Editor’s note: On November 30, 2018, Arno Schortinghuis passed away unexpectedly, the only way a person as canny and strong-willed as Arno could be taken. This post has been updated.
Most people thought Arno was on Vancouver's bike scene forever.
The fact that in his last few decades he resembled Father Time might be a contributing factor. He did, in fact, play Santa Claus at Christmas parties held jointly by HUB Cycling and B.E.S.T., but honestly it’s not the point.
The point is Arno seemed to know it all — the Lower Mainland’s best and worst cycling routes, the jurisdictional authorities for possibly every square metre of land in the region, the various committees and individual activists in every municipality, and the political players. And they all knew Arno.
The only thing I knew, however, during my first few months as HUB staff, was what I didn’t know.
That the depth and complexity of the cycling community was based on history and people more than the geography and infrastructure, none of which or whom had ever passed through my consciousness.
And Arno was one of the first people I spoke to at length about said history and people. We sat in a Whole Foods one evening not long after my first exposure to Arno Claus (Heritage Hall, November 2013 — good times), and he rhymed off names that carried weight and authority that I wouldn’t truly understand for a few more years: Marion Orser, Helen Cook, Danelle Laidlaw, Jack Becker, Gavin Davidson, Amy Walker. Talk to them, he said. You’ll see.
But in the end, I had to also talk to Arno.
He was my first interview for Van Bikes. In the first few moments of our interview in the spring of 2017 at Hillcrest Community Centre, he described the cycling advocacy movement:
It’s two parts. It’s encouraging the decision-makers to do way more to make cycling an everyday, safe, convenient activity. Getting the decision-makers on board — that’s probably the most important.
The other is getting the public on-board — encouraging them to cycle more and accept cycling as a real mode of transportation. Some of the people who drive a lot and don’t cycle have a very negative opinion of cycling.
We have to get over that because the politicians aren’t going to act unless the public is on-side as well.
Over the past decade, Arno put most of his waking life (or so it seemed) to advocating for and promoting cycling safety, accessibility, urban commuting and touring — to decision-makers, planning and engineering staff at all levels of government, in meetings, at public events, and across all forms of media — always with a characteristic twinkle in his eye.
He was always the person to check a fact, look up legislation, debunk fake news, gently put down a troll, appear on-camera, help make quorum, start a new committee, and store (and haul out) the extra bus bike rack for a demonstration at a Surrey library. Arno was that guy.
He could also be critical of the slow pace and limited vision inherent in many government-led infrastructure planning and development processes. It can (and perhaps always has been) achingly slow. It can be exasperating. Arno, no less than anyone, was unfailingly critical and suffered no fools gladly.
But again — the smile, the twinkle, the offer to go for a beer after and talk it out…his approach was always kind. And his grip on reality quite strong.
If you had told me 10 years ago that 10% of commute trips by Vancouver residents would be by bike, I would have said you were crazy. But that’s happened.
And you know, I’m an eternal optimist, I think we can get 10% in BC very quickly, if the government is committed to that. And all it costs is a few billion dollars.
I mean, we'll spend $3.5 billion on this proposed Massey replacement bridge. That’s just one bridge, that’s one kilometre? Maybe?
We’re talking thousands of kilometres, throughout British Columbia, for less than that.
So back to Father Time. Despite common lore, Arno did not help start HUB Cycling, formerly the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition. (Upon hearing so many people tell me how they remember Arno having worked in cycling advocacy in the 1990s, I subsequently asked him about it at least two more times. Fine, it was usually over a couple of beers, but he stuck to the story…)
He did get involved in the 1990s, but not formally through B.E.S.T. or VACC. It was, fittingly, as an individual upset about a local issue — equitable access.
The first time I got involved and thinking about advocacy was when they started rolling out the residential bike routes.
They wanted to put in the 37th Avenue Ridgeway Greenway, and as part of this project they were going to close off the section of 37th Avenue at Mountain View Cemetery to motor vehicle traffic.
And there was one woman who had a disabled son, and that was her route to drive him to John Oliver High School. She was so incensed that this road was going to be closed down that she got one of the councillors to support her on it, and demand that this crazy idea not proceed.
So I actually signed up, it was the first time I had ever spoken to council. But I was determined to speak my voice.
Arno began to dip more regularly into cycling issues and projects into the early 2000s, and given his ready smile and easy countenance, conversations soon became collaborations. In the early 2000s, he joined the Board of the VACC, becoming President and establishing and chairing several committees across the region, as the organization evolved into HUB Cycling. He eventually became a founding Board member with Canada Bikes, and most recently was a Board member and President of the BC Cycling Coalition.
During our conversation in 2017, we talked about some of the early issues that ignited Arno's advocacy, such as the Cambie Canada Line Bridge pedestrian and cycling bridge, and the challenges of cycling between Vancouver and its municipal neighbours. In more recent years, Arno’s pet peeves were of the macro variety, most prominently perhaps the failure of local governments to adequately fund cycling, especially in comparison to other modes growing more slowly, with greater costs to society.
Another bugaboo for Arno was the proposed Massey Tunnel replacement bridge project between Richmond and Delta, which would have sucked billions of provincial transportation dollars into a mega-project that would only, in his view (but shared by many) create a larger congestion problem, more lost productivity, and worse population health outcomes, for the entire region.
One of Arno’s final satisfactions would have been the news, in his final week, that this project was scrubbed. Good riddance, he likely said to someone.
And that both the bridge project and Arno would leave us in the same week...well, one was much beloved, and helped connect Delta and Richmond to better outcomes for cycling. The other would have been some some dumb bridge.
Ultimately, Arno had a great ability to cut through all the noise and cross-chatter about bike-related controversies and hype, and address some of the true barriers to cycling growth.
People in the business community see their parking disappearing, see maybe a lane of traffic disappearing, and they think it’s going to be bad for business.
They don’t focus on the positive — there’s going to be a lot more people going past your shop. And these people are going slower, and they’re more likely to stop.
You can tell them that, and that in other jurisdictions there’s been no issue, but they don’t buy it. "In my case, it’s different, and I’m going to lose business, and I’m scared.”
He knew that for some people, promoting cycling comes across as disruptive childishness, a challenge to progress, even a threat against the right to own a car.
But Arno had a way. Listening to him, you would hear someone simply describing what he sees in society. And that what he sees reflects reality, that the way it’s governed, planned and constructed today does not meet everyone's needs.
Arno knew it wouldn’t be that hard to fix it, for he had seen it done in Europe. There are ways we can fit it. It will all be okay if we look at the data, listen to what people want, think of the world we want to live it, and apply political will to get it done.
Arno was determined to speak his voice. Everyone who knew him were better for having heard it. He will be missed.