Q & A with Toronto Bicycle Maven Yvonne Bambrick by April Economides

Kensington Bike Rack PhotoCredit on the photo.jpg

On a recent trip to Toronto, I had the pleasure of spending time with bicycling advocate Yvonne Bambrick. Yvonne is a bicycling celebrity around town, largely because of her role as the former (and founding) executive director of the Toronto Cyclists Union, the city’s primary bicycling advocacy organization.

In that role, she increased awareness of bicycling and the responsibilities of all to safely share the road, successfully engaged the provincial Ministry of Transportation to update the Ontario Driver’s Handbook to include bicycle and pedestrian safety, grew the union’s membership to 1,200, won a hard-fought bike lane battle on a major downtown arterial road, launched Toronto’s first mobile bicycle service station, and fielded more than 500 media interviews, among other accomplishments.

As a car-free bicycle commuter, she sees first-hand the economic benefits bicycling brings local business districts, and now is the director of two Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) where she brings her urban commuter and placemaking sensibilities to a traditionally parking-centric role.

It’s always exciting to meet fellow bicycling advocates who have also/currently work for business associations, so I sat down with her to ask her some questions:

AE: Anyone visiting your website quickly learns you are a multi-talented woman, involved in many aspects of Toronto’s bicycling and business scene. Please give us the skinny on what you’re up to these days.

YB: Well thanks, I really enjoy the various types of work that I do – they are all connected in some way. For the past year now, I’ve been working as the part-time coordinator for both the Kensington Market and Forest Hill Village BIAs. I also continue to speak and occasionally teach about the benefits and politics of cycling transportation, and work as a documentary and portrait photographer. Working so closely with this enormous variety of business owners is allowing me to gain unique insights into the needs, interests, misconceptions and concerns of multiple generations of independent merchants and entrepreneurs on a variety of subjects.

AE: It’s impressive you’re the only staff person for both BIAs – that must be a lot on your plate. What kind of work do you do for the two organizations, and is any of it bicycling related?

YB: I work on a number of different projects simultaneously – from the development of marketing materials and grant applications, to infrastructure repair to the production of events. In Kensington Market I’ve just wrapped up several months of community consultation around the frequency and type of neighborhood street closure events, and in Forest Hill Village we’re planning to begin the underground utility repairs required prior to a full streetscape redesign that will make the neighborhood more pedestrian and bicycle friendly.

I’m also connecting with city transportation staff about the addition of five much needed on-street bike corrals in Kensington Market. With so many customers and visitors arriving by bike, and limited sidewalk space to add more of Toronto’s signature post and ring bike racks, the market has struggled for years with inadequate bike parking. When combined with the sculptural bike parking at the top of the market that I project managed in 2009, we’ll have added about 60 spots once the corrals are in. I think both neighborhoods, and in particular the next generation of business owners, are beginning to better understand that bikes mean business.

AE: What additional bicycle initiatives do you want to see Toronto business districts and businesses adopt?

YB: I’d love to see a Bike Friendly Business campaign take root. The City has been holding the Bike Friendly Business Awards for the past 20 years, but we don’t yet have any type of citywide ‘bike friendly’ designation that businesses of all sizes can strive for. I’d also like to see a greater uptake on the creation of secure indoor bike parking, in particular in larger office buildings and shopping centers. I hear stories fairly often about there still being rules against bringing bicycles inside certain buildings for no apparent reason. That’s quite a deterrent from riding, in particular in areas where on-street parking is limited or non-existent. Outreach to property managers and owners could probably help resolve this issue.

AE: Toronto’s 2009 study of the popular Bloor Street business district showed pedestrians and bicyclists spend more money in the district than drivers, especially those walkers and bicyclists who live nearby. What lessons can other cities learn from Bloor Street?

YB: The results of the Bloor St. study were hugely significant, primarily because this was the first study to be undertaken in Toronto that showed very clearly that bicyclists and pedestrians are good for business. It completely refuted the widely held belief that most customers (money) arrive by car, and that car parking trumps all.

This past century has seen the automobile become so culturally ingrained as a symbol of status, wealth, freedom and sex appeal, and our cities so completely transformed in order to accommodate the swift throughput and easy movement of motor vehicles, that it is no wonder most people believe the hype. Thankfully, this is starting to change. What we saw on Bloor St., and I believe similar statistics would emerge in other comparably dense, street-level commercial districts, is that many customers arrive by various means other than the automobile.

I believe that ‘consumers’ (citizens) are also increasingly interested in supporting local small businesses – the shops down the road that you can walk or bike to, where you get to know the owner or employees, and can see that you’re supporting the local economy and contributing to the vibrancy of your community.

AE: What parting words of wisdom can you share on why bikes are good for business?

YB: The less money people spend on the purchase, maintenance, storage, fines, insurance, gas, repairs, etcetera of a motor vehicle, the more money they have to invest in the local economy!

Fun Facts About Yvonne Bambrick:

One of her favorite…

…Places in Toronto: Kensington Market & Toronto Islands

…Foods: Picnic

…Musicians: Jennifer Castle/Castlemusic

…Famous people: Strombo

…Words: Balance

…Bikes: My Batavus workhorse

…Artists: BGL

…Writers: Momentum & Dandyhorse magazine contributors

Elly Blue's Bikenomics by April Economides

Elly Blue - image courtesy of Caroline Paquette for Little Package

One of my favorite people in the bicycling advocacy world is Elly Blue, who coined the term “Bikenomics.” Her zine “Bikenomics: How bicycling will save the economy (if we let it)” is a compilation of 10 articles she wrote for Grist.org the first half of 2011, and is a delightful must-read for transportation planners and city officials – and anyone who works in the health industry, sustainability field, or who drives a car or rides a bike. In other words, everyone.

Blue, a Portland resident, co-runs PDX by Bike, a business that helps people find their way around Portland by bicycle, and the Portland Society, a business alliance for professional women who are passionate about bicycling. Her blog Taking the Lane is a blog about “bicycling, economics, feminism, and other cultural commentary.”

I had the pleasure of chatting with her recently, and here’s what we talked about:

AE: You’re always involved in interesting projects. What’s on your plate for 2012?

EB: Ouf. I'm trying to pare down and focus on just doing just a few things well. Right now that's writing and publishing work that will hopefully help keep bringing the conversation about bikes to the next level. I'm about to head on a speaking tour in the U.S. south with my partner Joe, who makes documentaries about bikes, and our friend Joshua who is a vegan chef. I can't wait! I'm also excited to put more energy into the Portland Society. This year I'd like to keep supporting our members’ professional development and also step out into the political and civic sphere.

AE: With a clear understanding of ecological economics, yet using layman’s terms to appeal to a wide audience, in your Bikenomics zine you do an excellent job of dispelling the myth of ‘free parking’ and detailing the societal costs of car crashes, sedentariness, and urban sprawl – and then contrasting these with bicycle transportation. Few political and business leaders understand the true cost of these problems, and I’m convinced if they did, more would work to improve them and see a bicycle-friendly U.S. as a smart investment. Considering the strength of the oil lobby and their related industries, do you think this is mostly a matter of ignorance and that better education can save the day?

EB: We're in an exciting cultural moment – there is a growing climate of openness to bicycling right now, just as we are with the food movement. More and more people and communities are discovering bicycle transportation and making it work for them in amazing ways and much of it seems to be economically motivated.

I'd rather talk about it in terms of inspiration instead of education. …When people work together and are inclusive and listen to each other, we've seen communities make huge changes for bikes, culturally and in infrastructure, in a relatively short period of time. For instance, I just spent the weekend in Seattle, which has become home to a booming bike movement in just the last decade. Their neighborhood greenways network, thanks to a powerhouse grassroots coalition, has gone from conception to implementation in just three years, which for transportation infrastructure is light speed. Within the next decade they'll have transformed the city, and there doesn't seem to be any controversy in store. When you build coalitions and forge ahead with determination, all this stuff really is possible.

AE: For those who have yet to read your zine, please explain what you see as the economic reasons a city should become bike-friendly.

EB: Car infrastructure is expensive and creates debt and other expenses which we can't afford, producing poverty. Bicycling, on the other hand, is a low-cost investment that pays off substantial dividends and helps everyone equally, so long as it’s done equitably, producing well-being. Also, bicycling is really fun. There you go, my entire argument.

AE: What are some economic reasons a small business would want to encourage its employees and customers to bike?

EB: It depends on the business, but employees who bike are in better mental and physical health, perform better, and have fewer sick days. Customers who bike tend to have more disposable income and likely live in the community, meaning greater loyalty. And you don't have to pay for parking for either.

AE: What are some successful examples of bike-friendly businesses you’ve seen?

EB: One of my favorite things is seeing new, bike-based businesses open up. Investing in a storefront is often risky or out of reach, but a bike-mounted coffee shop or taco cart or cookie delivery service (all real examples from Portland) requires less capital – that's one way bicycle friendly communities can create economic opportunity. Bike parking is something a lot of business owners have discovered is an effective and highly visible way to support (and benefit from) bicycling. A bike corral provides a tenfold increase in parking spots right outside your door and it's also like a billboard for the business, especially in a place where it's the only one. The standing stone brewery in Ashland is an example. Even if you don't know about their policy of giving employees bikes and financial incentives to ride to work, you immediately know that business will welcome you when you show up in dripping rain gear, and that's worth a lot.

AE: In your “Who Gets To Ride?” section, you get to the heart of why women make only 24% of bicycle trips in the U.S. You acknowledge that many women in the U.S. are low-income and that, on average, we still earn 77 cents for every man’s dollar, there’s a hiring bias against mothers and pregnant women, and we have a higher burden of unpaid labor – daily housework, errands, childrearing, and caring for elderly relatives. And then you brilliantly illustrate how this affects our transportation: “These kinds of responsibilities add up to more complicated transportation needs. Women make more trips than men, with diverse kinds of trips chained together. And twice as many trips are at the service of passengers – the school drop-off, soccer practice, and the play date wedged in there between the grocery run and commute to work.” You conclude that we can reach more bicycling equity if we reach more economic and social equity and if cities improve bike infrastructure. Given that city planners and engineers are – let’s face it – mostly middle-class white men who aren’t bike commuters, how can low-income women and mothers better get our needs met?

EB: I love this question, but there is no one answer. The first thing is to speak up and always keep your vision in mind. Maybe this means finding a cargo bike solution. Maybe it means renegotiating household duties within your family. Maybe it means working with your workplace or the local school to be more bike friendly, or working at the level of city government to fix a dangerous street crossing on your route to the store. On a more macro level, well, why don't we have an ERA? Why don't we have paternity leave in this country? Why aren't we funding education and incentivizing neighborhood schools that kids can walk to? There is plenty to be done. But the burden for doing it should not be entirely on the under served. I do think it's important for decision makers and activists to be aware of the privileges that might subconsciously inform their priorities and to actively seek out and listen to the perspectives of the people they're looking to serve.

AE: What do you think the bike movement in general needs to do better?

EB: The bike movement is used to being quite marginal, and I think it can be quite difficult for advocates and activists who have been working tirelessly for years at a seemingly impossible dream to suddenly have to shift gears and deal with success. We're a bit too used to asking for small, incremental changes, not stepping on anyone's toes. The time has come to dream big. That also means spending big, unfortunately, because we are up against some seriously wealthy, and scared, industries.

AE: What do you think is going well in the U.S. bike-wise?

EB: The movement is on fire. There is so much interest and momentum it really seems unstoppable. Besides being economical, healthy, and fun, bikes are a way for regular people to engage civically without wandering into political quagmires. It's something we can agree on across party lines. How rare is that?

April Economides is the principal of Green Octopus Consulting. She created the nation’s first bike-friendly business district program for the City of Long Beach in partnership with four business districts, as well as “Bike Saturdays” – the largest citywide discount program for bicyclists in the nation. She gives talks and develops bike-friendly business district plans throughout the U.S.