Over the course of two decades living in Vancouver, Kari (rhymes with "starry") has spent time with cycling advocacy groups at key moments in the movement's history — B.E.S.T. in the late '90s, the AMS Bike Coop in the early 2000s, and the City of Vancouver Bicycle Advisory Committee from 2004 until its dissolution in 2009.
A Victoria native and UVic grad, she might never have gotten involved at all, had her first employer actually recognized her for more than her liberal arts background.
What can you do with a history degree? You can get really good jobs in the government, because it teaches you how to write.
I ended up at BC Ferries for four years. The only way I advanced was because I could write and think.
I was taking phone calls from passengers saying, "I've got a bicycle, and I can't get on the ferry. Why isn't it more bike friendly?"
I began to ask those questions too, because I was riding my bike to work, and hearing from all over the province that people can't use a ferry system, which is supposed to be the marine highway system for every single resident.
I tried from the inside. They didn't not support me, but they didn't support me.
I just started saying to people, to cyclists, can you please phone or write your MLA?
Kari's struggle to bring a focus on customers and service to BC Ferries customer service included an attempt to leave BC Ferries. This was met with an offer to transfer to the Tsawwassen terminal, and a new life on the south coast.
It also led to a further decline in job satisfaction. The Crown corporation's inability, or unwillingness, to support active transportation generally, and bicycles specifically, began to directly impact her own lifestyle. ("I worked out of Tsawwassen — if you do shift work, you have no other way to get out to Tsawwassen for your 3:30 in the morning shift, or leaving after 12:30 am last sailing, than to have a car.")
It could have been different, and not just because Kari probably (in my estimation) made for a highly empathic customer service leader.
It could have been different because Kari knew better, having spent six years living in Europe between high school graduation and her undergraduate degree. BC Ferries could have evolved its approach to transportation by listening to its own people — about what its customers truly wanted, and what was happening elsewhere in the world.
If you look at the London Transport mission at the time that Ken Livingstone was mayor, it was affordable and transferable. That means you can take your transfer and not have to worry about where you're going in the system, that now you've got a $3 surcharge.
And that is still not in play. Even putting bikes on the front of buses. Anything to do with bikes on buses. It is not at all integrated, it is not transferrable. The whole thing is not set up well.
If you've ever been in career transition — or perhaps, if you've ever held aloft a liberal arts degree waiting for people to flock towards you (ahem) — you know about Myers Briggs. It's a well-respected vocational testing system that tells you, magically, what you should do with your life.
They won't guarantee that kind of magical outcome for everyone. But this is just spooky.
It's interesting because it narrowed it down and said, "You should do advocacy."
Advocacy? Okay, I had never really thought about it. I don't even remember how I heard of B.E.S.T. I went into their office one day and said, "Hi — do you need somebody to volunteer?"
And they said "sure!" So I did filing, and then they said, "Are you available?" And it turned into a job.
There are a few notable, archetypical advocacy initiatives that keep coming up in these conversations. Burrard Bridge. Neighbourhood bike routes. Critical Mass. And a certain newsletter...
Part of my job was helping Carmen distribute The Spoke'n Word. We would go to Gavin's house and do all the labelling together, and then we would cycle it down to the depot. It was a really great little newsletter, really useful as an advocacy [tool].
It was also in its last year or two, and if you've been keeping up with the bouncing ball, you'll know that the end of The Spoke'n Word was, in a way, symbolic of the change that came to B.E.S.T., and in fact the change that was happening in the advocacy community as a whole.
Kari saw it, and felt it. She was on the inside enough to get perspective, but outside of it enough to not get sucked into the organizational politics.
As I look back on it, Carmen, Richard, Gavin, Tamim and a few others were very much grassroots.
And Cheeying was getting the bigger picture, and trying to make connections that she knew would be helpful for the organization in the longer term.
She did things differently than people wanted her to, and more quickly. She was bringing people onto the Board who were very good, but very different.
Hungry for new challenges and to expand her horizons in transportation advocacy, Kari left B.E.S.T. in 2000, and found herself managing administration and operations for a new on-campus start-up at UBC, the AMS Bike Coop.
It was the only bicycle shop on the hill — when we started there was nothing anywhere up there.
It was very nuts and bolts. We would get these donations of food from the Alma Mater Society, and the guys would sit down with wrenches and eat it. Like, that's the way they'd eat, off plastic things from the shop. They would just sit there and eat. Very grassroots.
In addition to generating income from members from bike sales and repairs, the AMS Bike Coop was first and foremost the operator of UBC's Purple and Yellow Bike Share program. To this day, members rely on the P&Y bikes to get around the sprawling campus, often with just minutes to spare between classes. In the early years, there was no precedent for how to do it.
The first operational bike share program, and it was a really hard thing to run.
[The bikes] usually didn't have more than one gear, and the brakes were good but they weren't meant to go down the hill. We'd tell people, "At your own risk — we don't suggest you do it, it's not set up for hills!"
And yeah, we lost a lot. Because you get the drunk people who come out of pubs. Every once in a while somebody would phone us from way over on the east side and say, "We got one of your purple and puke bikes."
I'm sorry — purple and what?
Generally speaking, they were goofy-looking and because they all had their own personality, people would decorate them, they were just a presence on campus.
There was a lot of very good support that came from the AMS. I will always be thankful to them, not just the students but the people in that association, because they actually actively supported the Bike Coop, and allowed things to happen.
Over the course of the next seven years, Kari moved on to work for the Alma Mater Society in operations and administration, and eventually completed her teaching degree on the side.
And she started to follow politics, volunteering for the municipal COPE party. While she distinguishes such activity from actually being political ("I rarely join political parties, and I vote more on the person and their background connected to the party, rather than the party"), it was obviously difficult for her to completely disassociate herself from the wave of change that swept through Vancouver City Hall after the 2002 municipal election.
It was a huge COPE win, it was the Larry Campbell season. I sort of knew Fred Bass — he's amazing, a walking encyclopedia of all kinds.
And I saw this ad, and I thought, I'd like to be on the Library Board. You can apply for whatever you want, and I threw in BAC as an afterthought.
It was about a year and a half later, they must have had a vacancy. I get a call, and they say "You've been appointed." And I said, "To what?"
The City of Vancouver Bicycle Advisory Committee, or BAC, was a major player on the cycling advocacy scene in the early 2000s — helping advance an active transportation agenda developed in collaboration with planning and engineering staff, as well as the new voices in Council chamber. It was also an auspicious group — dominated by men, and 'hard-core' cycling men at that. This was not a committee comprised of today's, new stereotypes. No hipsters, housewives, or mayors in suits.
And unbeknownst to its own members, it was wrapping up, even as it helped usher in momentous changes for the city.
Before doing so, one more important puzzle piece of that change had to fall into place, which it did right before Kari joined the committee.
Should you be unfamiliar with the backstory, understand that the COPE party of 2002 was in some ways comparable in popularity to today's Vision Vancouver party — a rapid rise and newfound legacy as the majority voice in Vancouver city council. COPE went from just two councillors in 1999, to mayor and 8 councillors in 2002, an accomplishment quickly overshadowed by its flameout in the 2005 election. Not to mention the phoenix that rose from COPE's ashes, Vision (now broadly acknowledged as the bike lane party).
But it was COPE, and one councillor in particular, that should perhaps be given more credit for the BAC's effectiveness, and ultimately the explosion of safe, accessible bike facilities across the city.
David Cadman had been the one to put through that motion to Council that said, if it's on a bike route, or adjacent to a bike route, everything has to come through the BAC.
Without him, without that COPE council initiative, we would not have had nearly as much power as we did.
That was what made it possible, for 8 years, for us to be effective as we were.
This speaks to a subtlety that is the hallmark of council meetings in most cities, perhaps everywhere in the world where such democratic institutions exist.
It is that these interminable, tortuously boring council sessions, where wordy, opaque resolutions are trotted out by staff to be voted on (or shot down), are critically important. A Council vote on a so-called boring resolution is where the rubber hits the road for long-term change.
Not the lunacy of Mayor Moonbeam, or commie pinko plots from Vision goons. It's individuals with specific policy ideas which attract bipartisan support, and often come out of staff recommendations. It's your elected representatives, working to build and sustain communities.
It's government, and without it, good stuff doesn't happen.
But Kari also learned that even with this guiding resolution in place, the committee wouldn't just run on its own. Bike-friendly policies and prioritized improvements, no matter how logical, would never happen without the support of a cohesive and aligned committee of council.
And despite her experience working in complex bureaucracies, and despite the power of the Cadman resolution of 2003, the committee didn't always function as intended. And thus, it didn't last forever.
I've done at least as much union work as I have anything else. I've helped to negotiate four collective agreements, and if you want something to have meaning and be authentic and get buy-in, it needs to follow a process.
I'm a process person, and when you're doing union negotiations, it doesn't matter who you're working with, that group across the table is your employer and the financial agent, and you have to be able to work together.
And you have to be able to negotiate and you have to be able to talk. Because they hold the cards. And if you're not willing to do it, the only thing that's holding you up is legislation, which can go at any time.
There were a couple of people on that committee who pushed way too hard, who would not listen when we said, "Hey guys, pull back. Staff doesn't like this, Council doesn't like this, and if we don't pull back, I think we're going to lose it.
I made it very plain to some folks. We can't keep doing this.
Doing what? Pushing too hard and risking biting the hand that feeds you? The flashback to conflict at B.E.S.T. on this same topic is impossible to ignore. In the cycling advocacy world, lack of internal alignment on relationship-building can be the undoing of an otherwise cohesive community, let alone telling planners and engineers how to do their job. It can set back, or erase, many valuable efforts to keep change happening, or get it going in the first place.
To paraphrase Jules from Pulp Fiction, advocates need to have personality. Personality goes a long way. (So by that rationale, if activists had better personalities, they might cease to be activists. Is that true?)
It kind of got worse. When the 2011 election happened, the BAC never came back.
It came up as this new thing. The new council, I think rightly, made a change to the make-up, to the meeting schedule, to all kinds of stuff.
The new thing was, and is, the Active Transportation Policy Council. You can see their online presence at the City of Vancouver website, including seven years of minutes — on their make-up, meeting schedule, all kinds of stuff.
Kari had stepped down as chair well before that, though remained as a committee participant. This, despite the fact that she had moved on in life — from a career in advocacy, and from having to be responsible for aspect of public decision-making. Any dysfunction was not too much for her to bear, for her to potentially be part of the solution, rather than the problem.
Today, it's obvious she's unable to be 'just a citizen', and not associate her role as a teacher, and her past work in transportation advocacy, with the politics of this part of the world.
The kids in the school system latch onto November 10, 2016 — they finally found out when the Supreme Court ruling came down that for 14 years the government had acted illegally and unlawfully over their education.
I used to carry my own whiteboard markers because half the time you couldn't get whiteboard markers. I would say to my grade 8 classes, do you think [private schools] are sharing 13 waterlogged 20-year-old textbooks in their grade 8 classroom?
No they're not. They have the most recent edition. Everyone has one in their locker they can take home. I can't assign homework to you guys because you can't take it home. For 14 years kids they lived with it, because it's all they knew.
Same here. How does a subway system really work? Why one entrance one exit at City Hall? I think there are two or three stations only that have up and down escalators.
A subway system really runs when you plan it properly, you make it accessible, and if it's going to accessibly to someone with a disability, it's going to be accessible for anyone else too. People didn't know, they lived with it, and it seems normal.
It was all completely avoidable. We don't need to do this again. It is our responsibility to hold people accountable.