On the nineteenth of September, I’m riding to the base of Roncesvalles Avenue, to the bridge that connects Roncy to the Martin Goodman Trail.
“That bridge at Roncesvalles connects the community with the lake,” James Schwartz told me in an email.
James has two Twitter sites, @theurbancountry and @jamesschwartz. He’s a popular and perceptive blogger who knows the political landscape. I’m both intrigued and intimidated. And getting very wet, because it’s raining hard.
At the base of Roncy, I stop. I don’t see anything like a bridge, but maybe it’s the rain. James steps out from under a business canopy where he’s been taking shelter while he waits for me.
We push our bikes through the intersection, over a tangle of streetcar tracks. Beyond some bushes, a path suddenly appears. We step out onto a bridge and there beneath us is the Gardiner, at the height of rush hour volume and noise.
People were uprooted when the Gardiner went in. This bridge is maintained, it’s not unsafe, and you can ride over the Expressway to the path that David Miller got plowed in winter. It’s good. Not good enough to replace the homes and businesses that were lost, but nevertheless good.
We walk back along Roncy and find a restaurant. My eggs and home fries hit the spot, and I forget about being wet fifteen minutes before, although I do offer silent thanks for Mountain Equipment Co-op’s (MEC) quick-drying technical skirts.
James is all about knowledge transfer. In 2004, he took up blogging. His early stories were on politics, on economics and on sustainability, which could sometimes be perceived as “preachy.”
“I didn’t start blogging on cycling until 2009,” James begins, “because a lot of us just do it; we don’t think about it.”
At that time, Mikael Colville-Andersen started a world revolution using the blog Copenhagenize. Mikael described how cars were increasing while bikes were in decline. Against the odds, Danish politicians risked building a bike infrastructure. Today, thirty – forty thousand cyclists use those routes on a daily basis.
The Danes and the Dutch view bicycles as a commuter vehicle, and there are fewer barriers to cycling in Copenhagen. Standard bikes there are sturdy and they come fully equipped. The commuter design doesn’t allow for rushing or racing: you just travel at an intelligent speed all the time.
James used to compete in triathlons, so he would keep his expensive racing bike in his condo.
“Commuting on that bike was awful,” he tells me. “It had no chain guard, you always had to watch for potholes and streetcar tracks, maintenance was ongoing, and I worried constantly about theft.”
“Aren’t mountain bikes a good answer to these problems?” I suggest. James only smiles. He’s attached to his commuter bike.
James sees certain patterns in our urban cycling landscape, because of his blog. He encourages decision makers to focus less on the thirty kilometre commutes and more on the short trip to the corner store. He figures that if we could convince the average person to run errands on a bike, they would almost certainly see the next logical step of using a bike to commute.
“And when I was in Vancouver,” James says, “I noticed how much they love their technical gear. If you see someone all decked out, it can be intimidating.”
“I can see how the gear can discourage new riders,” I agree. “I only started using cycling shorts and the odd bit of discreetly-applied Vaseline when I was commuting in from Willowdale. Now, my running jacket with its reflective tape is compulsory at night, and my MEC skirts go to every interview, so I look professional. Technical gear has its place, but only when it makes sense.”
Another thing James has noticed comes from having travelled extensively.
“In China, there’s no road rage.”
He thinks we’re angry here at losing our personal space. James has a new initiative called I Share the Road. He’s printed attractive stickers in a variety of sizes for different vehicles. Larger stickers fit on car and truck bumpers, smaller ones fit on bike fenders and frames.
“In Kingston,” I tell him, “there’s a similar public campaign, where major streets include the signed directive Share the Road.”
A neat offshoot of his blog is the virtual friendships he’s developed with like-minded individuals. Surprisingly, James has also developed an understanding with some who advocate against cycling. The media can be influential, typically against cycling. James points to The Fixer, who has a regular column in The Toronto Star. This year The Fixer published an article claiming that all cyclists flaunt the law, making several unfair generalizations.
James wrote a diplomatic response to the article. He argued we often don’t have infrastructure and aren’t always accommodated, and that sometimes—maybe not always, but sometimes—we have valid reasons for breaking the laws.
Unexpectedly, James received an email in response. The Fixer was asking for feedback on an upcoming article.
“The second article was a lot more fair,” James relates, “and there were none of the earlier generalizations. And I didn’t get the sense that he felt all cyclists are terrorists.”
When James gave feedback, The Fixer responded again, asking if James would assist with a third article, which would pose the stunningly pertinent question, “What would a cyclist like to see drivers do differently?” My eggs are going untouched. I can hardly believe it. James grins his disbelief back.
James sent him several points in bullet form, behaviours a cyclist would like a driver to change. The Fixer took the comments and wrote a very gracious article, from a cyclist’s perspective.
The Fixer is not a cyclist. James has offered to take him on a ride through the city, to demonstrate what’s wrong with the infrastructure.
“Why the turnaround in thinking?” I ask James.
“I think there are personal reasons,” James says. “The Fixer has a young son who cycles, and his wife used to commute until she was hit in an accident.”
I share details of my interview with Sergeant Klunder—a member of the bike police—and how he felt that we needed to take more responsibility for our safety. There’s another point that many of us forget: we’re too focused on “black and white laws” and not enough on being courteous. Our attitude on the road is vital.
James stabs the air gently. “You can obey the law and yet be aggressive and dangerous.”
Recently, James visited New York City, intrigued by their policy to build four hundred miles of infrastructure per year. Cars drive too fast there to make the bike lanes safe, so cycling in Toronto is less intimidating despite our not having the infrastructure they do. While you might get doored on Queen Street, the streetcars and bi-directionality are both traffic calming.
“When I was in New York, I expected to see scores of commuters,” James says, “like here and in Montreal, but that wasn’t the case. Even with the infrastructure, New Yorkers don’t commute by bicycle.” He hesitates, maybe to let this filter into my inexperienced notions.
“The key is to legitimize cycling,” James says with some certainty.
As we are preparing to ride our respective ways, James looks down at his dress shirt and pants, getting wet again. I know my water-repellent jacket and skirt will only hold up for so long, but they’ll dry in half an hour.
“Anyone can have an influence in Toronto,” James observes perceptively. On sunny days, when he’s riding through the financial district, people see him in his work clothes on his bike. At those moments, James can see lights coming on: ‘Why, that could be me!’ they’re thinking.