On Bikes & Elections: A Conversation with Joel Solomon

"I think activist is the word I used," he wrote me.

Photo credit:  Zack Embree

Photo credit: Zack Embree

The word in question comes right before the phrase, “mayor and council”.

It came from a recording of my conversation with the person who said it — Joel Solomon, Chairman of Vancouver-based Renewal Funds, and author of the book The Clean Money Revolution.

Over the past forty-plus years, he has also been a leader in progressive public policy-making and values-based, social enterprise, both in the US and Canada.

And of course, he’s also a Vision Vancouver supporter, and a friend of Mayor Gregor Robertson from his days as an entrepreneur and MLA, something for which Solomon is often the target of partisan vitriol.

So, when I thought I heard “activist mayor and council”,  I listened to it again. And again. I listened many times, until I thought, “maybe he said ‘active as’. In fact...yeah. More likely."

Because attributing a decade’s worth of decisions, investments and projects — many of which have shaped this city and how people move within it — to activism is a fairly ballsy statement about our elected officials. Not just the mayor, but the Vision party members elected to public office, beginning with the 2008 municipal election.

Especially with the way the word ‘activist’ is used today.

But the point was not to give him an out, because, Van Bikes is meant first and foremost as a forensic exercise in memory, storytelling, and authentic first-person opinion.

I’m not in a studio, I’m out in the wild — coffee shops, patios, park benches and, once, a beautiful boardwalk in Tsawwassen First Nation, overlooking the Salish Sea.

There’s always background noise, like wind, the clatter of dishes, over-talking, and motor vehicle traffic. Then there’s plain ol’ imperfect enunciation. Sometimes even a few jammed bytes of digital recording, like a mottled stretch of tape from days of old.

So the occasional word spoken by my subjects are never clear, no matter how many times I play them back.

(I mark them 'unintelligible' so they’re easy to search later. Over 80 recorded interviews, there have been some unfortunate unintelligibles, my own little basket of deplorables.)

In those cases, either I avoid the sentence if I can, or mark it for future follow-up. “What do you think you said?”

So I gave Joel those two choices. ‘Active’, or ‘activist’.

Hell, the man is from Tennessee originally. Canadian is his second language.

But let’s come back to what he said, and what he meant, later. On cycling in Vancouver, Joel’s main message is clear:

The bike story here is unbelievable. That Vancouver is now one of the top cities in North America for protected bike lanes.

The actual substance of what has happened is pretty dramatic. Public perceptions and attacks by other people is a whole other interesting part of the story.

A 25-year Vancouver resident, Joel is now quite well-versed in how those perceptions are not just part of the bike story, but part of the story of politics in this city.

A story perhaps unmatched by any in Canada over the past generation. Except maybe Montreal. Oh yeah, and Toronto.

It’s Vancouver, where bombs are lobbed at those aligning themselves with a progressive transportation agenda, led by a bike-riding mayor. ("It didn't stop him, he just went bigger. Burrard Bridge is finished. Now Cambie Bridge. Granville Street Bridge will be next.")

It’s Vancouver, where three successive election losses have done nothing to convince candidates to stop threatening to undo ten years and millions of dollars of infrastructure upgrades and improvements ("Try taking out the Point Grey bike lane. Take out Arbutus. Put Burrard Bridge back. Rip out one or two bike lanes so you can show that you stuck it to them. Good luck — see how it goes for you.")

Joel Solomon and Dana Bass Solomon on  Mobi  bikes in Vancouver's Strathcona neighbourhood. Photo credit: Kateland Abbigail Clarke.

Joel Solomon and Dana Bass Solomon on Mobi bikes in Vancouver's Strathcona neighbourhood. Photo credit: Kateland Abbigail Clarke.

He’s a guy who has put in decades of brutally hard work to support and advance progressive policies in the public and private sectors in both countries, and faced his own mortality early in life.

He’s seen and learned a lot. So it’s telling that he doesn’t think bike-related improvements will end up hanging like a noose around the Vision party’s neck in the fall.

I'm telling you, it's not going to be. It's too popular. It's mainstream. People travel here to see what's happened.

They believed in it, and they understood what it did to change the city, and for the positive.

He sees groups like HUB Cycling — so often targeted as the cycling lapdog (or is it attack dog?) of the Vision party — as essential to the process, but in a way that might surprise some of the advocates themselves.

Think of the soldier in an action film yelling, "Cover me!" Then, leading the A-team into the line of fire. The troops in the back spray bullets ahead into the front. They're not actually trying to beat the enemy right then and there. They're simply holding off opposing fire, so the A-team can advance further into enemy territory.

No-one would have said, “Oh, the advocacy sector's got it now”.

Because they weren't getting much. It was painted strips on the road. They can't move the city budget. They can't move the bureaucracy.

What politicians need is bigger thinking. Set the bar so they've got some protection. Come up with an even more comprehensive plan that's so aspirational, Gregor can't keep up with it.

Set the bar further out there, then there's room to handle lots of different constituencies, to move forward. On any issue.

And don't beat him up over it.

Cover fire - it’s as much a part of the long game as the dancing the dance within city hall.

It’s also the smart game. Some in advocacy get this. Sometimes it takes years to learn.

But hey, when you have progressive politicians who can move the budgets and bureaucracies, does it really matter if they get beat up a little? Even from those in the centre? Even the left?

It’s an important point, one where I begin to realize that the real story is not about bikes, pro or con. It’s about all the issues being fought by splinter groups of constituents. It’s like the bike issue, but times ten.

And it's the real reason why progressives like those in Vision are stepping very carefully into this election cycle.

The perfect is the enemy of the good. It's perpetual in politics and public policy, and the public sector — if somebody actually goes and does stuff, then there's something to criticize. "Not good enough.”

If everybody's not doing anything, then you're all unified and we all rally against the man. Once somebody is actually doing it, then you get all the revisits and interpretations.

Everybody's got opinions. Progressives have the most opinions, on every progressive issue, and do not get aligned very well around anything that has power infrastructure to it. That's just a classic everywhere, in every context.

The key is — split progressives and you elect right wing. Donald Trump is president because of that. Stephen Harper was prime minister because of that.

People should worry that if progressives create four political parties, the right wing is going to own the city.

All he needs to do is rhyme off the cold hard facts of the 2016 by-election in Vancouver, to replace Geoff Meggs' vacant Council seat.

Almost 70% of the votes cast went to left-leaning independent or partisan candidates. But Hector Bremner of the right-leaning Non-Partisan Association (NPA) won the seat.

The lesson?

A coalition needs to happen. That's how humans are, that's how things get done.

That's part of how history happens.

And when I ask him if it's going to be a busy spring getting progressives under one tent...?

We hope. I hope. It's going to take a lot.

What it might take is a united, progressive, activist left.

Joel knows what that word means because he is one — an activist. Someone who campaigns for political and social change, not just for soundbites, but because they aim to achieve it.

So even before he emails me the clarification, I wonder if he used the word purposefully, something he picked up like a rock from the ocean a long time ago, polishing it for future use.

Maybe to draw out a response. “Aha,” a conservative might say, “You see? Activists in city hall!”

Whatever the reason, he used it to refer to the list of issues, like bikes, that the Vision party took on.

Here’s the full quote. You decide if it was the right word to use.

The last ten years has seen a massive, municipal effort that is hard to find anywhere else, particularly in Canada.

People are not this activist as mayor and council. It just doesn't happen.

And the list is like this. [holds hands a few feet apart]