical and mental health. She was in a single car crash after losing control while driving on the highway, and developed post-traumatic stress disorder.
Madeleine stayed at the Covenant House, where she learned about Charlie’s Freewheels. She joined their build-a-bike program, and loved the chance to work with her hands. She could feel herself regaining control and freedom from the bicycle and being part of a supportive community.
Madeleine’s own struggles with mental health persist, but now she’s back in school, completed her first year, and is helping others dealing with mental health challenges through the organization Jack.org, while staying involved with Charlie’s Freewheels and planning bike adventures.
Mahita Thota, a CultureLink Bike Host mentor and Toronto newcomer, was the second storyteller of the night. When Mahita first moved to Canada, she did not like it. It was cold, there was snow – and more snow – and she didn’t know anyone but her husband. Things were not off to a good start.
When she learned about the Bike Host program and signed up, everything changed. Mahita would not have thought to invest in a bicycle on her own, but with the opportunity to use one for the summer, and be matched with a mentor to help her get comfortable cycling in Toronto, she realized how many doors it could open. Through Bike Host she was introduced to other “Canadian” activities, such as hiking and camping, and to a fun, friendly community.
Bike Host provided opportunities to volunteer at a variety of events, and even led to Mahita participating in a radio program with MPP Cheri DiNovo about penalties for drivers who hit people biking and walking. This year, Mahita has returned to the Bike Host program as a mentor, and is passing on the joy of cycling and community building that transformed her Canadian life.
Third to the podium was Coralie Bruntlett, a 12-year-old Vancouverite who rides a bike, but isn’t a cyclist, as she explained. She travels everywhere by bike, and knows that makes her different from other kids her age, but she embraces that difference. She shares what she does with classmates and friends, and does her best to include them in her cycling adventures big and small.
Her family does everything by bike – even bringing their Christmas tree home by cargo bike (an amazing bike that holds many great memories for Coralie). Biking is great, but biking in the Netherlands is even better, she realized after a family trip overseas. “I wish everywhere was like there for cycling”, she added. In the meantime, Coralie will continue to travel by bike and share her story, inspiring other youth to experience how biking can offer freedom and fun.
The evening’s fourth storyteller was Dean Psarras, (also known as the “Converted Cyclist” on Twitter), a husband and father who hated his car commute and started biking instead.
Dean used to spend all his time in a car. Two years ago he moved to a new neighbourhood, and his commute only got worse. He tried driving to the subway to avoid some of the traffic, but then he’d spend time circling the station trying to find parking. He wondered what it’d be like to cycle to the subway instead, and went out to buy a bike and try it. The relief was instant. Biking to Sherbourne station was easy! A comfortable ride along residential streets – no traffic, no stress. Then one day Dean decided to bike past the station and continue down Sherbourne, revelling in the comfort offered by protected bike lanes. Next thing he knew he was turning onto Richmond, and in just a few blocks he’d reached his office. He’d biked the whole way!
He called his wife to share his delight. Dean has continued cycling ever since, and raves about the improvements it has made to his life. He’s feeling healthier and happier, and has seen more of Toronto in one year on a bike than 15 years of living here without one. Now Dean is spreading the word and encouraging his friends to give cycling a try, too, by leading them on relaxed group rides – usually with a stop for a coffee or drink.
Melissa and Chris Bruntlett
The final storytellers of this special edition BIKE MINDS were Chris and Melissa Bruntlett, founders of Modacity and authors of the new book, Building the Cycling City (now available for purchase here).
Melissa and Chris have been car free for about ten years. Six years ago, Melissa started a blog about cycling because she was constantly asked how she managed to bike everywhere with two children. Even with the City of Vancouver’s progressive investments in cycling infrastructure, there are still anti-cycling messages in the media and public that need to be countered.
In 2014, Chris and Melissa merged their cycling passion projects and started Modacity. Earlier this year, they spent five weeks as a family travelling in the Netherlands, and put the lessons they learned into a book.
Melissa and Chris took some time to myth-bust for us some misconceptions about why the Dutch cycle so much:
- Myth 1 – It’s flat (If flat terrain = cycling city, Winnipeg would top the charts).
- Myth 2 – They don’t get winter (That’s just plain false – the Netherlands has winter and snow, too).
- Myth 3 – They’re more altruistic (Ha! Unfortunately, they have their own version of Donald Trump, Geert Wilders, who is doing quite well in some regions).
Contrary to the perception that the Dutch have always enjoyed a culture of cycling, in reality, the Netherlands only built their nationwide network in the last 20 to 30 years or so. It’s not unachievable for us. They’ve also done extensive traffic calming coupled with reducing speed limits on all residential streets to 30 km/h, making a citywide network allowing people of all ages and abilities to cycle in comfort.
The Dutch government prioritizes investments in cycling, spending a whopping $50 per person per year on it. In Canada, we’re at about $5 per person. People in the Netherlands primarily bike for transportation, not for sport. Forget the spandex and speed, they design and live out a casual, inclusive environment and social sphere for utilitarian cycling.
An added benefit to the Dutch lifestyle and street design is that children enjoy much more freedom and independence, and it’s leading them to live happier, healthier lives. That’s just one more reason to push aside the myths and accelerate North American cities’ plans to make bicycle-friendly neighbourhoods a reality.
BIKE MINDS will resume in January 2019 with new storytellers and themes. To make sure you’re in the know, join our mailing list. If you have a story of your own you’d like to share, you can submit it to us here.