Leading up to the 2014 municipal elections in BC, HUB Cycling conducted a Metro Vancouver-wide survey, in order to identify candidate positions on cycling and active transportation.
I was the campaign lead, spending time with each HUB committee on formulating the right questions to ask candidates in each municipality.
We wanted to ask all candidates one boilerplate question, and one question more specific to the local community.
But something different happened in Maple Ridge. We asked two customized questions...and neither used the word 'bicycle'.
At first I didn't get it (or, even if I kinda got it, I was a little conflicted).
But Ivan Chow, chair of the Maple Ridge - Pitt Meadows HUB committee, played a significant role in helping me understand the group's reasons and, in doing so, helped me understand the unique needs and concerns of this city of about 85,000, just 45 minutes to the east of Vancouver.
It was about understanding how people from the city who want to spread their progressive opinions and lifestyles in the suburbs can, quite often, serve these long-term objectives by not threatening the popular majority's self-perception.
On the one hand, you maintain a steadfast grip on your principles, and work to advance them. On the other hand? Do it quietly and don't rock the boat, because you could flush it all away.
Ivan has been balancing the role of outsider and mainstream joe for much of his life. He grew up in the decidedly cycling unfriendly city of Hong Kong ("if you wanted to get to the age of puberty, you wouldn't bike in Hong Kong"), and came to Vancouver to complete high school in the late seventies.
I did have problems fitting in, especially in high school. You drop into school in the middle of the year, sixteen years old, and you hardly spoke English. You went to the head office, they give you a piece of paper, "OK go down the hall, third floor, hand it in to the teacher and he'll fit you in".
Okay — knock, open the door, thirty pairs of eyes staring at you. I couldn't express myself, I just gave the piece of paper. "Oh yeah, welcome." Talk about embarrassment.
Under normal circumstances, teenage years, you're trying to find your identity, you try to belong, you try to fit in, you try to get acceptance.
And you're just not one of them. Who would want to associate with a goofy-looking guy who doesn't speak the language?
I can't help but play out the parallels in his high school experience as a new immigrant with the feeling of alienation, of difference, even of ridicule, that comes with the cycling lifestyle.
So before even beginning to cycle, Ivan was dealing with the challenge of being himself, but also being part of the majority, just to feel normal. And it's difficult — be yourself and thus a lonley outsider (even if only temporarily), or be with others and potentially lose yourself?
You try to fit in. But at the same time there's the conscious decision that I made, that you have to get away from that. It's just too easy.
You gotta get into the mainstream. You can't just say, okay this is comfortable, I'm going to stay here. I need to meet people.
For me, philosophy-wise, if I'm an immigrant coming to a country, I should assimilate. I should go to the mainstream, I should adopt the mainstream. As opposed to saying, "I am what I am, embrace me, embrace my culture."
Yeah, deservedly, keep it if you can and promote it. But I feel I should be part of mainstream, because I choose to be here.
It's prickly issue. Some might say sharing your difference is not about promotion, but education for the ignorant, and it's that which makes us a cultural mosaic that clicks together while remaining distinct in its many colourful parts.
Upon graduation, Ivan moved to Ottawa, and he continued to focus on integrating into Canadian life.
That's where I started the third stage of my life. I bought my first bike, met some buddies, and they cycled.
Ottawa has some pretty good recreational cycling facilities. So we were young and single, we cycled, went to bars, we played baseball. And then at some point we did ballroom dancing.
To clarify, the ballroom dancing is important, because it's how he met his now-wife Jackie, who has her own story to tell.
Cycling opened up something new for Ivan, who began to ride from their home in Kanata to the Nortel campus near the Ottawa River:
I started cycling to work — once you leave the neighbourhood, you hit the green belt, completely away from cars.
So that's how I started biking in a utilitarian way. I would bike right beside golf course and cow pastures. And it was the right distance — ten kilometres — where you can get off work and basically turn your brain off. You're basically still winding down, you're still thinking about work.
But then you know you're safe, you don't have to worry about, "hey I'm going to get hit by a car, I need to pay attention to the road," you're just basically by yourself on the bike path.
And you can think, you can kind of slow down and rewind, and replay some of the stuff from work.
He wasn't yet an advocate — and sitting at lunch in downtown Maple Ridge while a constant flow of motor vehicle traffic huffs past our lunchtime patio, he categorically dismisses the other obvious label ("I'm not a quote 'cyclist cyclist' per se, like I only live and breathe cycling. I drive as much as those people do.") — but all it took was a change of scenery.
Two teenagers in tow, Ivan and Jackie moved back to his former hometown, in the late 1990s.
Except they didn't go to Vancouver. Thanks to some creative thinking by unscrupulous or, perhaps (more charitably), uninformed municipal communications staff, the Chows moved directly to Maple Ridge.
Maple Ridge — a cycling hotbed? Not as advertised. (More on that in Jackie's profile.) And so Ivan found himself once again a bit of an outsider.
Cycling was still very much a niche thing. Do it if you dare. The 'interested but concerned' were basically off the fence — they weren't even sitting on the fence at that time. Cycling was still a macho thing, mostly.
With an interest in meeting others interested in local cycling — and perhaps motivated to transform Maple Ridge into the bike-friendly suburb they had been promised — Ivan and Jackie began to attend the city's Bicycle Advisory Committee, at the time shared with the City of Pitt Meadows.
Finally — friendly faces, right? C'mon. You know the drill.
We were slightly ahead of our time. It could have been what we were actually asking for — "you've got to advocate for 8-80". Because it's a spandex crowd here.
So they look at us, like what? Say what? So maybe there was a bit of that.
Receptive? Maybe politely.
If there was scant appreciation for Ivan and Jackie's approach to all ages cycling within the bicycle community of Maple Ridge, you can only imagine where opinions lay outside, in the mainstream.
Despite adverse conditions, they immediately saw the gap as an opportunity. There wasn't anyone advocating for their positions, and what if there are others out there, just like them, waiting for daylight in the traffic?
It's what led them to form the Maple Ridge - Pitt Meadows HUB committee in 2009.
And as they began to do the work — holding meetings, setting up their blog, getting active on Facebook, attending city consultations, and of course writing letters — they started to find their balance. Stake your position, hold your course, but do it in such a way that you can still be acceptable to the mainstream. Because there are so many ways for efforts to go sideways when you're also distinctly on the outside.
You can bang yourself against the wall, you can write fifty thousand letters, and nobody's going to listen to you.
If it's kind of 'on the fence', people are starting to switch but they're not quite sure yet, your effort actually might help kill it.
How much can you push a minority view? Me, being a minority, you need to know your place. If nothing else, forget about the personal safety, the backlash you get.
From a pragmatic point of view, you want to be able to get something done. There is a means, and there is an end. I'm pragmatic.
He also takes the long view. And that's what impressed me about how Ivan coached me through the phrasing of the two simple questions that were posed to Maple Ridge council and mayoral candidates in 2014 — he wasn't thinking about their answers.
That's why it didn't matter whether we even mentioned the word bike. He was looking beyond, at how the questions would be interpreted, and how people would view cycling more broadly. As either a threat...or maybe as a small piece of the puzzle we're all working on together.
You talk about cycling helping out through local projects and local food, sustainability, that kind of stuff. If you abstract it, that's community.
Building something local. Being neighbourly has helped ourselves within the community — that's going to be vital. Helping people, helping individuals, helping our community at large.
Ivan spoke more at length about a difficult period that he feels may be on the way.
Socially, economically, perhaps even from the perspective of peace and security. It's certainly not an unfounded view, but he spoke less about the possible reasons for this possible future downturn, than how cycling can be part of the new mainstream someday.
At which point he, the formerly goofy-looking outsider, may find himself at the forefront of the majority.
In the tide of history, the mainstream thinking is in our favour at this point. Because the whole world is slowly moving in that direction.
How you get there is almost immaterial. As long as you get there. So there's an objective, a what, and then there's the how. If this is what it takes to get people cycling, then we'll take that bigger route. As opposed to okay, I need to advocate for something
Seventy-seven percent of success is showing up. It's a time in motion, and history is going in the same direction. Being on the right path actually helps a lot.