Biking, a gateway drug to social awareness

Yvette Tendick is a member of Strong Towns and a resident of Guelph, Ontario. Today she shares her thoughts on the car-free, bike-friendly lifestyle.

It all started innocently enough.  I was 12 years old, living on a farm, and my dad brought home a girl’s bike. I taught myself to ride it.  By age 14, I hit the road.  I must have biked up and down every rural road in Essex County, Ontario where I grew up.  I loved the freedom that it afforded me…a chance to get away from my parents, explore and do my own thing.  Little did I know then that I was beginning a lifelong dependency on the freedom and exhilaration that biking brought to me.

Nine years ago, my husband and I decided to move to Guelph, Ontario.  I was determined to live within walking/biking distance from work.  This dream led us to live near to downtown.  Because of this lifestyle choice, I have been able to comfortably manage, most of the time, without using the car. 

Since taking up biking as my main mode of transportation, I have begun to look at Guelph and other cities through a different lens. I don’t think you can ride a bike in any city without getting interested in social justice issues. You begin to wonder why getting around any city is so much easier by car than by any other method of transportation.  In the words of  Enrique Penalosa, a renowned vocal advocate of equitable use of public spaces: “A person on a $30 bike is just as important as a person in a $30,000 car.” Well said.  All people are entitled to equal treatment under the law.  So where did we get this notion that public roads should be only for one type of user…the motorist? 

Photo by Adam Coppola Photography

Photo by Adam Coppola Photography

People who can’t afford cars or don’t want to use them are also deserving citizens.  For example, children should have priority in a city too. They should be able to walk and bike to school and around their neighbourhoodsin safety.  Their parents shouldn’t have to fear that their child might get hit by a car while engaging in this normal, healthy, social activity. Teenagers, as well, should be able to get to work or socialize independently of their parents.  They shouldn’t have to rely on mom or dad simply because it is too unsafe to reach their destination except by car or too time consuming to reach it by public transit.

The trouble with Guelph is that, like so many cities, it subscribes to zoning laws that are designed around the car. Because the city is divided into sections depending on specific uses, citizens are forced to work in one part of the city, play in another, shop in another, and meet medical needs in yet part of the city.  Add unprotected bike lanes on to that, and it seems pretty obvious to me as to why there aren’t a whole lot of people embracing cycling as their primary mode of transportation.

All is not lost, though.  Despite the odds, Guelph really isn’t a bad city to cycle in.  I find it fairly safe, especially since I figured out how to get around on mostly quiet roads and bike lanes.  I find motorists, for the most part, are used to cyclists and give me a wide enough berth.  And of course, where I do find it intimidating to ride, such as riding down Edinburgh or Victoria Road (busy streets in my town), there is always the sidewalk—shhhh, don’t tell the police! Furthermore, because of our large, active, and socially aware university student population, I’m not alone cycling on the roads. 

And Guelph is working towards becoming more bicycle friendly.  Our city council has approved a Cycling Master Plan that should continue to connect Guelph via a broad range of on and off road bicycle lanes throughout the city.  It has already installed a separated multi-use path along the busy Woodlawn Road.   In order for an 8 year old child or a 70 year old grandmother to take to the bike lanes, however, we will have to have either more protected bike lanes, or slower speed limits for cars.  Let’s hope that the city stays on target and proves that it is committed to the idea that cycling is a viable form of public transportation.

Will this happen?  I don’t know.  But for me, this biking adventure has really opened my eyes to the transportation difficulties of those who don’t drive.  It has made me more socially aware.  I’m glad to say that bike riding and walking have irrevocably changed my view of how cities should serve their residents. Now, if you’ll excuse me,  I need to run another errand on my bicycle.

(Top photo by Adam Coppola photography)

Related stories

About the Author

Yvette Tendick is a primary school teacher and member of the Community Editorial Board for Guelph Mercury (a newspaper in Ontario, Canada). She is also president of Guelph Citizen's Coalition for Active Transportation.  Yvette is interested in the steps that Guelph citizens might undertake to reduce dependency on fossil fuels while simultaneously increasing quality of life.  She believes one way to achieve this lofty goal is through active transportation,  which  she personally engages in during her commute to work by bike or on foot