Toronto's quiet revolution
Posted on 25 October 2010
Editors note: years later and Rob Ford is gone and the population of cyclists has grown, and grown, and grown - perhaps as a protest to Rob Ford, perhaps because it just makes sense. Big credit to Gillian Goerz for the illustration (and being on of our best store managers ever!).
Today the city of Toronto voted in its 64th mayor, a porkchop of a man who, by all looks, rarely refuses gravy. In the strange battle between Toronto's suburbs and urban center, the suburbs have clearly won. But have they really? The fact is, people will handcuff themselves to streetcar tracks before any rail is removed while the number of cyclists is only going to explode. We're located in the Annex, home of Toronto's powerful left-wing elite, and truth is, the Annex is spoiling for a fight. Not since the Spadina Expressway protests has there been a galvanizing reason to join minds. And, this time its going to be all about the bicycle.
About seven or eight years ago we started bringing in European city bikes into Toronto. Our aim was simple, to create more cyclists through nothing more than an object. The bicycle itself constantly gets lost in all the discussions around building bike cultures. Most discussions tend to revolve around city government, infrastructure and education. But there is a hole in this reasoning. A city like New York is building hundreds of miles of bike lanes yearly, but still the amount of cyclists pales in comparison to Toronto - where the bike lanes are rare at best. The problem is simple, really. If you wear a $2000 suit to work everyday, you are not going to let some aggressive mountain bike - which was meant for the Catskills, not Manhattan - to get within five feet of your clothing. This was the brilliance of the French when they introduced Velib. Velib introduced cycling to the most unlikely cyclists (the uber-fashionable Parisian) in some of the most terrifying motor-traffic on earth by providing safety, barrier-free usability, and a dash of style. Today our sister company supplies New York's leading bike stores with their city bikes, and the bike culture is being built rapidly. At its most fundamental a bicycle culture only requires two things: a bike, and a person. That's about it.
Rob Ford may prefer cars, but the fact of the matter is that many Toronto urban citizens have chosen cycling, and this choice is going to have to be respected. You can tear out streetcar tracks, but you can't tear out the cyclists. It was not government leadership that led Torontonians to cycling, it was pure people-power. But this makes it sound political. And a bike is not fundamentally political. A bike is just something you ride, something that glues the urban radius of your life together - something that is profoundly urban and only arguably suburban. If a bicycle is political it is only because it so democratic. Repress it, and then you have a real fight - one that the people of course will win. We would like to think that our small part in building Toronto's bike culture was demonstrating that cycling is truly all-inclusive, and not just the yellow jacketed 'old guard' of angry, anarchic, aggressive cyclists who had very little respect for motorists. Last year our Dutch bikes were reviewed by the NY Times, who reported that waves of 'wobbly fashionistas' were taking to the streets. Well, we think that the wobblier the rider is, the safer they are. This is true also in Paris where drivers have become tamed by the amount of cyclists on the road. No one wants to hit a pretty girl in a cute dress on a beat-up old Raleigh.
About two months ago we were visiting our retailers in New York. We sat down with George Bliss, a Pratt industrial-design professor who invented the New York pedicab and is also reputed to have created the term 'critical mass,' which inspired the current critical mass movement (which he is hardly a fan of). George runs Hudson Urban Bicycles, a store that specializes in real city bikes, and we supply him with pretty much everything you see at Curbside. George thinks cycling has an 'image problem.' After all, urban cycling is stereotypically tied to poverty, left-wing politics, and all sorts of sustainable martyrdom that made it an exclusive tribe with very high membership rules. Cycling, to George, is 'glamorous' and it only takes one visit to Copenhagen to prove this in an instant. George was in the midst of planning an event to show New Yorkers a new vision of cycling but he couldn't figure out a name for it. He had been trying to wrap his mind around the 'new cyclist' that the New York Times was going absolutely gaga over. This cyclist was often a female, often very well dressed, and she sat bolt-upright. Plus, she obeyed the rules. Perhaps it was the wine, but George had his 'aha-moment'. Behold: the "Upright Cyclist." A cyclist who is not only perched non-aggressively on her bike, but is also a more upright cyclist - that is, a more polite, civilized cyclist who is a welcome addition to traffic - a moral cyclist. In short: it's the kind of cyclist even a motorist could love.
Well, Toronto is where the upright cyclist began - it's our little legacy in North American bike culture. It started with all sorts of rag-tag importers like ourselves and ended up with tons of new cyclists on new or old bikes (especially those great old Raleighs, which never die) looking absolutely dashing (and, for the most part, obeying the rules...or disobeying them, nicely). And we didn't start biking because it was political or at all revolutionary, we did it because it was practical, enjoyable, and the right-thing-to-do (just like the Dutch and Danes). Truth is, North America has a great deal to learn from a city like Toronto: we're a global cycling city (you heard it here first!) and proof that small businesses and smart, motivated citizens can create a vibrant bike culture without any assistance from the government. Unlike the dull, grey cycling monocultures of Portland and Vancouver, where the 'old guard' is very much in effect, Toronto's bike culture is as socio-economically varied and multicultural as the city itself. The sad fact about Toronto is that we are as dreadfully unsure about our bike culture as we are about pretty much everything else. So, instead of voting in a Daly or a Bloomburg we voted in another poor oafish megalomaniac that we can just bury in red-tape. And we will. Toronto is a classic case of a government trying to keep up to its citizens. And when it comes to the issue of bicycles, our leaders have their work cut out for them.
And this is why bicycle culture in Toronto is here to stay. Because it isn't even a culture. It's just a whole bunch of people whose lives are made easier and more enjoyable by bicycles. You want to galvanize each and every cyclist in Toronto? You want to see a real political bike culture, one that connects the vast and diverse urban populace into a menacing whole? Then make bicycles political. In the meantime we'll just keep on riding, not because its revolutionary, but because its enjoyable, practical, and lets face it....far more sexy than driving a car.