Full disclosure right up front, I’m in love with the bicycle. I don’t just mean I enjoy riding and all the health and social benefits that go along with it. I actually love everything about the bicycle and its form and design, from images of the earliest bicycles known to propel a human forward on wheels to the very latest in cycling technology. To the horror of my purist friends, I even love e-bikes, which are bicycles that can run on electric power.
The bike really is the prototype for virtually all forms of propelled travel, from the Model T to the Tesla. It’s the pinnacle of human achievement, right up there with fire, penicillin and the magic ball in a can of Guinness that makes the brew more creamy.
Riding a bicycle allows you to connect to your environment the way no other vehicle does. Imagine: the human body and fitted technology coursing along in harmony, legs pedalling, wheels turning, cranks spinning and gears clicking, until at some point it becomes impossible to separate person from machine. You are the engine, the suspension and everything else you would normally find under the hood of a car. And because you’re fully exposed to the outdoors, from forested trails to city streets, you connect to your environment, almost to the point of being a part of it. You don’t just steer, you feel.
With that in mind, I’m pretty sad that the bicycle has become the pariah of my city. The division, debate and media maelstrom around bikes and bike lanes seem to be driving a wedge between us.
Let’s look at some of the sore points. It’s true the first-phase cost of the separated bike lanes ran to $14.5 million — almost $2.7 million a kilometre and about double the $7.75 million the city initially set aside. And it’s true some businesses love the bike lanes and some really don’t. And it’s also true some parking spots have been lost, though not as many as most people believe. But the upside has been to create a safer ride for the burgeoning numbers of cyclists who choose to travel sans carbon on separated routes that really only represent less than two per cent of the city of Victoria’s 278 kilometre road network.
This whole bike lane debate is a great example of the increasing focus on the relationship between the built urban environment and the way we interact with it, a practice and study known as urbanism.
By looking at the issues in our city through the lens of urbanism, we can find common ground. Urbanism invites us to consider our deep connection to “place,” lived out through daily interaction with our city spaces. It challenges us to think about our city beyond the process of governance and policy and boundaries and by-laws.
Urbanism cultivates a deep and enduring sense of citizenship. It is simultaneously critical and celebratory. It taps into that human need for belonging, even when we disagree.
By strengthening our connection to our city and to one another, urbanism can help to frame the big conversations that seem to be driving Victoria right now. And that’s vital because we’re at a pivotal moment in our growth. From 2011 to 2016, Metro Victoria’s population grew from 344,580 to 367,770, a change of 6.7 per cent. That growth rate outstrips the national average and is expected to intensify in the coming years. We have choices to make about things like housing and density, public spaces and transportation — and urbanism can be a way of broadening and deepening that conversation.
It can’t just be about talk. There’s already lots of talk and even a fair bit of action. It’s the piece in between that seems to be missing. For urbanism to be truly meaningful, we need to have the opportunity to directly influence decision making more often than the election cycle allows. Urbanism should be active and ongoing.
You and I should be able to make our case, debate and even disagree but at least have the conversation. Most major cities have a publicly appointed body to connect politicians and planners to the wider community — kind of a democracy thing.
In Victoria, political decisions are taken through recommendations of the Committee of the Whole, which is made up of the same politicians who receive the recommendations. The Committee of the Whole livestream (which is about as exciting as it sounds), offers a glimpse into how decisions are arrived at. Of course you have to anticipate when in the six hour webcast your item is likely to come up and then pray to the IT gods that your laptop doesn’t seize up even though your mind is begging for a reboot.
A New Kind of Journey
We can do better at connecting our love of our city to the decisions of our leaders and subsequent actions, and, in doing so, create a deeper urban citizenship.
Victorians (and I mean all of us, no matter what our municipal boundaries) are standing at just the right place at just the right time. We have an impassioned public. We have bright, creative thinkers and doers. We have the benefit of being in that perfect sweet spot that offers up deeper discovery of where we come from and a principled yearning for where we are heading.
This moment offers the opportunity for an informed, respectful conversation about the journey of our city, which is always in the making. It’s a journey you can take by car, bus, cycle or even on foot. It would be great if we could all get there together.
Paul Corns is keenly interested in the connection between people and place. His work focuses on community engagement and development. He has worked in private, public and university sectors and is currently focused in the area of mental health and addictions response.
This article is from the April/May 2018 issue of Douglas.