In early June dozens of children and their families met for a leisurely evening bike ride, pedaling their way from GreenUP’s Ecology Park, through Beavermead, and then along the Edgewater Boulevard peninsula in Little Lake. The children ranged in age, probably between 4 and 12, and in ability too. Some were changing gears on their mountain bikes to get up hills, while others wobbled along on training wheels. It was a beautiful evening for biking, and there was something very satisfying about riding recreationally with so many cyclists of varying ages.
This was the second annual Kiddical Mass, a family ride organized by GreenUP and B!KE as part of their Bike Night program, a series of events on Thursday nights that aim to get people out on their bikes, feeling more comfortable and having more fun.
Lindsay Stroud, the Manager of Transportation and Urban Design at GreenUP, helps to organize Bike Night. For Stroud, the young participants riding in the Kiddical Mass represent the next generation of cyclists in Peterborough, a generation she is trying to inspire to be more active on bicycles through the programs she delivers with GreenUP.
“I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what’s going to shift cycling culture in our city,” Stroud says, “and I believe it begins by getting a bunch of kids really excited about being on their bikes.”
Stroud is just one of many people in Peterborough working to foster a culture of biking in the city, and Bike Night is only one of many initiatives these people have developed. Cyclists and advocates are working hard in creative ways to get more people riding bikes, and to make the way we move through the city more sustainable, more healthy, and more fun.
“I’m always amazed at the amount that is happening to support biking in Peterborough,” says Stroud. “There are so many groups doing great things to get people on bikes.”
These groups realize that bike lanes alone (as important as they are) won’t get people riding unless there is also a culture of support and encouragement that incentivizes cycling. They’re motivated by environmental concerns, but they’re also committed to the idea of building healthy, whole communities.
“Biking builds connections to the places in your community,” Stroud believes. “It builds connections with the street and the people who use it. You’re much more likely to be waving and stopping to chat with somebody if you’re on a bike or if you’re walking by. This community connection is one of the main reasons I’m excited to be working in this area.”
Peterborough’s bike advocates aren’t just environmentalists, then. They’re community builders, and they have a vision of Peterborough that we should all be working towards.
Cyclists and bike advocates were disappointed last month, when on June 5 City Council reversed their plan to have bike lanes built along Charlotte Street, a decision that was especially discouraging considering the political process that led to it.
The main argument put forward against the bike lanes was that they would reduce parking. A report on city parking was due just weeks after the June 5 vote. That might have helped to evaluate the argument against bike lanes, but a motion to defer the vote until after that report was received was defeated, perhaps because the June 5 meeting was Council’s only opportunity to kill the bike lane proposal, because on that night a councilor in favour of bike lanes was unable to attend the meeting. The vote was tied 4 to 4 (with one abstention), so Mayor Bennett broke the tie by voting against the bike lanes.
Tegan Moss, executive director of B!KE, Peterborough’s community bike shop, says that a majority of city councilors support bike lanes on Charlotte Street. “I think that, had all council members been present and allowed to vote, there would have been a different outcome,” she said.
Moss intends to continue fighting for the Charlotte Street bike lanes. “I think the most recent decision… is something we’ll see more debate around. There is an ongoing case to be made for the importance of cycling infrastructure on Charlotte Street, and I’m looking forward to seeing if we can develop a better compromise among all the stakeholders.”
“If you get more people on bikes, you need less parking,” Moss says. “You can only park so many cars downtown, so if you want to get more people coming downtown, you have to find other ways to get them here, and that’s going to be buses and bikes. Prioritizing those ways of getting downtown will have tangible impacts.”
Many bike advocates were disappointed with the Charlotte Street decision, but City Hall has moved forward in other areas. The George Street bike lane is being extended to Sherbrooke Street this summer, for example. And Sue Sauve, the Transportation Demand Management Planner for the City, says she has over a hundred potential projects on file, ranked in terms of priority, that the City can move ahead on to make Peterborough more bike-friendly. Progress might seem slow at times, but it isn’t nonexistent.
Thankfully, while we wait for the infrastructure that will allow more people to feel safe riding bikes in Peterborough, community-driven initiatives like the Kiddical Mass continue to be organized by passionate cyclists. Bike advocates might not have as much control over municipal planning and politics as they would like, but at the community level there is nothing to stop them from building a city that cycles, and as they do, cyclists’ voices will become more influential at the political level too.
Walk into B!KE (293 George Street) whenever it’s open and you’ll likely find people pumping tires, greasing chains, drinking coffee, and chatting bikes. The space is bright and welcoming, and the staff and volunteers who work there are supportive and encouraging. This is not like other bike shops, which, for many, feel intimidating and confusing, spaces where their mechanical ignorance or lack of skill are exposed and exploited. Instead, B!KE is a place where mechanics help you to fix your bike yourself, so you learn the skills in the process, and gain a better understanding of how your bike works.
“The primary purpose of B!KE is to provide people with access to tools and workspace to repair their own bicycles, and to learn how to do that work themselves,” says Moss, B!KE’s executive director.
Since bike ownership and maintenance are two of the biggest barriers people face when choosing whether to cycle, providing a space where someone can build their bike from spare parts, and learn to fix it, helps to make biking more accessible, and it helps to increase the confidence of people who ride already.
“People who know how to fix their own bikes are more comfortable riding them,” Moss says.
When I visited B!KE earlier this summer it was a Thursday, which is the women-only shop day. Two women, both named Kat, were putting their bikes back together after doing some maintenance.
“I used to take my bike to a guy, and he did great work, but I wasn’t learning anything myself,” Kat Tannock told me. “So if something failed on my bike, it would probably sit in my shed for a while. Now that I’m learning to fix it, I’ll be more likely to ride. Today I took my derailleur apart and I took my chain off. I scrubbed it down with a degreaser and then put it back together.”
Kat Ogilvie was even more ambitious: “I pretty much took my whole bike apart today. I’ve never worked on a bike before, and, oh my gosh, it felt so good!”
The women-only day has received some criticism. Some men are frustrated when they can’t use the shop on Thursdays, and some women think that segregating based on gender just leads to more inequality.
But Moss says the high levels of demand for women-only programming show that it’s something the community needs. “Moreso than men, women aren’t necessarily taught how to use tools. It can be intimidating, and mechanical spaces are often male-dominated. If you go into any other shop in town, the people fixing bicycles are all men.”
“Only 30% of people who ride bikes are women,” she adds. “Why is that? If it’s because they’re afraid the bike might break, maybe teaching them how to fix the bike will help make them feel more confident riding.”
Rebecca Christensen also runs women’s cycling programs in Peterborough. Sponsored by Wild Rock and TREK, her event series includes group rides, clinics, workshops, and parties that aim to get women feeling more comfortable on their bicycles. She says there is a lot of enthusiasm for her programs too: “It’s been awesome. At our mountain bike clinic we had 40 women come out, most of them new to the sport. At our road biking clinic we had 30.”
Ogilvie and Tannock, who were working at B!KE when I visited, both appreciated the program.
“I do prefer the women-only space,” Tannock said. “It’s nice to see women working together, and it’s nice to see women taking control of their bikes.”
On any other day that B!KE is open, it’s open and accessible to everyone. They will even waive the $35 membership fee if that poses a barrier to someone participating. B!KE is promoting mechanical literacy in Peterborough, and in doing so, it’s inspiring people to choose biking as a mode of transport.
Driving is still by far the most common mode of transportation in Peterborough—a survey in 2013 (PDF) found that more than 80% of trips taken are done in a car. But improving this statistic is possible. The survey showed that most people in Ontario would like to cycle more, and most believe they would cycle more if there were better infrastructure and support.
“In terms of distance, Peterborough is a very bikeable city,” says Stroud. People generally say they feel comfortable biking if their trip is five kilometres or less, and 73% of trips taken in Peterborough are less than that, she explains.
Of course there are other factors that determine whether someone decides to ride a bike or not, including weather, time, and physical ability. In theory, though, Peterborough could become a city where the majority of trips taken are done using some form of active transportation, and that would transform for the better the way we interact with our communities and our built environments. Stroud, Moss, Christensen, and a host of other community builders and cyclists are working to realize this potential, and turn Peterborough into a city that cycles.
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Photos by Bryan Reid.