Sunday, July 22, 2007

Riding to Port Hope

This weekend, I joined Vic Gedris and a mixed group of bicycle riders to celebrate my birthday weekend with a cycling and camping trip. Two nights under the stars, and a 100 kilometer round trip; what better way could I chose to close out an interesting 51st year?

The trip had a several highlights for me, things both important and trivial:

  • The train that returned my wave with a toot,

  • the patience of my fellow riders, who often waited for an old man who fell behind,

  • the waiters in the Beamish House restaurant at Port Hope, who responded to the news that a party of tired, hungry and sweaty cyclists had descended on their patio with pitchers of ice water and plates of food,

  • the impromptu pot luck dinner we organized on Saturday night after the ride.

  • the waterfront trail winding through the country along the waterfront, and the ongoing work to improve it.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Not Ready to Make Nice

Credit: Sharon Mollerus Licensed Creative Comons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0

We rented the "Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing" on DVD last week, and by coincidence, at just about the same time I ran across evidence of the evolution of people on the opposite side: advocates for the Iraq war.

Consider David Warren, perhaps the most strident of the Canadian backers of the war in Iraq; he generally gets credited with the "flypaper" justification for occupying Iraq. Four years ago, in high indignation over Jean Chretien's refusal to participate in Iraq, Mr. Warren had this to say:

...this New Canada that makes me heartsick as it does several millions of my fellow Canadians -- that fills us with such a deep sense of shame.... This Canada that despatched its few remaining available soldiers hurriedly to peacekeeping duties in Afghanistan as a kind of insurance in case the Americans asked for help. ("Sorry! We gave at the office.")

Over the next three and a half years, Canada went through two elections, the second of which brought in a Conservative party government. Through those three and a half years, the Canadian government remained fully committed to the mission in Afghanistan the Chretien government had first signed on for in 2002. But as Iraq sank into chaos and failure, as American casualties mounted and ten percent of Iraq's population fled, Canada stayed resolutely clear of any involvement with the "coalition of the willing". In November 2006, David Warren wrote this:

With a few gracious exceptions, such as Britain, Australia, Poland -- and Canada, rather late in the day -- the West has watched America defend our common vital interests, alone.... I am, on balance, ashamed of the hesitant and scrounging support my own countrymen have given our American allies.

Last week, he had this to say about the Canadian dead coming home from Afghanistan:

...we are a nation, and when they send our boys back from Afghanistan in boxes, it doesn’t matter what our politics are. We stand with them and for them, and we salute them, for they were our bravest and best.

When did Canada's commitment to Afghanistan change from a poor excuse to avoid helping the Americans in Iraq to a noble cause? And more important, why does it matter?

Let us try another example: consider Dan Riehl's argument in favor of Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq.

...we have engaged a ruthless enemy in a generational conflict that only the naive thought would be over in a few years, or go precisely as planned at its beginning.

I wonder if Riehl considers the multitude of US officials who confidently predicted a short war, a "cakewalk", before the invasion of Iraq among the naive, and whether the presence of so many naive policy makers in the Bush administration has helped lead to the current sorry state of Iraq. But, again, what do we accomplish by holding the proponents of the Iraq war to account for the disconnect between what they said then and what they say now, or for the contradictions between what they say and reality?

I think it matters that we hold the advocates for the war in Iraq accountable, simply to make the point that reality always wins. Politicians, whatever they want to believe, cannot order up the truth to suit themselves, and when they ignore the actual situation in favor of the things they and their constituents prefer to believe, they incur a high cost, which someone else often has to pay. Holding people accountable doesn't mean stocks and dunces caps in the public square; still less does it mean denying the very real arguments about the iniquities of Saddam Hussein that people sincerely advanced in the run-up to the war in Iraq. It does mean not accepting nonsense and not listening to absurdities in silence. It means always keeping in mind the difference between forgiving the people who pushed so hard for a disastrous war, and condoning their arrogance and thoughtlessness.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Shopping by Bicycle

I shop by bicycle. I find I can get enough groceries to last at least half a week into the rear panniers of my bicycle, and if I need to buy more, I can always load my front panniers. The picture to the right tells the story: all the food and drink on the table went into the panniers. I didn't have to pack tightly to fit everything in. The food I buy in an ordinary shopping trip, the kind many people make in a car, will generally fit comfortably enough in one or two panniers.

When I buy larger items, such as toilet paper, I generally use a bungee cord to strap the object to the rear deck of my bike, as the picture to the left illustrates. Usually, a single length of bungee cord suffices to secure a quite large item to the rear of the bike.

I find that I can ride quite comfortably carrying heavy load on the bike. The goods I bought in the shopping trip pictured above have mass of at least ten kilos (weighing twenty-two pounds), more than I would ever want to carry on foot. Riding, I didn't even notice I had them on. In many ways, a bicycle shows its advantages best when carrying heavy loads.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Cycling in Toronto -- Next Steps

The web log "I bike TO" has started some interesting discussions of our ultimate goals; imagining what the streets of Toronto should ultimately look like, and how they should ultimately work. I would like to start with a more modest goal: imagining what our next steps will look like. What do we need to do this year, and between now and 2010?

Building Critical Mass

Eight years ago, I stood on the street in Amsterdam and watched hundreds of cyclists rolling through an intersection. I thought then: the Dutch have passed the tipping point. Cyclists in Amsterdam have the numbers, to dominate not only the streets, but the perception of the streets. To a resident of Amsterdam, Rob Ford's "Roads are built for buses, cars, and trucks." must seem self-evidently absurd.

So how do we get past that tipping point? In a culture saturated in car advertisements, where car columnists can speak about speeding as "not the problem", how do we turn this corner. In fact, nobody can guarantee we ever will.

Not one to go down without a comment, or a fight, I will propose four measures to support right now to get the bicycle commuters, the bicycle shoppers, and the Sunday cyclists out on the road.

  1. We need safe bicycle routes. That means bicycle routes safe from aggressive drivers, but also safe from muggers and rapists. We need lit, monitored cycle paths. We need more bicycle lanes, if lanes attract more cyclists and help keep them safe. We need more effective education for motorists on the need to share the road. We need sharrows on every street in the city.

  2. We need year-round bicycle routes. A fellow parishioner of mine told me his bicycles wear out in two years because he rides them in winter. The combination of salt slathered on roads, bicycle paths with "No Winter Maintenance" signs, and the inevitable hazards of winter add up to a potent, and toxic, combination of factors steering people away from winter cycling. I believe we need to designate winter bicycle routes along side streets, where we can avoid salt in favor of plowing. I believe we need to get the city to commit to keeping selected cycling routes open all year.

  3. We need public transit to accommodate bicyclists, not just when the TTC or GO finds it convenient to have cyclists aboard, but all of the time.

  4. We need to reach out.

    • We need to reach the thousands of unorganized cyclists in this city. Almost two thirds of the population of Toronto cycles; we need to make sure they know that by riding more, and by getting involved in the politics of this city, we can make our rides easier and safer.

    • We need to reach out to racialized and immigrant communities. We need to make the economic and health benefits of doing without cars clear to everyone in Toronto, and we need to hear what other communities need to make car-free transportation work for them.

I do not propose these things as our ultimate goals, merely as the next steps toward which we should organize. But I believe that as we begin to achieve these goals, we will move close to a bicycle friendly city, one which has broken the car addiction.