2013/08 More than the mode “a la mode”

Originally posted in the Centretown Buzz
by Sarah Gelbard
August 16, 2013

“I think you’ve always been a cyclist. You just used to be a cyclist without a bike.”

Photo: Sarah Gelbard

There are a lot of cyclists who just don’t/didn’t know it. The increasing number of cyclists in Ottawa is getting noticed. City Hall notices. The media notices. Other cyclists notice. Motorists notice (most of the time). And people thinking of becoming cyclists notice. But where did all these new ticks on the Laurier bike lane counter come from? How did the Main Street complete streets proposal garner so much enthusiasm and support? Possibly for some of the same reasons that made me, a “cyclist without a bike,” finally come around to getting her first set of wheels.

It now seems somewhat inconceivable that I have only owned a bike for less than a year. Cycling has become so thoroughly integrated into my daily life. My trusty steed is rarely more than a few blocks from my side. When someone asks “how was your day?” the answer invariably includes at least one bike related story of an encounter with an angry driver, or frustrating intersection, or newly discovered path, or gear talk. And a notable number of my tweets now include the hashtag “#ottbike.”

As the saying goes, “It’s like riding a bike. Once you learn. . .” But what about those of us who never learned? It can be a bit intimidating. I would watch cyclists and couldn’t quite picture myself with the confidence they exude as they glide swiftly amongst the cars on the busy downtown streets. They never seem bothered by sharing space with big heaps of metal speeding past them at three times their speed. How are they not terrified? As a pedestrian, I was used to the idea that cars have their space and I have mine.

Bicycles were not a part of my childhood; not entirely absent but they had minimal impact. I remember fighting with my siblings and cousins over whose turn it was to ride the iconic red and white tricycle. But I don’t recall riding it. I probably just went and read a book. I can also picture my mother’s old rusted bike leaning against the side of the house—more sculpture than vehicle—and I loved the laboured squeak of its decaying horn. But again, no memories of it being ridden.

As an adult, you don’t get training wheels. You don’t get away with riding on the sidewalks while you learn. You don’t get Mom and Dad holding onto you until that magical moment when they let go and you’re riding all on your own.

Last year, I once again contemplated whether a bicycle would be a nice addition to my life. As a Centretowner, I was used to getting around without wheels with the exception of the occasional public wheels. Most of my daily needs are easily met within a 30-minute walking radius. But it would be nice to extend that radius and get to my destination faster. There was also the draw of the Canal and other pathways. They were a reason I started running and seemed an equally good reason to start cycling.

But… Would I be able to develop the confidence needed to share the road? Would I feel safe enough? What if I just didn’t like it and my investment sits gathering dust and rust?

Then Bixi entered into the equation, specifically a half-priced annual membership promotion and the convenience of a station newly installed across the street from my apartment. It was the perfect bicycle trial opportunity. By fall, I was convinced. The only looking back now is for shoulder checks. I felt comfortable and confident and safe on the roads. When my parents wanted to buy me something special for my 30th birthday, I didn’t hesitate. I asked for a bike.

So when my boyfriend came up with that clever statement about me having “always been a cyclist,” with or without a bike, I immediately knew what he meant. I replied “that’s because I’m an urbanist.” It is the social-spatial impact that really makes me passionate about cycling. When people interact with space, and when people interact with other people in space, you have the ingredients for building community. It’s what makes space into place. Cycling is one more mode and one more layer in the process.

Bixi, the Laurier bike lanes and other city infrastructure, increased public awareness, economy, environmental concerns, and practicality all factored into my decision to get a bike.

While it’s not just about adopting the new trendy mode à la mode, jumping on the bicycle bandwagon, or because “all the cool kids are doing it,” the community and culture around cycling are what keep me cycling and make me hope more “cyclists without a bike” will join us.

P.S. I hate hills.

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