Better bike infrastructure is better for everyone

June 2013

Being a poet, my predecessor on City Council, Clive Doucet, often introduced his columns with a little poetry. Not being a poet, I don’t.

I am, however, a filmmaker, or at least I was until elected into this 60-plus-hours-a-week job. Back in 2010, I had just released my film Powerful: Energy for Everyone. When asked if I planned to make more films while serving as councillor, I truthfully said no, as I couldn’t imagine finding the time and energy.

Predictably, the creative itch set in before too long. I often carry a camera to record things I see in the course of my day. A helmet-mounted camera lets me (safely) film attributes of the Glebe and other parts of our city to highlight the good or draw attention to needed improvements.

By the summer of 2012, I knew there would be a next film, about the joys, challenges and benefits of urban cycling. Cycling vacations in New York and Montreal produced lots of material on what those cities are doing to promote active transportation and complete streets, with a particular emphasis on building better cycling infrastructure.

Back home, I captured more footage and interviewed people with different perspectives on urban cycling — families, women, business owners, etc. I also consulted the City of Ottawa’s Integrity Commissioner to ensure that my film wouldn’t pose any ethical problems. His advice was to find an independent person or group to handle fundraising and payments for editing and other expenses, and to have that person/group publicly release the final report on the film’s financing. Both are being done.

In March, I attended the National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C. There, I learned a lot and interviewed people from across North America, including transportation policy expert Ralph Buehler, co-editor of the book City Cycling. And I filmed my ride down Pennsylvania Avenue on the new lanes connecting the White House and Capitol Hill.

After that experience, I had to agree with New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who said: “It’s getting harder and harder to find an American city that is not prioritizing cycling … it’s everywhere!”

It’s become clear to me that efforts to make a city better for cycling have the fortunate consequence of making the city better for everyone. Hence the title of my film: Bike City, Great City.

This spring has been especially busy in Capital Ward, and it’s been a challenge to find the time and energy to complete the film. But, with the help of creative partners and supportive producers, I’m thrilled to be officially premiering Bike City, Great City at the Mayfair Theatre in early July (check in mid-June for details), following a preview on June 1 at Capital Vélo Fest. Now in its third year, Vélo Fest is a great event that’s helping to make Ottawa better for cyclists and everyone else.

Should anyone think a councillor has better things to do on the job and in his free time, I would argue it’s essential to be creative in communicating ideas, questioning old approaches and offering new solutions. Many people tweet, blog and are active on other social media. I choose to use video because it is visual and evocative, and because it’s energizing to use the creative side of my brain and not just the rational one.

More importantly, the film’s images, ideas and insights are exactly what the Glebe and Ottawa need as we grapple with long-term economic and infrastructure challenges.

Here are a few facts residents, planners and politicians in Ottawa and other North American cities should know:

  • Many people who would like to cycle don’t, mostly because they are afraid of interacting with traffic.
  • Cycling is much safer than people generally believe, and good cycling infrastructure makes it even safer. Just as importantly, it makes cycling feel safer.
  • Riding the right kind of bike matters: Mountain and racing bikes have their place, but more upright city bikes are more comfortable, carry cargo, better protect your clothes and offer better sight lines and responsiveness in traffic.
  • Most cyclists are also drivers, and 60 percent of drivers cycle at least occasionally. There is no “us and them”; we are mostly the same people.
  • The most cost-effective and best use of space on roadways, in descending order: active transportation (i.e. cycling, walking), public transit and private vehicles. More cycling means more efficient allocation of our tax dollars.
  • Despite what many believe, driving does not pay for itself through registration fees, gas taxes or tolls. Roads, parking and bridges are heavily subsidized through income and property taxes, which means cyclists are more likely to be subsidizing drivers than the other way around.

Councillor David Chernushenko