The grand debrief: Europe & bicycle culture
Posted on 27 October 2008
Coming back to Toronto after a night of sipping wine at Montmarte is never easy, but it is good to be back. Europe has its own challenges with bicycle culture, but we're ready to face ours head on. Europe is romanticized as a bicycle utopia, but this couldn't be further from the truth. We learned a great deal on our trip. In Paris and Brussels we learned that bike-share programs require a huge amount of money and commitment to get off the ground, and only make sense in cities where there is no bicycle culture to speak of. We also learned that bike lanes are not always necessary when there is a culture of respect between motorists and cyclists - and if this can be achieved in the motorist-mad streets of Paris, it can be achieved anywhere.
In Copenhagen we witnessed cyclists ride in vast numbers through the bitterly cold rain in their stylish clothing and thought it was the most romantic sight on earth. In Copenhagen we saw a bicycle culture that was intensely self-aware and was constantly pushing bicycle design and aesthetics forward in a highly creative environment that saw massive support from the public - and we were impressed. In Italy we were shocked to see a thriving bicycle culture and we loved watching them saunter about at no great speed, whereas in London people rode almost as if they were possessed to get back home - what's the rush?
It was sad to see the classic Italian companies fade from view as Chinese manufacturing moved in, but we loved seeing Abici not only producing the classic Italian bike, but exporting the very concept beyond Italian shores. In Amsterdam we saw the most incredible bike culture on earth, the streets are so full of cyclists that there is almost no room for pedestrians, it is an absolute utopia. But, perhaps because the bicycle is already established in Amsterdam there is no struggle for bicyclists rights, and thus the bicycle is not nearly the romantic or idealistic object that it is in other cities - even Copenhagen.
So, what is the struggle in a city like Toronto? Despite low bicycle-use statistics (which is because the stats represent the entire GTA), the streets of downtown Toronto are filled with cyclists. Torontonians love to complain about the lack of bike lanes, theft, and infastructure, but if we were more self-reflective, we would realize that we have a very interesting cycling culture, far more interesting than a city like Portland, which unfortunately gets all the press. But unlike Portland's granola disneyland, Toronto is a big city that one cannot easily wrap into a concept, it is simply too diverse and multicultural, and this goes for its bike culture too. Sure, we could introduce a program like Velib and praise the near Mao-like uniformity of it, but this provides easy data and gives all the symbolic power to public programs.
Bicycling is an intensely private affair, as is owing an automobile, and the sign of a true bicycle culture is that of private bicycle ownership - like Amsterdam. In Toronto, unlike any other North American city, private bicycle ownership is chaotic and variable. In Paris one see Velib. In Amsterdam, the classic Dutch bike. But in Toronto one sees a little bit of everything - more real European city bikes than any other city in North America, a thriving fixed gear scene, mountain, road, and hybrid bikes, an insane number of folding bikes from all over the world, homemade art bikes, tricycles, cargo bikes, and every whacky bike that each immigrant brought with them into the country - and the streets are packed with them. And the people riding them are just as interesting. In Toronto, a bicycle is not just the property of the poor, or the politically correct, it is ridden by the entire cross-section. It is, in short, not a monoculture. It has a great deal in common with Copenhagen - and we like that.
What do we propose for Toronto? Well, more infastructure for starts. We don't need infastructure to create a bicycle culture, we need it to manage the already existing bike culture which is in constant danger of the motor vehicle. Thus, we question the motivation to create Velib style programs in Toronto, unless the aim is to provide bikes to tourists. Programs like Velib are insanely expensive and help create bicycle cultures in cities that lack them. If they are not done correctly, as we saw in Brussels, they become a white elephant - and Toronto has enough of these already. If Torontonians could just wipe away insecurities for a second they would see that we have a flourishing bike culture and that what is needed is not more bikes (although this always helps), but more bike lanes. Toronto will never be like Amsterdam, but it's already safer than Paris and more interesting. If there was any model for Toronto we would say Copenhagen or perhaps better, Rotterdam. Rotterdam is a modern North American style city with more bike lanes than Copenhagen and thousands of cyclists using them.
At Curbside we don't like working top-down. Perhaps we're cynical, but we don't believe that building bike lanes will create more cyclists. Sure, we are involved with tons of local advocacy and were founding members of Bells on Bloor, but we figure our job is to simply flood the streets with so many cyclists that local government will have no choice but to pave us some lanes. In this time of economic woes the New York Times recently had an article on brown bagging it to work. People are going back to basics, and for the urbanite, the bicycle is an obvious and sensible choice. However, no one likes brown bagging it, and no one likes riding a bike that isn't really a city bike. At Curbside we don't sell bikes as much as we sell a concept, and that concept is that riding a bicycle may be the most romantic and life enhancing thing you can do. Ride your Pashley or Batavus to work and meander back along side streets in your suit, designer jeans, or slinky dress. We're trying to inject that same romance that we see in Copenhagen or Amsterdam (or Parma) into the streets of Toronto, and its working. Even though we wear jeans everyday we can't pretend that everyone else does too. We've witnessed a huge demographic shift as more and more white collar professionals are romanced by the classic city bike, and as architects and designers begin to view the bike as industrial art.
Anyways, we had to come back to Toronto. After three weeks of wine, meat and cheese we needed to get back on our bikes!!