16 June 2011

The Greatest Secret Bicycle City

I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Or maybe a big one. In the race for reestablishing the bicycle as a feasible, accepted and respected form of transport, many cities are keen to bang their drums to show off their bicycle goodness. All of the noise is good noise - every bike lane, bike rack, lowered speed limit, et al are great news and important for the symbolism of cementing the bicycle on the urban landscape.

The secret is this. There is a city in North America that is steadily working towards planting bicycle seeds. I often see internet lists about the most bicycle friendly cities in North America and just as often this city isn't on them. Which is wrong.

The reason is a cultural one. English North America looks in the mirror when measuring itself. Europe is another planet and measuring yourself up against the bicycle boom in cities like Paris, Seville and Barcelona won't let you top any bicycle traffic lists. Fair enough. Compare yourself with other cities in your region and measure your progress. Nothing wrong with that.

This secret city, despite being firmly placed on the North American continent, still gets ignored and overlooked. (No, it's not Portland) It's in a region that doesn't speak an English dialect. (No, it's not Wisconsin) A region that has its own unique cultural heritage and identity. (No, it's not Alberta)

This city, and region, don't figure in the daily consciousness of most North Americans because they're just too damned "foreign". Ish.

But I was there very recently and I was amazed with what I saw. And I've seen stuff.

I saw the most impressive bicycle rush hour one afternoon. More impressive and with greater numbers than anywhere else in North America. By far.

I saw more separated bicycle infrastructure in this city than anywhere else in North America. One of the cycle tracks dates from 1986! Beat that. You can't. Sure, many of the cycle tracks are on-street bi-directional ones, which we threw out of our Best Practice in Denmark a couple of decades ago, but they area there and they are used and they are a good start.

I rode on a cycle track that features 9000 daily cyclists. And this is nothing new for them.

I stayed in a borough in the city - one of the highest-density areas in North America - that has one of the lowest car-ownership rates in North America and that can boast a modal split for bicycles of over 9%. City-wide it's at about 2.3%, just so you know.

This borough showed me that bicycle culture is alive and well and that focusing solely on bicycle commuting doesn't get you anywhere. The bicycle can get you to work and back, sure, but it about making the bicycle a part of your daily life. There are, after all, schools to drop off at, shops to shop at, cafés to sip at, cinemas to be entertained at, and so on.

This city is a role model for a continent. It can teach lessons worth learning if there were people from other cities willing to learn. It has the country's largest cyclist organisation who have been representing Citizen Cyclists for 40 years. I ate at their café, too! How cool is that.

I had lunch with the Mayor of the aforementioned borough and saw in his eyes the kind of visionary politician that every city should have. A man who dares to believe that his vision of his city's future can be achieved and who isn't afraid to suddenly change a busy street to one-way for cars and put in bicycle lanes in both directions on either side of said street. I felt his passion and was charged by it.

This is a city that can put on two bike rides / events in three days, organised by the aforementioned cyclists organisation. The first one drew 17,000 people on bicycles for an evening ride. The next one drew 25,000 for a 50 km tour of the city. Read those numbers again. 17,000 on a Friday evening. Then 25,000 on the Sunday.

This is a city that fascinates me. Not only for what it is doing for bicycle traffic and culture but for it's stunning liveable-ness. I live in what is regarded as one of the world's most liveable cities. I can go to other like-minded cities and feel at home. Then I land in this city and wonder how the hell they do it. How the hell it many neighbourhoods are lightyears ahead of Copenhagen, Amsterdam and anywhere else in the way the streets are used by people. For all the talk of Liveable Streets, this city lives the dream. Walking the walk and talking the talk.

I am simply obsessed by this. I simply need to find out, in detail, how it can be. I want the recipe. I'm willing to bust my ass to find it, write it down, absorb it. I want to be taught.

I'm still working on my love affair with their french fries served with gravy and cheese curds, but I have seen North America's promised land. I've been to the mountaintop (and rode up and down their mountain and hills on a three-speed upright bike... easy) and I've seen down the other side.

Every waking moment... okay, that's an exaggeration... I'm thinking about returning. To experience, to learn, to soak up their the city's vibe.