One of the more publicly visible advocates in Metro Vancouver over the past decade as part of her role as Executive Director of HUB Cycling, Erin grew up in the Tri-Cities region.
She experienced both sides of suburban life — high density row homes (“we would play ping-pong in the street, and we could walk to the movie theatre”), and then a single family home:
We lost a lot of that. Super car-oriented cul-de-sacs, which is how I came to hate the suburban physical form, and wanted to really leave it.
I didn't feel a sense of real belonging, felt quite socially disconnected. I had good friends from high school, but they didn't live near me. You had to drive to their house to see them. We didn't connect with our neighbours.
Although Erin is only about a decade or so younger than me, the evolution of her world view is closer to that which I believe my kids will adopt, than that which I stood behind at a similar age and stage.
Not that I was on the opposite end of the spectrum, but I didn't yet feel as strongly about urban, social or global issues, like the environment. It wasn't in our faces then.
The world has changed that much more radically within the past generation. From 24 channels to 200 channels. From reading about Thomas Malthus to hearing it straight from Al Gore. From trustworthy news anchors and teachers, to the Internet and post-truth politics.
It was in this time of transition that the activist movement began to refine its principles and tactics, using knowledge of the world and sensitivity to imbalance and inequity, plus an understanding of how to use messaging and media, to engage youth.
Activist movements found their voices and their people, becoming potent forces for bringing about change that could, and eventually would, mainstream and transform society.
Thus, if you believe Erin’s experience is representative of the entire Millennial experience, and if you think the NDP-Green alliance in the BC legislature is at all meaningful, it's also reasonable to acknowledge the success of '90s activism.
The Wall Street mantra "greed is good" may still exist, but fewer and fewer young people now find this to be an acceptable pursuit in life.
Right after high school, I started traveling annually abroad, starting with Europe and then going later to Africa and India.
Different places and seeing, wow we're an incredibly wasteful society, and this could spell real disaster if we keep up this pace. How can I be part of making this better?
I had kind of started seeing, once I was realizing I want to get more into sustainability and health, that cycling really hits all of those points.
There were a few obvious signs that Erin could make a difference, helping link active transportation policies with on-the-ground implementation, especially in places like her old suburban stomping grounds. Such as the portion of the Central Valley Greenway between the then-newly constructed Port Mann Bridge and New Westminster.
I tried to cycle along Lougheed, which Translink designated as a bike route on a map, and just thought it was the end of my days. I didn't do that too many times, and just thought, "that's crazy, there's no real alternative for me to take. How could that possibly be?"
So when I saw this job at the VACC, I was like great, this is going to tie into that.
I'll just do this part-time as I finish my Masters and then I'll probably become a city planner, or something like that.
Something like that. Instead, VACC (the forerunner to HUB Cycling) began to take on funding and create full-time staff positions. Erin quickly carved out roles for herself managing Bike to Work Week, developing new programs like Bike to Shop, and eventually taking over as Executive Director once the position was available.
She has been at the helm for six-plus years, during some massive transformations in the city’s infrastructure network, but also culturally.
The downtown protected bike lanes I think were a real tipping point. That was their big leap of faith, I think, city council taking that political capital and spending it on that.
A big point of conversation was, well why don't you just do one? Why don't you just do Dunsmuir and then wait and see?
But they understood that you have to do the north-south and east-west to make the connection.
You can't just build a piece of infrastructure that doesn't really take you where you want to go. You have to connect a network.
While many of her peers went on to become planners, Erin’s understanding of the planning discipline may have helped her to better understand what buttons to push, and when to engage the city in 'better, faster, more’ conversations.
Or perhaps it just gave her the patience to wait out the occasionally interminable processes behind enacting real change. Because it did happen, and in a big way.
Things started speeding up. Staff then felt that much more empowered, and they were already cycling champions. Many of the City of Vancouver staff cycle themselves, and they get it.
They want to do more. Since then you've had Union Street, you've had Burrard and Cornwall, Point Grey, and now Burrard and Pacific as well. You're starting to really see the linkages.
Not just token pieces, which you'll still see happening in the suburbs, where they'll say, "Great we got a grant to do this half kilometre bike lane”…that doesn't connect to anything else.
Because I worked quite closely with Erin, I am biased enough to feel like any attempt to neatly sum up her role as lead advocate for such an influential organization will be inherently biased. It might even read like cheerleading, ultimately because working with her had a great influence on my career, and also my decision, as organic and self-generated as it may have been, to take on this project.
So instead, I’ll let her speak for herself.
On the role of protest-based activism like Critical Mass:
I think that it was important to show decision-makers that, look how many people want to ride and will ride when they feel safe. Because they're surrounded by all these other folks. And then for those people that are participating, it is kind of community organizing. You're getting out the masses to try this many people for the first time riding on a city street. Then the city progressed to where they did have better infrastructure, and they had been listening, and then it was really more of an adversarial thing. And there were more and more confrontations between cars and bikes.if you've ever run into a Critical Mass, it's very memorable, and a lot of people had strong feelings about it. People can sometimes demonize a whole group. For a long time, doing media, that would always be a token question, regardless of what the subject was. They would ask, well what about Critical Mass, why are you hosting it? We never were,
On prioritization 'mix' within the advocacy world:
I think the promotion and enabling side of things is so widely overlooked. Infrastructure has to happen or else people will not feel safe. But many levels of government ignore that you cannot just build it and expect everyone to shift over. There's huge return on any investment that you put into educating and promoting about what that means. Habits are hard to change. Bike to Work Week is the perfect example. If the coffee gets them out of bed early enough that they'll ride to work for the first time, then that can be a habit changer. And you see 75% of people continuing to ride. It might have been that cup of coffee that might have been the decision-making factor.
On resisting the urge to pound the table:
You obviously need to make them feel urgency, or else they're not going to act on it. It is an investment they have to make, although it is so small in relation to motor vehicle infrastructure, for example. But often they don't have that information at their fingertips, and if nobody's asking them for it, why would they put themselves out there? I do remember when I first started with the ED role, some of our local committee leaders and members were very strident and argumentative. And they would go to Council and just yell, because they were angry. And that's justified in a way - they felt very unsafe and they weren't seeing any action. But that didn't get them any results, and some of them had really poor relationships with municipal staff and elected officials because of that. I could see that that wasn't working, but I had worked in the municipal government field. They were quite reasonable people. You kind of have to make the case, speak their language, and find a middle ground.