The Bicycle People: Bring Yer Gas Mask
Critical Mass poster.png

In the late 1980s in Vancouver, a small group of students active in the environmental movement — many of them affiliated with The Western Canada Wilderness Committee (as it was known at the time) — began to identify a new kind of threat, one closer to home than whales and forests, or “big things, far away”.

They began to identify themselves as a subculture people concerned about bicycles, and their place on the streets. And they sought out connections with others of like mind.

  Glossary of who’s who.

Glossary of who’s who.

Richard Campbell

I spent a couple of years in my twenties in Richmond, sitting around and thinking, without doing anything.

There wasn't really much going on for cycling back then.

Nelson McLachlan

In Richmond there was no infrastructure. On Bridgeport Road, No. 3 Road, there were big, giant ditches that were like canals, they would suck up cars.

But it was like, “Eh, I'm going.” I was just in it.

Ken Wuschke

By that point, I think Richmond had put bike lanes at Garden City and Granville. That was it.

Nelson McLachlan

I was always riding into Vancouver, as a teenager, before I got my driver's license. Granville Street at that time didn't even have paved sidewalks. It was just a gravel path on the side of Granville Street. Seriously, they did not have paved sidewalks. Granville or Oak Street.

Mark Roseland

It's funny because there was literally no, zero, bicycle infrastructure in Vancouver at that time. You just took your life into your own hands if you were out there on the streets.

Richard Campbell

There was the BC Parkway, which was good at the time, but there wasn't any of the bikeway network. There was a bit of path around False Creek but it didn't connect yet.

Paul Bogaert

It was more apparent that Victoria was working on bike facilities and Vancouver wasn't. If you were aware enough as a cyclist you often would use secondary streets. I would go down Adanac from near Boundary Road to Garden. Garden is parallel to Nanaimo, one block west. And then Garden to 7th Avenue, 7th to Victoria, and then 10th. That was my commute. You tried to pick flatter, quieter streets with easier crossings. I used Adanac a lot.

I remember years before 10th was a bike route I actually thought it would be a bad idea to turn it into a bike route without restricting car access. Usually they remove some stop signs and then more car drivers use it too — not the best development.

Richard Campbell

People were starting to poke around in the back routes. That's what I was doing.

Ken Wushcke

A lot of people don't realize that Kingsway is bordered by two back lanes almost continuously for its whole length. I'd do that, rather than being on Kingsway. I pretty well figured out a lot of roads that became bike routes in Vancouver and Burnaby on my own.

Richard Campbell

So there weren't a lot of people cycling around the city. Back then, when you saw another cyclist on the road, it was like, “Hey, hi — how's it going?”

Chris Keam

If you saw somebody out bike commuting, you probably knew them because it felt like there were 10 of us out there. Or they were the person you that you passed every day and you gave them the ‘Harley Davidson wave’, because you're like, “Oh yeah, here we are, out here together.”

At that time I was working at Metrotown, and I would ride from Kitsilano up Kingsway because it was a bit faster than taking the 7-11 trail. And it was against traffic, so it wasn't too bad. There was parking going that way, so you sort of had that little shadow lane in the parking.

But it was loud and it was still scary. People were not super kind to cyclists.

Tamim Raad

I came here in 1989, just as that wave of immigration was starting to happen after Expo ‘86, the lead-up to the Hong Kong going back to China. That was a big transformative time — Expo lands. Vancouver was really starting to kind of explode up.

I rode my bike most places. I took the bus a little bit. I didn't have a car. I was very aware of how difficult it was to ride your bike around the city. My first experience riding my bike in a lot of traffic with road conflict and aggression was here in Vancouver.

Rob Wynen

One of my first experiences in Vancouver was riding over the Lions Gate Bridge. “Hey, I'm a good cyclist, I'm supposed to ride on the road right?” So I rode on the road. Well, I didn't do that a second time, because at the other end they were almost ready to pillory me.

Paul Bogaert

There wasn't really a lot going on for bike advocacy. There may have been more going on than I recall now. Later it became more obvious.

I opened up a shop under the Broadway Skytrain Station called Broadway Station Bikes. And there I met quite a few people that I still know now. Gavin bought a bike from me there. That would be 1989 or '90.

Richard Campbell

I was getting concerned about the environment — the wave of environmental concern back then, around climate change and everything else.

I decided to get involved. I connected with the Wilderness Committee — just volunteer stuff, helping out in the mailroom, stuff like that.

Through the Wilderness Committee, I connected to other folks that were interested in cycling.

Andy Telfer

The first environmental group I ever joined was Friends of Clayoquot Sound; I went to a rep theatre while living in Toronto, picked up one of those newsprint flyers, and thought, “This is crazy.” I didn't know much about anything else.

Rita Koutsodimos

There was just this growing environmental awareness with Clayoquot Sound and the forest activism that was happening at the time. In the early '90s, the environmental movement was just wide awake.

Guy Wera

At that time I was teaching bicycle mechanics to grade eight and grade nine at Kits high school. I used to go there once a week and teach bicycle support and talk politics, talk about the revolution, the ‘velorution’, and stuff like that.

A lot of those kids ended up on the front line at Clayoquot, because they followed me there; some of them nearly ended up in jail, but they were too young. If you see pictures of Clayoquot, there's me, and I remember Richard Campbell came. We were in the same bus.

The Wilderness Committee was really a wonderful learning place for a lot of us.

Andy Telfer

I became a member, and when I was in Vancouver, I said, “Let's go see what this place is all about.”

I walked in the door, and they said, "Do you want to volunteer?" So I volunteered, and started meeting a bunch of people. I think I met Gavin there; I definitely met Richard there.

Gavin Davidson

I was just finishing at BCIT, and I started as their Recycling Coordinator. I had friends who were at SFU, and there was another friend who was up at UBC. So we were riding all around, from Burnaby to the west side of Vancouver.

We weren't involved in activism at that time, but we were sitting around chatting, a bunch of university friends, and we realized that, over the course of six months, four or five out of the group of eight that were there in the room had been involved in near-misses while riding a bike, that could have cost us our lives.

And all of us were remarking on the fact, and realizing that, “Wow, it's very dangerous out there, riding our bikes. Something's gotta be done, because somebody's going to die soon, or get seriously injured.”

From that moment, we were sitting there, we're all like, “Okay, let's do something.” It was during that time that we established a group that we called The Bicycle People.

Andy Telfer

We probably started calling ourselves The Bicycle People when we were creating a poster once, to get people to come on one of our rides. At first it was, let's ride here, and let's ride there. And then it's like, well, who's organizing this? And so we thought, we're just bicycle people. That's all. And somebody put the word "The" in front of it.

We called ourselves The Bicycle People because we were just a bunch of people who rode bikes. And we got together and we thought it needs to be better for people who ride bikes. It really does. Because it was awful.

And so one of our posters ended up saying, “The Bicycle People are going to ride across the Lions Gate Bridge,” or whatever bridge, or wherever it happened to be. It's funny — I do remember it evolving almost organically that way.

I'm sure we're not the only movement that was created out of the Wilderness Committee. You have to give Paul George and Adriane Carr a lot of credit for creating an incubator for people who thought along those lines. But I loved the activism. I do understand.

Richard Campbell

It was more of a grassroots community. I probably was aware of Cycling BC, and that they were doing something, but at that point they had kind of stepped away from advocacy. And if they were doing advocacy, it was a different type. They were like, “Oh, you know, let's just try and share a lane on the road,” or something like that, and “All you need is education.”

I'm not sure if I had too much awareness of what they were doing. There was a recognition that more needs to be done.

I think there was a Bicycle People ride sometime in probably 1990. So I showed up for that.

There was like 100, 150 people. We rode around with gas masks. There was Gavin, and a few other folks there. Guy Wera was probably there.

Guy Wera

I think I met them on the first ride that Gavin and some of his friends who organized it. But I was at the first ride when they did the ride for clean air. We went to an army surplus and bought the old second world war gas masks. We put those on and started riding around the downtown core, and yelling out for clean air. That was very new for me.

I felt a kinship that was really interesting, that was fun. I fell in love with everybody right away, and it was wonderful. It was a really nice experience. It was a real high for me at the time, because I was finally meeting people that were concerned about the same thing as I was.

Andy Telfer

That's definitely pre-naming, because I remember having one of those. It's like a World War I gas mask. I think we got it at that army surplus shop on Broadway close to Commercial. It eventually got chucked on one of my moves — like, how many times are you going to wear that thing? Anyway, that was a statement, and I think a powerful image for people to see.

I do remember it being on that first ride, where we started on Commercial Drive, went down Venables, went onto the viaduct right into downtown. I can't remember where we ended, maybe the Art Gallery.

It was pretty scary. Oh my god, I have serious memories of actual vehicles that I remember in my mind, being behind us, honking horns. I'm just there, I'm in the second row, next to the traffic, just going along at my speed, doing my thing.

As a group, we could have gone faster if we had rehearsed, but twelve people have never really done that before together. You have to go at a fairly moderate speed, because you don't really know each other's abilities.

Paul Bogaert

I had started a second store called Bike Doctor on Hastings Street, and someone came and asked me to support an event at Stanley Park that The Bicycle People were putting on. And that's how my involvement started.

Gavin Davidson

And so we started doing rides. We never called it Critical Mass. Critical Mass didn't exist until '94. But it was very much like that.

There was Tim Howard and Richard Campbell and myself and a bunch of other folks who were sort of helping to organize these. Honestly, it was just phoning friends.

Guy Wera

I never learned to write very well, so I didn't do anything that required writing. I was more on the action side. I was on the ground, passing pamphlets, getting people involved, networking, getting people to come out for rides and stuff. Telling people the importance of the rides.

Andy Telfer

It was a very loose group. We’d put out feelers. We'd be in a meeting or at a house, and talking about something. “Hey, does anybody want to help us do this ride?" And whoever showed up, showed up. And that's who organized the ride, and then we put up hand-written posters.

We knew there were people who wanted to ride their bikes but couldn't, because there just wasn't the facility for it to happen on the streets.

Really, that's why we called ourselves The Bicycle People. Because we're here. There are a lot of us who are riding, and more who want to ride.

Gavin Davidson

The word would get out that way. Some of the earlier rides was as few as 40, or so. Some of the bigger ones, especially when it was a high priority issue, quite a number of people would get activated by that and take part.

Even before the advent of the Internet, things were going on in parallel. Simultaneous innovation of people reaching the same conclusions, doing similar things. It's just like the level of consciousness rising to a particular level, and things start to happen in that manner.

We were aware of some of the really challenging issues back then. Burrard Street Bridge was a big issue, the Lion's Gate Bridge was a big issue. And so we started to focus on those big issues, and try and encourage the city to take action.

Steve Kisby would help with sending out a press release, and we would get in the local media. For a few of those rides, we had over 200 people. So we rode slowly over the Lions Gate Bridge, 200 people — there's photographs from those events.

Guy Wera

What gave The Bicycle People a reputation, but also a bad reputation, was saying phrases like, “The Bicycle People will block the road on such a day,” and “The Bicycle People will take over the street.”

I was in tune with tree huggers, and one of them was advising me on how to do press releases, and how to get the press to talk about what we were doing. So he was writing my press releases, and he used to bring out all these aggressive words that The Bicycle People were going to take over the world, and stuff like that. Make all cars go rotten, and stuff like that.

Richard Campbell

It was a protest movement. We wanted to get people together and making a statement, “Hey, we've got some problems out there. We've got pollution, we have climate change” — that was part of the big focus.

People would come to the rallies wearing gas masks. Some of it was certainly that there's too many cars around — “We need alternatives, it's not safe out there for cycling.” To make a statement that change needs to happen.

We got media coverage. When you'd ride around you did get a lot of support from people just walking along the street. They'd kind of wave and say hi, stuff like that. Traffic in rush hour — there would be some tense moments.

Nothing really serious happened, I don't think. It wasn't an everyday thing, either.

We would pick a particular issue, like the Lions Gate, or Burrard Bridge.

Guy Wera

Bike racks on buses was a Bicycle People thing on Burrard Bridge — that was way back in ‘92. We're the ones that put the whole thing on the agenda. We had put in a petition to city hall for a bike lane on Burrard. And while I was doing the campaign, I used to get up at seven o'clock in the morning and be there on Burrard Bridge a lot of mornings a week. I was an ongoing presence.

I needed letters of support, and [David] Suzuki was very supportive of Bicycle People issues. That's between me and him. At that time I had some help from a few friends to do a petition. Lee helped me on a whole lot of things — she did a lot of petition signing with the Bicycle People. And when it was just me, she ended up supporting everything I was doing.

We got the petition in on the Burrard Bridge issue, and then we got another petition in for bike racks on buses. The reason we couldn't get bike racks on buses was because the unions were fighting back for rights for the drivers, and they were saying that it would be too much work for the drivers. The union had a big go at stopping that from happening.

At that time, I was an active member of the BCEN, the BC Environmental Network. At our annual conference, we invited the other union workers — the United Auto Workers came out as wanting to be more environmental, and being more green. So they came to the BCEN meeting, and that's when we managed to get through to the unions that they're the ones who are stopping very important environmental issues, because they're slowing down the process of getting bike racks on buses.

And that whole thing finally pulled through shortly after that. So I'm not sure if there's a link there, but I remember that those events kind of followed suit. And we did a lot of brainstorming on how to change these things.

 Cassiar Tunnel, January 1992.

Cassiar Tunnel, January 1992.

Richard Campbell

The opening of the Cassiar Connector was probably the first time we actually had a measurable impact. They didn't improve the bridge much for cycling, nor the access to the bridge. We were kind of late to the game, so I don't think we were very involved in the process leading up to it. Although we might have made some comments, or Cycling BC might have made some comments.

It was a missed opportunity. The Minister of Transportation would have been Art Charbonneau, when the NDP was in power.

You've seen access to the bridge, and it's really quite horrible. Arguably it was made worse. I think they added the barriers a couple of years later. Back then you'd be cycling over the bridge, there's be no barrier between you and the traffic, and it was really quite nasty. And portions of it still are.

They were having the opening ceremony, and it was in the tunnel. We had managed to rally around 70 people on bikes out there. When the Minister started speaking, everyone started ringing their bells kind of spontaneously. While he was speaking. And it was in the middle of the tunnel.

All of a sudden, I was surrounded by ten cameras. I didn't remember anything I said. I had talked to the media before, but then it would have been one or two cameras. It wasn't like a boom, the media all of a sudden around me — it would have been the first time it was that intense. After that there was a policy on every new bridge that they would do something for cycling. And I think that was a direct result of that.

Nelson McLachlan

Those guys used to sit with me on the Bicycle Advisory Committee. They were great to work with — Richard Campbell, Gavin Davidson.

But they wanted to do other levels of advocacy that we just couldn't do within our structure. We had the political support, and we had the staff interest now, but I could only do so much. So that's when they went out and started these other organizations. And so that was wonderful, because we became this really amazing training ground.

To me, there needs to be some dissent in there. But we didn't endorse or condone from the Bicycle Advisory Committee. It wasn't our role to say yes or no. But I thought, “Good, thanks guys.” Oh yeah. Big time.

Guy Wera

I think because we were doing protests, Cycling BC never wanted to be involved with us. We were really trying to push the agenda hard.

Danelle Laidlaw

The Bicycle People were doing kind of radical things. Blocking roads, before it was called Critical Mass.

And I couldn't be involved in that, because I was working — and to tell you the truth, I didn't really agree with it. I thought, “We need allies. People who cycle are not going this stuff done — we need allies who are going to help us, and all you're doing is pissing off motorists. Motorists are going to be your allies.”

Paul Bogaert

I just liked the idea of supporting this group and improving cycling. I was making signs and going to meetings and hanging out and socializing and stuff. I had some resources and I could help out. But mostly it was with time.

I was able to help out a little bit with business plan advice, as people made pitches for grant money and applied to set up things. I had some experience with that so I could be a source of some information. Also I could provide a letter of reference and support from a business that would be helpful in the grant.

At the time, it wasn’t really about promoting the business; it was more about, “I really want to help fix the city and fix cycling for us.”