Cabbagetown has always seemed magical to me. Whenever I ride through, I’m entranced by the mature trees, the mix of pedestrians, cyclists and drivers, and the civic engagement in every window. Today, there are Save the Riverdale Farm signs everywhere. This community has a spectacular history and it feels deeply protective of every piece of it.
Steve Brearton exhibits the boyish good looks of a hard-core cyclist that I’ve come to expect, along with the mischievous eyes. His thick strawberry-blonde hair and youthful face are enhanced by his soft-spoken demeanour. His voice commands respect, partly because he is a perceptive writer, but moreso because he’s been involved in Toronto advocacy since 1987. He’s worked with most of the names I’ve come to admire this year. And he knows bicycles.
“Of anyone I’ve met,” I begin, “you understand the history of the bike.”
“The bicycle,” Steve tells me, “is the perfect vehicle, because it can go both distances and fast, and it’s quicker and more efficient than other forms of transportation, and yet it can creep down a path that only accommodates a single person.”
“It’s true!” I say. “There are very few barriers to a bike.”
“It’s a wonderful technology that’s been around since 1885,” Steve continues. The frame, the pedals and the pneumatic tires haven’t changed in design. The bicycle design was fully formed from the very beginning. A bike is an incredible gift to a community, because it allows you to expand your boundaries from an immediate scale to almost any distance. And the best part is that a bike leaves no negative impacts.
Steve declares himself to be more about the act of cycling than the bike itself, calling the bike “incidental” to the experience. And then he backs up slightly.
“I’m fussy about my bikes,” he apologizes.
In the shed where his six bikes are parked, I say, “I see what you mean.” The one he rides most is a red Frei-Rad.
The aluminum frame has been anodized to the desired shade. Rather than painting the bike, the manufacturer runs an electric current through the frame to harden it, at which time dyes are applied. The metal is then sealed. The advantages to this are product differentiation and durability. Anodized frames don’t scratch, but you can spot very slight identifying factors on each bike. While I have not met a Frei-Rad yet, I’m pretty sure it’s got clout in the cycling world because I also spot a Marinoni and a Pinarello parked beside the Vitus. I definitely know what those are (as in, not to be sniffed at). Finally, Steve points out his beloved, retired Specialized, tucked in behind.
The bikes may be incidental, but the experience itself is transformative.
“The act of turning the pedals is simple and beautiful, so simple that even a child can do it,” he declares.
Steve has always been a political creature. Heavily involved in student politics in Ottawa, he discovered the courier races when he moved to Toronto, and such cycling organizations as the ARC (Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists.) The Jet Fuel Cafe has long been Steve’s coffee shop.
“There’s a wonderful community of progressive people who happen to be involved in advocacy,” Steve says, which community became an excellent segue into the politics of this city.
“If, as you say, there’s ‘an incredible bunch of fabulously talented and smart people’ in this town, then you yourself are one of them,” I conclude. Steve’s been writing on bike issues for several years, in both his cycling column in Spacing magazine and his regular contributions to dandyhorse magazine. Steve has also curated a show on the history of the bicycle in Toronto called From Scorchers to Alley Cat Scrambles.
“My time is better spent thinking about the bigger picture,” Steve says, surprisingly. “Our take on bike advocacy has changed over the past twenty years,” he tells me. Bike politics, in his opinion, would be better in the public space realm. For example, lots of people, regardless of their chosen mode of transportation, need to navigate a street. Why not advocate for better street design overall? An example of how this failed in Toronto is the Jarvis bike lanes: to accommodate the new lanes, the width of the sidewalks was reduced, a decision Steve feels pits one user group against another.
“Streets need to work for everyone,” he says, and I agree wholeheartedly.
“Focussing on the bigger picture then, how can we make our city work better?” I say. “Given that Toronto is a city of small neighbourhoods, how do you make it easier to travel between neighbourhoods?”
He’s noticed the challenges this poses because it’s uncomfortable and often unsafe to cycle with his three young children across neighbourhoods. They can visit Riverdale Farm by bike, but they can’t get to the CNE or Cherry Beach, to the ROM or the Science Centre, or even just across to Yonge Street, without some trouble. There are many barriers to cycling as a family.
“Over the course of the year, I’ve heard others suggest that if a street works for a pedestrian, then it will probably work for a cyclist,” I tell him. “Maybe what we need is more and wider sidewalks, not more and wider roads.”
“When we reach the point where it works for everyone, then we will have a city,” Steve concludes.
“I recently cycled in the courtege for Jack Layton and was impressed at his determination to make this happen,” I say, changing topics. “The image of Jack Layton on a bike in downtown traffic distinguishes Toronto from other Canadian cities, don’t you think?”
“Jack on his bike was all those things that made Toronto a great city,” Steve agrees emphatically, some of those things being sustainability, concern for the environment, and personal engagement in the city’s cultural, political and economic activities.
“Being on a bike is entirely different to being in a car,” I state.
“You have to be more tuned in, you have more time to appreciate what’s around you, and to have literal engagement with both drivers and pedestrians,” Steve agrees. “On a bike you’re an immediate element interacting with others directly, a public persona available to everyone.”
“And in a car,” I continue, “you have a protective layer around you, where the car is the public presence, representing you.”
“On a bike, there’s human engagement,” he agrees.
While Steve loves riding, he despairs at the attitudes surrounding the cycling community. “It’s not a monolith,” he says. There are many motivations for riding a bike. You might be the pragmatic ride who rides from A to B, or that guy who imbues his bike with special qualities. Steve also worries at the attitude some “regular cyclists” bear to drivers, that “we’re better than you” thing. No one should feel guilty for their choice if it makes sense and doesn’t impact others negatively. And then Steve puts all the puzzle pieces in place for me.
“Living in a city is all about negotiating.”
We are all political creatures, whether we like it or not. Some of us are better at the politics and some of us prefer to ignore the political ramifications of living with others, but the responsibility is there regardless.
“A bike is capable of being a lofty piece of technology,” he declares. The act of putting a bike in motion changes everything. From the very beginning, a bike’s visibility made it the “perfect vehicle for different causes.” For instance, with the women’s rights movement, a woman on a bike represented progress.
“And the best part,” Steve says with some enthusiasm, “is that it takes you places, both physically and metaphorically!”
That he does not drive is less key to his personality than that he cycles.
“A bike symbolizes wonderful things in cities, in civilization, in how we live,” Steve tells me. “If a city is serving lots of cyclists, that means the city is working well.”
Perhaps that’s why we all admired the image of Jack Layton on a bike. It suggested our city, with it’s mix of history and progress, was healthy.
If there is progress in this town, if it’s healthy and vibrant and magical, these qualities are due in large part to neighbourhoods like Cabbagetown, and to people like Steve who chronicle its history and advocate on behalf of a colourful cycling community.