On advocacy, riding in winter, and building a city-wide cycling network.
Yvonne Bambrick wears many hats. She’s a founding member of Pedestrian Sundays, the popular series of street closure events in Kensington Market that acts as a showcase for area businesses, musicians, and local colour. In 2008, she helped establish the Toronto Cyclists Union (now Cycle Toronto), an advocacy group that seeks to make bikes an integral part of Toronto’s transportation and public health strategies. She’s also the executive director of Forest Hill Village BIA, a corporate photographer, and the author of the upcoming book from ECW Press The Urban Cycling Survival Guide. Since 2010, she’s billed herself as an “urban cycling consultant,” a role that involves making media and panel appearances, and teaching at the Maximum City summer program.
Bambrick, 38, says bikes suit her Toronto lifestyle perfectly: “cars are a great tool, but in a getting-around-the-city context, for those trips that are up to five kilometres, bikes are a great option,” she explained recently at Handlebar, a bar in Kensington Market. “I’m always living in bike land.”
Our interview with Bambrick—about transit, growing up as a cyclist, and the importance of a reflective vest in winter—is below.
Torontoist: How did you make the switch from being someone who rides a bike in Toronto to being an urban cycling advocate?
Yvonne Bambrick: I grew up on a bike in the city. My dad had me on the back of his bike in a kid’s seat as a baby, so it was a natural rhythm for me. I started riding from East York to my high school downtown, and to my summer job teaching sailing at the waterfront. When I lived in Montreal, I was a driver, which is odd because I was such a bike person before. But I taught downhill skiing and I catered all the mid-sized concert venues, and you can’t do either of those without a car. When I moved to Australia, I sold the car and used the money to pay for part of my graduate studies, and I got back on a bike. I got used to riding year-round there, and I decided to continue that when I moved back to Canada. I mean, I’ve been a ski instructor, so I can handle the weather. Riding year-round is my winter sport.
Pedestrian Sundays were formed in large part out of the ideas that came out of Streets Are for People, and we were sort of a friendly bike gang that was doing protest stuff. One day [Dave] Meslin called us together and said, “Hey, I have this idea. What do you think?” So as I had with the Pedestrian Sundays and the street closures, I put my hand up to help with the Bike Union. When we had to collectively decide on an executive team to move that project forward, I volunteered as the communications person. We were a four-person executive for the first year, and I was then hired as the Executive Director. I had done a lot of work in front of the camera and on radio in a spokesperson role. I was much more interested in the pro-bike rather than anti-car aspect. The stuff I didn’t already know, I learned on the go. When you’re immersed in a subject matter, you’re constantly engaged with city staff and activists and advocates and other organizations outside of the city.
How does Toronto stack up against other cities when it comes to building and supporting cycling infrastructure?
Toronto started out strong. There was this great bike plan in 2001 and it set out some really excellent goals, but it kind of fell flat fairly quickly. That was another reason the Bike Union was formed. We needed someone building the political will and helping to push this stuff through. Toronto did alright for a time, but this is also something that’s in constant flux. Cities across North America are adapting, and the best-case scenario for infrastructure has continued to change as new guidelines are developed and made available to cities. Things take time at the municipal and provincial level. Montreal is kicking our ass. New York? Kicking our ass. But I think we’re getting there slowly. The Richmond-Adelaide pieces are great, but they’re too short, and there’s still a lack of compliance on the part of some motorists. You couldn’t be more obviously in the wrong spot when you pull over into a separated bike lane.
The last four years under Ford were particularly divisive. All the suburban vs. urban, car vs. bike stuff, you could feel it on the streets. I think we’ve got some fixing to do around that. But bike lanes aren’t just the pet projects of downtown bike riders. They add predictability and help make the roads work better. Everybody gets along better, there are fewer collisions, and you don’t have to be as afraid, as a driver, that you might hit somebody, or that you might be hit as a rider. One thing that we’re really failing on is the public education piece. That was one of the “spokes” of the bike plan, and it’s been chronically underfunded or ignored. It’s essential, not just in explaining how things work and how to engage with them as a cyclist or a driver, but also in building public support and understanding of the collective benefits.
There’s the need to move beyond completing the network downtown, both to connect the core to our suburban quadrants, and to allow people within suburban areas to move around their own neighbourhoods. If you want to get to the grocery store and you have a long, horrible walk through an inhospitable space, that’s not great. A lot of people don’t have access to cars, and the transit system isn’t great. We’ve really got to start looking at a city-wide network, not just those missing pieces in the core.
You’ve got a book coming out; tell us a little bit about that, and how it came about.
It’s called The Urban Cycling Survival Guide, and it’s my attempt to help fill the gap in bike education. In September 2012, I read yet another article about whether or not cyclists should be licensed. It comes up just about every year, often after some very unusual collision has occurred. I don’t think licensing stops you from making poor decisions. Knowing what the right thing to do in any given scenario is more important. I got tired of hearing myself regularly reference this gap in cycling education and I thought, Hmm. Maybe I should do something about that. I’m aiming the book at new and would-be riders, but there’s a lot of stuff in there for people who have been riding for a while. There are a ton of people out there who can see themselves in the people riding past them—it’s not just dudes in spandex, and it hasn’t been for a while now—but they’re still nervous about where to start.
I talk about reasons why riding a bike is a great transportation option, and how to get started by using bike-shares, and buying a used bike or what to expect when you go into a bike shop. Things like what a tune-up is, and all the basics for the vehicle itself. I go through the rules of the road, and the unwritten rules as well: knowing full well that some riders will just go straight through a stop sign, I talk about how to do that safely. It sounds strange, but knowing that it’s going to happen anyway, here’s how to do it less badly. I’ve got a section on riding for all ages, so how to ride with your kids and the various options for kids to ride either on or alongside your bike. Also riding as a senior, and how to ride with your dog! [laughs] The final chapter is about the role of advocacy in cities across North America. We’ve gotten as far as we have with bike infrastructure because people have been fighting really hard to make it happen.
Do you have any tips for someone who’s considering riding in winter for the first time?
Absolutely! Lights for sure, and if you have a black coat, definitely look into one of those reflective vests or sashes. Anything you can do to increase your visibility at night, even with lights on your bike, is definitely important. It doesn’t take much to affect a driver’s ability to see through fogged or frosty windshields. You want to underdress a little, and start a little chilly. Once your engine gets going, you heat up pretty quickly. One thing I love is to wear thin inner gloves under warm outer mittens. This helps with wind while you’re riding, and then when you get to where you’re going, you can lock up your bike and deal with your lights without losing all your heat. Cold air in the lungs can be tough, especially if you’re asthmatic or breathing heavily, so pace yourself and cover your mouth with a scarf. When it snows, get some practice before going out onto the roads. Head onto a laneway or a side street and practice stopping on the snow, turning, getting on and off your bike, and practice braking slowly. I always like to test the roadway with my foot first, especially if it’s been wet and then the temperature has dropped, just in case it’s slick or slippery. Generally, just slow down, be careful, be well-lit and visible, and dress to the conditions.
What’s the best part of being involved in Toronto’s cycling scene?
Bikes are cool! They’re so amazing, and important to the planet, and for our physical health. They’re so damn practical. You save money, you save time. They’re little time machines. I can’t think of anything that’s bad about bikes, except for the fact that sometimes we get doored or fall down, but life is life and things can happen no matter what mode you’re on. Everybody who is engaged with bikes as something that’s important to improve the city are good, good people. They see that bigger picture, and understand the importance of a bike in the urban context. Bikes are part of the urban DNA.