Eleanor McMahon thinks it’s time to change the conversation around cycling in Ontario.
McMahon is the founder of the Share the Road Cycling Coalition, who will be hosting the fifth annual Ontario Bike Summit this week in Toronto. She says that we need to stop talking about things like bike lanes and other bicycle infrastructure as a zero sum game between cars and bikes.
“We do polling, and our polling tells us that 89 per cent of Ontarians are both drivers and cyclists,” she says. “The notion that it’s cars versus bikes is overblown, and it’s really not working anymore. Deciding to change the conversation means going out of our way to poke holes in that idea and say from the get go ‘We don’t buy into that philosophy, and just because you say it, doesn’t make it true.’ ”
McMahon, who was the press secretary for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, got involved in bicycle advocacy after her husband died in a bicycle accident in 2006.
“I started to look at how I could make a contribution because his death was so senseless, and I was looking for an outlet in my grief,” she says. “I had built a pretty solid base of expertise over my 25 years in the private sector, as well as 10 years on Parliament Hill…I thought, you know, there are probably some skills I could translate to this arena.” She started the Ontario Bike Summit after realizing that there was no mechanism for municipal leaders and city planners from across the province to share cycling-related information.
“I would talk to mayors and say ‘There’s some really interesting stuff happening in Kitchener, or here’s what they’re doing in Guelph or in Toronto,’ and they wouldn’t know,” says McMahon. “So I said ‘I guess we need to bring everyone together.’ ”
Among the keynote speakers at this year’s event is Gabe Klein. Klein is the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation, and a trailblazer on the issue of integrated transportation in the U.S. Prior to working in Chicago, he was the director of the Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C., where he helped oversee the implementation of the largest and most successful bike sharing program in North America. He also has extensive private sector experience, having been a regional vice president with Zipcar. He says the idea that bike lanes come at the expense of cars is “malarkey.”
“There’s nothing wrong with driving a car, but driving a car, all the time, as the default, when you’re the only one in it, is a problem,” he says. “So our job is to give people as many transportation options as possible. People are pretty damn smart, and will make the choice that is healthiest, least expensive, and the most fun when they can, so let’s reduce the barriers to people being able to use active transportation.”
He adds that even if cars move through the city more slowly, it doesn’t necessarily mean that people will get to their destination less quickly.
“For every person you get out of a car and onto a bike, that frees up more space for a car,” he says. “In Washington, D.C., traffic has slowed dramatically, but traffic moves better than it used to. There’s no correlation in a city between speed and through-put. If you slow down traffic and synchronize lights, there are fewer accidents. There are fewer conflicts, so people may go 25 instead of 35, but they hit the lights at the same time, and they get where they’re going at the same time.”
Ultimately, McMahon’s hope for the summit is that attendees will walk away with new ideas and new energy. “It’s an opportunity for people to get together, to be inspired…and to walk away feeling like they’ve learned something and they can go back to their communities with some new information.”