Jeff Leigh was born and raised in North Vancouver on the 29th Street hill, which connects upper Lonsdale and Lynn Valley, and also serves as one of the boundaries between city and district.
Despite the steep hills, Jeff's youth was spent on a bike.
Starting in grade two I rode my bike to school. I did that until I was sixteen. It just was normal. Paper routes involved bikes to carry papers. Deliveries involved bikes. We rode everywhere. It was standard practice growing up.
Following post-secondary education at UBC, a career in engineering took Jeff, his wife Denise and two kids on a decade-long working tour of such disparate locales as Chile, the UK, and northern Alberta (twice).
Interesting, and likely exciting at times. But ultimately, a desk job, with lots of travel. And it came with the usual side effects.
I was in my forties when I looked in the mirror and didn't recognize myself.
I had gained some weight and I was less fit, and I decided that I needed to get back into it.
I got to the point where I was riding every weekend and several nights a week. My wife and I had a tandem built, and we did six thousand kilometres together. We got single bikes after that and have carried on riding ever since.
We were in the process of moving from the suburbs to a condo in downtown Vancouver. We changed our lifestyles so we were walking to work. We were riding our bikes more than we were using the cars. We began to use them more and more for transportation trips.
We still had the sport bikes but we had touring bikes, we had touring bikes for distance, and we had city bikes. It just became a bigger and bigger thing.
The triggers for people to get back on their bikes seem to be relatively common and innocuous. Health and fitness objectives, recreational pursuits, financial goals, convenience.
For Jeff and Denise, this addition to their lifestyle led to a somewhat more thoughtful set of considerations that led the bicycle to play a more significant role in life plans. Like getting out of the suburbs.
When we moved, it was because we didn't want to drive to so many places. We wanted to be somewhere we could come out of our door and choose to take transit, drive, walk, cycle. We'd do whatever made most sense for that trip, not what the land use plan dictated by its degree of sprawl.
[In Coquitlam], we had sidewalks, but they weren't ones we'd ever want to be on. No-one else ever cleared them when it snowed. They were seen as a buffer zone between the house and the street. They were usually empty, it was like a ghost town.
We came downtown, and there were restaurants within a block. We're fifty metres from the False Creek seawall. We can use that to get to any route. We ride five days a week now.
It's fair to say the City of Vancouver made it easy for Jeff and Denise to make that change, but equally fair to suggest that Jeff was willing to be the kind of person to buck social mores, or perhaps ignore them in the first place. Such as the one that dictates the common wisdom about how 'suits' are supposed to conduct themselves. ("I was an executive who didn't mind of think about being seen on a bike. I thought it was socially responsible.")
And then there's lifestyle thing again — this time beyond adoption of cycling, and down into the more nuanced choices that can make cycling stick. For good.
I think it's when we started carrying things on them, as opposed to going somewhere for an errand. Getting proper carriers — well now this is becoming more useful, I can actually carry more things. It was that transition from the sport bikes to the city bikes that had racks and carriers.
We were making a conscious effort to use the bikes more and more. We were down to one car and it was getting very occasional use.
So...how did advocacy ultimately come into the picture?
I retired early in my early fifties, and I decided then I had far too much energy to be sitting around. I went into the HUB office and I said I have some time on my hands, and I want you to put me to work. You need to find me something to do.
I want a job here but I don't want you to pay me. I want you to help me figure out where I can help this organization. And there it went.
My own experience with HUB began in November 2013, and I recall Jeff meeting with Erin and thinking, "Hmmm, that's interesting — an engineer." I spent a lot of time working and socializing with engineers on extra-curricular projects during my undergraduate degree, and in subsequent marketing roles in Vancouver's high tech sector.
So Jeff seemed familiar in many ways. Intellectual. Focused. Driven. A good bit of fun, often happy to sit down for a beer or two and chat. But the chat would usually come back to shared passions, which in our shared experience at HUB was about trying to crack a particular nut — how to influence change with the provincial government's policies around transportation strategy, funding, and prioritization.
I was always interested in city planning and land use, and I began to be more interested in how transportation choices affected land use planning and vice versa.
My business career involved a lot of time in sales — it was always about the relationship. The deals [took] 12 or 16 or 24 months to bring to fruition, and because we were never the cheapest product in the marketplace, it was all about understanding the problems that your customers had.
So when I looked at the Ministry of Transportation, I thought it was very little use throwing things at them and telling them they were all wrong.
The adversarial approach may be what was required ten or fifteen years ago, it would be less productive today because all it does is sets up conflict.
Jeff began to fill his retirement cup with HUB business from the start — he filled an empty spot on the Board, started supporting Vancouver Committee operations and administration, and eventually became co-chair (and then sole chair) of that committee.
And due in large part to his engineering, sales and marketing background, he began to take on more responsibilities related to liaising with Ministry staff and bridging dialogue with our local committees, ultimately supporting staff, the Board, and our Regional Advisory Committee on a variety of critical projects and processes that would require, for any cycling improvements to be made, a relationship with all levels of government.
This work yielded some valuable findings, including an endemic problem that, through his dogged investigations and work with other committees, we began to suspect was common across all ten committees, and 23 municipalities.
We were doing assessment rides and picking routes and saying this is a problem, and this is a problem, and this is a problem — creating lists of where the problems were. Many people still had a mindset that when you find a problem, you just have to write a letter to the city, because they probably didn't know about it.
And by working with the city, we found out that they had a list of two or three hundred problems, they just didn't know which one was on top, and they were trying to figure out how to move some of it ahead.
So what, then, is the engineering solution to a problem of competing priorities, uncertain definition, and varying scope? A project definition, a hypothesis for the problem, a product inventory, and a method.
Compiling lists, refining them, and turning them into one really good list may sound totally unsexy to most people, but for Erin, Jeff and I — and the dozens of people across Metro Vancouver who, as HUB committee members got on side and did a lot of hard work to log gaps to the inventory — it was a very satisfying endeavour.
Without getting into the weeds, this refinement, expansion and connecting of list to process became all-consuming at points, but it solved some critical problems within the organization and between committees around lack of focus, and inconsistencies in our approach to local and provincial government in not only solving problems, but identifying them in the first place. And it occurred in such a way that we could forge a path to productive collaboration with decision-makers.
(This work — the inventory-building of cycling infrastructure projects, spot improvements and maintenance work — ultimately formed the backbone of what became the public-facing UnGaptheMap campaign).
It also became a powerful tool for Jeff, the Board and staff to bring into meetings with various government officials, and in many instances convert their thinking on how to approach cycling — from simply reacting to and placating the advocacy groups, to understanding the opportunity to proactively address active transportation as strategy within government.
In Vancouver particularly, Jeff's approach has facilitated unprecedented collaboration between the advocacy community and the City's active transportation team.
Suddenly, in the course of six months, we went from being the ones pointing out the problem areas, to the city saying we're going to do roads A, B, C and D, and us struggling to keep up to form an opinion about each of those.
We shifted from identifying potentials, to saying we don't need to identify any at the moment. We need to work with the city collaboratively to make them as good as they can be.
It should be noted that early on, Jeff's attempts to rationalize the advocacy efforts, centralize strategies and make them more efficient — even if the end goal was to support, and share processes and controls, with the other committees — was viewed suspiciously. Furthermore, his intentions to work with HUB staff, and ultimately work with government, to move slowly and forge strategic relationships, gave rise to friction in the Vancouver Committee.
My impression, having been party to a few tense meetings and some (shall we say) 'spirited' email exchanges between committee members at the time, was that behind any reaction to Jeff's approach to introducing change was as much about cultural issues than any real fundamental examination of the method.
The fact that he was seen wearing sporty gear and riding a sport bike was a sticking point to many. Simply put, he was a MAMIL — a middle-aged man wearing Lycra:
I don't see myself as a sport cyclist...or a transportation cyclist, or a randonneur or a touring cyclist. I'm just a guy who rides a bike. So if I'm on a sport bike, sure, I guess I'm a MAMIL that day.
The next day I'm wearing street clothes and flat shoes and riding a Dutch style bike. I wonder if this whole Lycra label thing is temporary — or does it stick with you? I never understood that, if it carries over into other days.
If we're people trying to improve cycling infrastructure, wouldn't it be better if we were all in the same tent? Do you think we have so many people we can afford to exclude some people from our tent? I don't think that the labels help us very much.
I rode a tandem for about six thousand kilometres with my wife. The tandem people refer to bikes that are non-tandems as 'half-bikes', because they only carry half the people. They did it jokingly, but I didn't like it much. I thought, I'm not sure how this helps.
The more we can just find things in common, I think, is more helpful.
Within a very short period of time, Jeff has had great impact on cycling in Metro Vancouver. And it had more to do with the relationships, than by achieving any preconceived ideal or subjective notion of what cycling should look like.
It also had to do with demonstrating to government that cycling requires just as much process and attention to objective criteria around what needs to be done, and why, as motor vehicle infrastructure.
And sometimes, those processes result in concessions, even compromise. Once again, a point of difference within the cycling community that was more cultural — even political — than technical or practical.
The Stanley Park Causeway was a good illustration, because it wasn't everything we wanted.
We knew we needed better routes through the Stanley Park Causeway, we had that support from the Ministry. [But] the various cycling advocacy groups took different positions.
One position said, this isn't everything, but we need something and we'll accept it.
Two other groups said we will not support this and we'll actually go to the council meetings and say it's a bad idea — it's not enough. We need it all or it's better not to do anything.
And I wondered how we could look ourselves in the eye if someone else was killed on that causeway, saying, "We could have had a protected path but because it wasn't the width we wanted, we didn't get it."
Taking the long view, we know that improving cycling in the Lower Mainland is a work in progress, and although there are many reasons for this, one of the bigger ones is the balkanization of the region that is our reality. Almost two dozen local governments, each with their own leadership and administration, and each with different ideas and approaches to active transportation.
At least people who live and work in Vancouver can just coast, right?
Every time someone says to me, "well, it's easier for you in Vancouver," I think, well it's not really the story here.
The story is what made it easy, what got us to here, how do we apply those lessons to get to that same place with all these other municipalities. I'm actually worried about all those municipalities, not just Vancouver.