When I consider an advocate's personal story and impact on the cycling world in Metro Vancouver, I'm often looking for some sort of 'hook' — an angle to ease into their story, and also something to provide a thematic underpinning to the summary profile I end up writing.
With John, it may be easier to skip past his early life and get right to his entry point to advocacy. Not that his youth and young adulthood is uninteresting in any way; John's early life is a reminder that, in the 1970s, there was no such thing as bus service in Coquitlam...that despite a notable lack of all-ages cycling facilities, bike racks in schools across the region were often full...and that in those early, iconic years of the West End's gay nightlife scene, a bar called The Gandy Dancer ruled them all.
Many of those parts of his story will make the book, but here I want to focus on the moment in his bike life that is more culturally relevant and interesting. And one of those stories you might never know about unless you know the players involved.
The first Gay Games was in San Francisco 1982, and the second was in San Francisco in '86. The organizers had a desire to make this a global organization, so they needed to get it out of America.
It was post-Expo where the timing of our application got things like the tourism board and the mayor excited about the whole thing because it they saw the opportunity.
And so it was that Vancouver became the host of the third Gay Games, with local planning beginning in earnest by 1988.
I was active in the gay community in other capacities, and out of that, the organizers recruited me to be the co-chair for the cycling events.
I said to the organizers, I don't really know anything about putting on a cycling event. And they said, "Well, we don't either, but there must be a governing body for cycling racing. Go find out how you put on these cycling events."
By this time, John was closing in on his first decade with Westcoast Energy, managing contracts and services, as well as a volunteer (and eventually a Board member) of the environmental group SPEC. So had a good sense of managing complex processes and relationships. And so, he went to work.
I said was if I'm going to be a co-chair for these cycling events, I want to do a professional job, I don't want to do a half-assed job. And if you're going to do a professional job, you actually need to have it sanctioned.
The first two in San Francisco, cycling events were not sanctioned. That was because the sanctioning authority didn't want to have anything to do with a gay event. They were worried about the pedophiles in the back room. This was the culture of the day.
I phoned up the Bicycling Association of BC. At first I was really concerned — what if this organization is really homophobic? I'm going to have to deal with this, because they have to be on board. So I was really pleased that Danelle was totally supportive.
If all this sounds rather alarmist and strange, you have to understand — this was the late 1980s. It was the height of anti-gay fervour, with AIDS panic in the streets, and outright homophobia on the radio, on TV, and in movie theatres. Judged by today's standards, it seems to introduce, let alone perpetuate, horrible stereotypes. By the standards then, John's concerns were well-founded.
And ultimately, removed from the equation pretty quickly.
I told her I don't have a clue what I'm doing, and I just wanted to know what's the story here. She was totally embracing the whole thing and supportive of it.
Danelle told me all the things I needed to know — how to do the events, how to find out more, and then of course the race director gave me suggestions on the types of events to do. They walked me through the whole technical process, and ensured that we had the officials so it would be sanctioned.
This was a real coup for Vancouver. And this was first time the cycling events had a mountain bike event. That was ironic, because the mountain bike movement came out of San Francisco. The first mountain bikes came out of the San Francisco area. So we had a mountain bike event and we got sanctioned. We took the level of the cycling events up a few notches.
This was a huge event in the gay community. Twelve thousand people came, and each of [the cycling] events had about 200 participants.
Though misguided and unfortunate from a few different perspectives, it has generally been accepted that cycling advocacy lives on a different planet from sport cycling and mountain biking.
There's no grand pronouncement about this anywhere, it just seems to be so — that, from an organizational perspective, transportation advocates often know precious little about how (or whether) to appeal to the non-advocacy groups, which in turn tend to maintain an almost exclusive focus on the bikes, gear and infrastructure dedicated to those purposes. Given John's role in all three during some very formative years, it's a shame few organizations locally have figured out how to bridge those differences.
But back to John, and what came from the Gay Games experience.
I met Gordon Price. He was known the cycling advocate on council — I knew that from the papers. He introduced me to the Bicycle Advisory Committee, and that's when I became active in advocacy in Vancouver.
Prior to the Gay Games I knew nothing about the cycling politics, other than I loved cycling in the West End, it was easy. Going across the Burrard Bridge, it's always been an issue, but I could get around, it wasn't a problem for me. I didn't know the politics.
The advisory committee interested me because I thought I'd like to actually help in the consulting and decision-making process.
I went on the committee, and once the committee formed I became the chair.
Yep, those kinds of things used to happen.
These days, strike up a Skateboarding Advisory Committee, demonstrate some knowledge, passion and ability, and maybe you too can go straight to the top.
That's where cycling was at in the late '80s, a time when some pretty important stuff was going down.
The city adopted the Comprehensive Bicycle Plan in 1988, and it was all based on the four E's — education, engineering, enforcement and encouragement. And it was all very integrationist focused, based on Forester's theory, which actually suited the engineering department fine, because they were into building roads for cars.
When I got on the Bicycle Advisory Committee I was told I needed to read Forester's book, Effective Cycling. I read the book, took the course, and reinforced my historical cycling, where I was comfortable going in traffic, and exerting space.
Which you can do as a fit, young male. But that's about it.
This was the beginning of the local neighbourhood bikeways strategy, which was a new idea in North America. It also wasn't something that John, let alone Gordon Price, the rest of the Bicycle Advisory Committee, nor many of the people out cycling at the time, would have cared for. But they knew the strategy wasn't for them. It was for the masses. And it wasn't going to be easy to push this across the desks of some at City Hall.
A few academics were pushing at the political level to question Forester's integrationist theory. Because it was clear that Europe had rejected Forester, and what Amsterdam and Copenhagen were doing was more effective at getting the cyclists out.
It was getting engineering to incrementally pursue a different strategy. So the idea was, let's work in the outer areas where it's easier to find a parallel route, and get a backbone in, and it will force change into the core.
It makes sense, and establishing bike routes off main arterials roads is less expensive and intrusive than segregated, on-road facilities. So what was the problem?
The culture was the engineers were god. Kind of like doctors. They have sacred knowledge or something like this.
The Bicycle Advisory Committee was an engineering committee, which I didn't realize the implications of right away. They were a bunch of old school engineers, and had all the money. And the power. So now we're designing the first off-road bike route, and micromanaging really little details.
I can recall a huge debate about whether the street light at Union and Main should have exclusive bicycle timing. Because there wasn't an allowance in the Canadian transportation manual, the engineers refused to budge. We had to take it to council. And council told the engineers to do it.
I started asking questions at work. And then soon after I got promoted to middle management. Meaning that I learned. I was willing at work to stand up to an engineer and say you're wrong. And that involved going to their manager. Before I would never question what an engineer told me to do.
The grappling between committee and staff continued throughout the '90s, culminating in the first Burrard Bridge bike lane trial, which not only ended in disaster, it came at the end of John's two terms as chair of the Bicycle Advisory Committee. And it served to prove one more time that the time was ripe for changes to how bicycle policy was not just executed, but formulated in the first place...and the culture within city hall responsible for both.
My perspective was engineering was told to do it, and they didn't like the idea, and they sabotaged it.
It was straight forward from the beginning — you have to take two lanes out.I learned the constraints on the Burrard Bridge are not the lanes, they're the intersections.
So yes, you can remove two lanes and it doesn't make a difference to the capacity of the bridge, because the capacity's determined by Pacific and Burrard, and Cornwall and Burrard. How do you get twice the amount of traffic over the Lion's Gate Bridge in half the number of lanes? This is also a demonstration of how something that may be intuitive is incorrect.
So we knew from day one that you could remove two lanes without impacting capacity. But this was completely counter to the engineering culture of building capacity, and building monuments, and also car culture.
I went with the flow, because I was in an advisory role. And I also knew this was working with the city. It's a supertanker — to turn this thing around takes years. Even to get the results, you're not going to see for years. Everything is very slow.
Before leaving, however, John believes the actual change that needed to happen began to take hold. It had nothing to do with in-the-weeds debates over segregation versus integration, or even the role of the Bicycle Advisory Committee itself. It was about who was charged with driving the supertanker. It was about...
Transitioning all the old school engineers out.
And that was actually one of the exciting things that in later in my term — because cycling was given a low priority within engineering culture, it was given to the junior engineers who had just come out of university. They were more interested in actually doing something, and didn't mind ruffling some feathers. And that's helped create that culture change.
They're not the junior engineers. Senior engineers are responsible for this stuff.
So given the changes John has witnessed, and been partly responsible for, over the past three decades in Vancouver, he must regard the city (as many others do) to be a leader in safe and accessible cycling infrastructure?
Not necessarily. And he's not alone — cities in Europe remain the consensus leaders across the board. And when it comes to leadership in North America, let alone Canada, c'est nos frères au soeurs en Québec — particularly in Montréal — who get a tip of the hat.
From Montréal to Sherbrooke to the Eastern Townships to Québec City — this is the best cycling touring in North America. It rivals what you can get in Europe.
Québec is a leader on cycling tourism and in implementing bicycle infrastructure. They rejected Forester stuff a good ten years before Vancouver did, and they were the ones experimenting with putting in bike lanes.
Vélo Québec hosts Tour de l'Île, which I think is the largest bike ride in the world. [Ed. note: it's one of the largest]. It's been going on for over thirty years.
They put on this bike ride in Montréal, for about fifty kilometres, and they close down all the streets and they get fifty thousand people. They've got the day ride, and they've got a ride the night before, which is even more interesting. People have their lights on, they put on their music.
This is so typical, because Montréal has this reputation of doing it and doing it big. Montréal is a city of festivals, so this is part of that culture.
John served three terms between the Bicycle Advisory Committee and Active Transportation Policy Council, in addition to Board roles with SPEC and B.E.S.T. and numerous other volunteer commitments over the years. It's a lot to reflect on, but he's quick to summarize one of the more important lessons taken from his years helping to shepherd change through the rank and file at city hall.
At the city level here, it's got to be a collaborative relationship between planning and engineering, not just engineering.
There was this big issue where planning was not involved in a lot of the stuff in the nineties. It takes a generation to change the bureaucracy.
And this was the beginning of that change.