Most people think Arno has been on Vancouver's bike scene forever. I don't think it's because he looks like Father Time, but it might be a contributing factor.
My first month working for HUB was around Christmas, and the party was a packed affair at Vancouver's Heritage Hall. I didn't fully appreciate the shared history of these two organizations at that early juncture - their impacts on active transportation in Vancouver (and Canada, for that matter) - nor the people in the hall.
I did know, though, what I didn't know. That the cycling community was deep and complex, and that I needed to talk to a lot of people to start to get enough sense of it to speak for it (I was the new marketing and communications lead for HUB, which had relatively recently re-branded, from being the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition, or VACC). Arno was one of the first people I spoke to at length.
Arno was also my first interview for the Van Bikes project, and in his the first few moments of our interview this spring, at Hillcrest Community Centre, not far from both our homes, he addressed the two faces of 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 one is getting the public on-board. Encouraging them to cycle more and accept cycling as a real mode of transportation. People who drive a lot and don’t cycle, some of them have a very negative opinion of cycling. We have to get over that as well, because the politicians aren’t going to act unless the public is on-side as well.
Over the past decade or so, Arno has put most of his waking life (or so it seems) to advocating to decision-makers, from all levels of government, and staff functions in planning and engineering, to promoting cycling safety, accessibility, urban commuting and touring — at public events and for all forms of media — with a characteristic twinkle in his eye.
Arno can be critical of the slow pace and limited vision inherent in government-led infrastructure planning and development. But his approach is always kind, as well as a relentless grip on the facts.
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 really optimistic. 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?
And we’re talking thousands of kilometres, throughout British Columbia, for less than that.
When I worked at HUB, Arno was the go-to person for a variety of topics - bikes on transit, working with First Nations, health-related campaigns, cycling on bridges, even some engineering standards. And Richmond, Delta - Arno knew the best cycling routes in huge swatches of land across the Lower Mainland.
His involvement, however, started with a local issue around accessibility.
The first time I got involved and thinking about advocacy was when they started rolling out the residential bike routes. It was early 2000s I think. [Ed. note: The proposed project went through Council submission and debate in 1996/97.]
And then they wanted to put in the 37th Avenue Ridgeway Greenway. As part of this project they were going to close off the section of 37th Ave 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, the 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. He's been a Board member with the VACC, founding Board member with Canada Bikes, and today is President of the BC Cycling Coalition.
We talked about some of the early issues that ignited Arno's advocacy (the Cambie Canada Line Bridge pedestrian and cycling bridge, cycling access between Vancouver and the North Shore), and a few of the topics Arno feels strongly about today (the proposed Massey Tunnel replacement bridge project between Richmond and Delta, the failure of local governments to adequately fund the fastest-growing mode of transportation).
One can eventually get used to Arno's grasp of transportation planning principles, and forget the classic reasoning that underlies his quiet leadership - his ability to cut through all the noise and speak to the everyday barriers to cycling growth.
People in the business community, they see their parking disappearing, they see maybe a lane of traffic disappearing, and they think they’re going to lose business. They think it’s going to be bad for business.
They don’t focus on the positive, which is 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 that. "In my case, it’s different, and I’m going to lose business, and I’m scared.”
From some people, the argument for cycling comes across as a challenge, obstinance, even ridicule for being in a car.
You listen to someone like Arno, and instead you hear what sounds like an accurate description of our society. It's not meeting everyone's needs. There are ways we can fit it. And it will be OK.
Arno's determined to speak his voice. You might as well listen.