When you build a city for cycling, everyone benefits. This was the central idea of a talk I shared recently at CreativeMornings Ottawa, to an audience of about 120 people. I shared how I became interested in cycling and its benefits for cities, how I discovered the cycling city of Amsterdam, and how this led me to focus my career on translating Dutch transportation design practices over to Canada. I then shared four points of why I think Ottawa is on the cusp of becoming a cycling city (culture, innovation, politics, future), and three things we still need to do more of to get there (build walkable places, experiment more, deprioritize cars). Finally, I left the audience with some homework: support walkable development in your neighbourhood, reimagine your community, and support cycling infrastructure (even if you’re not a cyclist).
The talk was energizing and really fulfilling for me. While I’ve done many professional presentations, this was my first to more of a general audience, where the focus was on storytelling and a good performance. I’m really happy with how the final talk came across.
I was also asked some really interesting questions afterwards. Here’s the Coles Notes:
- Q: Working with the City and pushing for progress can be really frustrating. How do you stay positive? A: I stay positive because it’s the only option. Change happens when the majority of people believe in an idea, and the best way to spread ideas is with positive messaging. Of course I feel frustrated sometimes, but I choose to filter that when talking to people about issues and focus on the positives.
- Q: How do we get the “non-believers” to understand and care about cycling infrastructure? A: The amazing part is that in Ottawa, some of the best bike infrastructure is being built in the most suburban areas of the city, thanks to a policy that all new and reconstructed roads have to be built with cycling infrastructure. Whether they cycle on it or not, their kids most likely will, and these people will begin to see the benefits first-hand.
- Q: Is the way to sell this idea further to focus less on “bikes” in the messaging? A: Yes, focusing on the cross-sectional issues and bringing people into the fold that way can be very effective. For example, I founded a group called Better South Keys Centre in my neighbourhood, focused on advocating for a walkable redevelopment of a big box plaza next to a train station. We’ve drawn the interest of many community members and while some of our ideas involve bike infrastructure, it’s a minor part of the bigger plan, and many of our members don’t cycle and don’t care to.
- Q: Are there more opportunities for tactical urbanism in Ottawa? A: Through my work I’ve seen a ton of success with “quick build” infrastructure in Montreal and Toronto, and believe Ottawa could do much more of this. You put the ideas out there on the street and let people engage with it in real-time.
- Q: Is there a role for private funding to help advance these ideas? A: While most of the funding will continue to come from the City’s budget, there’s certainly opportunities for private funding on the communications side, for example by funding groups like Bike Ottawa.
- Q: What is the solution for winter in Ottawa and Canada? A: I have three ways to answer that question. First, even if no one uses bike infrastructure in winter, the benefits for others (walkable communities, safer sidewalks, etc.) still exist year-round. Second, I don’t agree with the notion that the climate just isn’t suitable for biking in the winter. For example, millions of people skate on the Rideau Canal on the coldest days of winter – how can we do this and also assert that it’s too cold to bike? Third, even if you only intend to use bike infrastructure in the warmest months, don’t you still want the benefits of it? We fund outdoor pools even though they’re only used two months of the year.
- Q: How can we design bike paths to be more resilient to flooding? A: I don’t have an answer, but know that the NCC and others are certainly working on this.
- Q: The approach of building cycling infrastructure when roads are rebuilt is good, but it still leaves gaps. How do we fund the projects to close those gaps? A: The City’s cycling plan is the mechanism for this. It guides how the dedicated cycling budget will be implemented and the pace of its implementation is dependent on the budget. So if you have project ideas and want to see this happen quicker, make sure your Councillor knows.
I look forward to my next speaking engagement and continuing to inspire others!