activism, advocacy, bicycles, Centre for Social Innovation, cyclo-cross, ING Direct, ING Direct Café, Linus bicycles, MEC, Red Riding Goods, St. James Town, Toronto, Toronto Cyclists Union, Wellesley Community Centre
Having lived in Toronto for eleven years, I’ve discovered you can get anything you want here, but you have to know where to look. We’re not very good at advertising. Someone suggested that we prefer to keep certain gems to ourselves, like best-kept secrets. Yesterday I was to meet Nick Cluley—a Toronto Cyclists Union director—at the Centre for Social Innovation, but we missed each other. In a later email exchange, we realized I was waiting at the Bathurst location while he was at the Spadina location. There are three CSI locations in town, but I didn’t know that. This time we’ll meet at his office, the new ING Direct Café at the corner of Yonge and Shuter streets.
It’s a spectacular open-concept café with warm colours and textures, reassuring on this wet November day. The café boasts free Wi-Fi, and groups are encouraged to use the space to build community. A young woman tells me that 100 percent of the proceeds from my tea purchase will go to support the Canadian Red Cross in its flood relief efforts in Pakistan. ING Direct Café Coffee is delivered around the city core by cargo bike, by Bradley from Red Riding Goods. I have an ING Direct account and yet I didn’t know about this café. Another gem, guarded. Collecting my tea, I sit down beside an athletic young man with agonizingly healthy hair, knowing it must be Nick.
Nick is very much about infrastructure and how it works. He compares the showy infrastructure of New York’s Times Square that no one uses to the much more practical infrastructure bridges near the square, that everyone uses on a daily basis. In Chicago, where he’s from, everyone is history-minded.
“We need people building the myth of Toronto,” he explains. His mission is to lobby for broader accessibility on Yonge Street. Like me, he has ridden down Yonge Street to work, from Richmond Hill. He knows the challenges facing him. “This city was not built for any vehicles,” Nick tells me. “We all have complaints. The city was built with small streets. And the history is being lost.”
“I definitely agree with that,” I say. “It’s hard to share the road when you don’t all fit.” Nick nods.
“And look at how the bike lanes are constructed here,” I suggest. Many of the roads have been constructed for cars. When you approach an intersection in a bike lane, the lane disappears, only to reappear on the other side. Nick agrees.
“How do we give credibility to cyclists?” he asks. “By giving them infrastructure that works for them … You have to have the audacity to look at the entire city and place bike lanes where people need to go.”
Not only that, but the city’s cyclists are losing their political voice. Historically, cyclists in Toronto haven’t had much clout at City Hall, but with the current administration we’ve begun to move in the opposite direction from every other major city in the world.
Then, Nick shares a sobering bike story, one that underscores this disturbing trend.
The day before the bike lanes were installed on Jarvis Street, Nick was riding his cruiser, and while making a left-hand turn onto Jarvis from Queen he was hit by a car. His head smashed the windshield, and he awoke in hospital with no memory of the actual impact. No one is sure who was at fault. “I like that it’s a mystery,” he says smiling, although he does feel terrible for the driver. When there’s no defined infrastructure for making turns on a bike, an intersection becomes ambiguous and everyone is left to second-guess who has right-of-way. The fact that we are about to lose the bike lanes so recently installed only increases this burden.
I argue that we need to become better at negotiating, and Nick suggests that we need to start with things that the average citizen should be expected to do, such as voting, writing to our city councillor and volunteering our time. Our activism should become a natural outpouring of our civic life. If we want credibility, we have to get involved, and we have to do it with the gentle approach that abounds in the cycling community.
One troubling attitude I see in cyclists is self-deprecation: we’re not good at celebrating what we have. Nick believes Toronto cyclists should cheer for themselves, not in a way that’s disrespectful to other communities, but rather in small ways that build confidence that what we’re doing is important. I liked the Bike Union’s suggestion in the spring of 2011 to thank drivers whenever possible.
Expressing appreciation for a positive action always takes people by surprise, which almost always brings about a positive change in mindset.
The other attitude I’d personally like to change is our perception of what a bike means, especially given our affection for them. We should perceive bikes as awesome rather than utilitarian.
“The basics of a bike are so much better for the world,” he agrees. Nick stays committed to riding to work year-round. “The fabric of the American Dream is a car. We have to change that to the perception that you are gonna get a sweet-ass bike!” This man, who doesn’t name his bikes, is actively engaged in a love affair with them.
“It’s an emotion connection you can’t have with anything else,” he agrees. Nick has had his heart broken three times, all the result of stolen bikes. “No girl can ever touch that,” he declares. He lifts his pant legs to reveal the bike lane cyclist logo on each calf.
“A bike gives you something you can’t get other ways!” I enthuse.
He concurs. Cycling builds character and confidence. You’re doing it yourself, on your own steam—arriving at a destination on time, getting up that hill, navigating around the city in rush-hour traffic, battling weather.
“When you get on a bike on a bad-weather day and prove you can do it,” he argues, “that’s pretty cool stuff. You can’t learn about yourself in a car.”
“I want to see your bike, if you don’t mind,” I say. I want to know what this quixotic man rides.
He invites me through a back door and down a set of stairs, where his muddy cyclo-cross Kona is waiting.
He shows me the pinhead lock and points to the key, which remains in the lock when not in use. One day he heard the key splash into a sewer grate and wondered if he might have to replace the bike because he could never unlock the wheels and the seat again. Ray at the Bicycle Common replaced the key quickly. “I half hope I can hang onto this bike forever,” Nick confides. And then he hesitates.
“It’s not the physical machine I’m in love with, but the idea of my bike going fast!” he explains, smiling bashfully.
He likes that people on bikes are more curious and more gregarious. He thinks that if we put all the Toronto cyclists into a TTC car, rather than the typical silence you’d find there, the car would be boisterous.
As we walk down another hall, Nick continues with the brainstorming. “We expect things to be great but we approach everything with caution. Be as passionate as you feel!”
“We need to stop over-analyzing things and just have fun,” I agree, grinning broadly.
We arrive at a smaller room in which resides a herd of Linus bikes. They vary in size but are all a sleek, elegant black. This herd was assembled from proceeds from a family ride, sponsored by a team comprising staff from Curbside, MEC and ING Direct. This month, the team are giving away two groups of bicycles at the Wellesley Community Centre. The goal is to reward children—chosen by members of the community—for getting involved with something in St. James Town, the huge complex of high-rise towers that mostly houses new immigrants. Each of these children will receive a bike from MEC. Then, they’ll be asked to identify an adult they believe could use a bike, and that person will also receive one of these Linus bicycles.
“I can’t wait to see someone on one of the coolest bikes in the city!” Nick says, laughing.
And then he turns to me, serious. “This city can be a better place. I choose to believe that, and I want to be a part of the group working to make that happen.”
And while you’re doing that Nick, I’ll be cheering with great vigour. We can’t afford to keep this cycling community a secret any longer.