I ask this question of people who have known me this long — did I drive places?
I don't know what I ever used a car for. It was not on my radar.
Before becoming a both a population health researcher and a mother — and thus someone to whom such details would be both personally and socially relevant — Meghan apparently didn't reflect much on her transportation choices.
She just biked. The 'how' didn't seem to merit special attention.
I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, and that was how I got all over Coquitlam and Port Moody.
It was never a big decision. I'm just here and I need to get somewhere, and it's cheaper and faster and I get exercise.
In Tri-Cities and at UBC, that makes sense. But eventually Meghan, a UBC Chemistry grad entering the workforce, landed a biotech job in Richmond. With a 10+ kilometre commute and a bridge, that's where she yelled 'uncle' and got a car, right?
Not quite. She was (as I was, before entering the advocacy world) an unconscious bicycle commuter. It takes a certain kind of mindset, and I haven't figured out whether it's nature or nurture. It might not matter. And it might be impossible to map the causes of the 'hard core' designation, because of the myriad social, economic, environmental and even gender or cultural factors.
Ultimately, whatever gets you to that particular mindset that allows you to get in the saddle, day in and day out.
I was not a fearful person in traffic. Maybe it was a good adrenaline rush during those years of my life.
I biked Commercial and Victoria, down and over the Knight Street bridge, and along the highway. So the worst commute imaginable.
On the other side, the fastest way to get to work was to stick on the highway along all those lanes of traffic with the trucks until you almost hit Westminster highway, then pop through a ditch. And I would do that every day. I would just pop through the ditch to get to work. I thought that was a normal bike ride.
I used to get a lot of flat tires going over the Knight Street Bridge because it's poorly swept and all of the staples and crap comes off of the trucks and goes on the sidewalk and never gets swept. So I have had more flat tires during that time in my life than any other time in my life.
And you think your commute sucks.
So yes, I learned Meghan was bad-ass. But hard-core stereotype aside — and put a pin in that, because there's a minor but interesting plot twist coming up — she eventually ended up doing what most people do before having a family and shifting into serious career mode. She traveled.
That was a time of my life where I did a lot of big long trips — touring in Cuba for a few weeks, to California, every gulf island, and all up and down [Vancouver] Island. It was like a delightful dream.
Domestic life ensued, and you shouldn't be surprised to know that Meghan continued along quite practically, maintaining her lifestyle. It can be a difficult thing, to remain steadfast in your values and beliefs, when others decide to form — and pass — judgment against you.
I biked all through my pregnancy, because that was just how I got around. It was easier to get around on a bicycle than it was to walk a lot of the time.
I got yelled at because I was a pregnant cyclist. I remember a driver yelling at me, right along 7th: "What are you doing here?"
I said, "Let's make a deal — I'm just going to keep here, and if you don't like it, move up to Broadway."
You see, some people believe that yelling at a pregnant woman riding a bicycle from your car is more dangerous than if you just gave her space and left her alone to lawfully transport herself in the first place. But I digress.
Because the main point is that she had her first child. And that's when the plot twist arrived. Something finally made her consider her transportation choices. And it was not painted lines or push-button signals.
All of a sudden I realized that I needed to re-map the entire city because, with a little baby on the back of my bicycle, not every road was a road that I should be on.
I could ride on Broadway or Victoria or Kingsway as an individual — just me cycling, I wasn't fearful about riding in traffic. I felt really confident — I could ride on any street I wanted to go.
After I had a kid, I should probably be on safer streets, and it turned out that I didn't have all the routes in my head. I've got to figure out where all the bike routes are. I need quieter, safer streets.
I began to understand how the rest of the world saw the city. I completely saw where they were coming from.
It was the early 2000s, and no matter how recent that sounds, it was long enough ago that not only could you not necessarily rely on the city bike maps as a guide for parent-cycling-with-child, you it wasn't even a given that you could rely on the protection of the crowd, and use the presence of other cyclists on the road as coverage.
You just couldn't go many places at all, and discovering this, even for an experienced and resolute person like Meghan, was only by experience. Almost the hard way.
It was one thing when they were attached to me, and I was in control. But it was another thing when you've got your four or five year old beside you, and the random decisions they can make in the moment.
I remember very clearly a moment on 7th in front of Canadian Tire, where all of a sudden I thought, "Oh my god, we can't be here. We're on a bike route, this is a route I take all the time, now I've got this four-year-old here, and we need to detour to the seawall, stat."
"We can't take 10th, we can't take 7th..." Other routes fell off the list. All of a sudden, I had to remap it again.
It's a really fun story, if you can set aside the risk of human tragedy, and yet another example of the slow burn experienced by people who want real transportation choices, and realize it will take years.
That's where it's helpful to have people like Meghan, whose brains are able to accept, and take, the long view. With an analytical mindset not necessarily bound in the here-and-now, and a continued interest in health sciences, she left the private sector in 2004, and began working on a Master's degree in epidemiology, focusing on antibiotic resistance.
It involved the kind of research that can take years to formulate, execute, and distill into meaningful insights, because ultimately, population health studies are concerned with broad social change that occurs over long periods of time.
Like transportation-related behaviour, and outcomes. Such as those related to cycling and walking.
UBC is not a small place, but small enough that the other researcher in the Faculty of Science's School of Population and Public Health riding a bicycle, Kay Teschke, would meet Meghan, and ultimately recruit her to work on cycling-related research. So much for antibiotic resistance...
I wanted to work with Kay because she's inspiring. And I hadn't really thought about studying cycling before.
My work was interdisciplinary — it could have been in urban planning, health or geography. But I came from health and she was in health, so we took the health lens.
A lot of times people think I must be an urban planner.
The click with Kay continued on through to her doctorate, resulting in a thesis project that would ultimately figure significantly in the real estate market.
And not just in Metro Vancouver, but North America-wide. You've heard of Walk Score? Meet Bike Score.
My PhD project was looking at what is bikeability, the motivators and deterrents of cycling, for current and potential cyclists in Metro Vancouver.
Kay started the survey, and I did all that analysis, and the GIS mapping to see how the built environment relates to people's decisions to cycle. We ultimately worked with the company Walk Score to build Bike Score, and build it out for all those cities. That was five years of my life.
Today, Meghan is an associate professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at SFU, and leads the Cities, Health, and Active Transportation Research (CHATR) lab. She is also an investigator at the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility.
But as a result of her work with Kay and in active transportation research at UBC, Meghan drew closer to the advocacy community, which served perhaps as a helpful connector between her work as a researcher informing public policy, and her own ability to make choices as a commuter on the other end.
What was interesting to me was seeing how policy happened. The Bicycle Advisory Committee took me a long time to figure out, even when I was on it — what they did, and how it worked.
It was a pretty critical part of my experiential learning, and now I often encourage students to get involved in something like that.
All the voices sit around the table and you can watch to see who says what, when, and how. As a volunteer, sometimes it's frustrating if you do all this work and you don't think it's being listened to, valued or actioned.
You can also have, what I saw, as a turning point; by the end, we don't even need to say anything: "We just came in, you told us the plan, and we all clapped." Which was very different from the early days.
The transition from activist-driven, push from the outside tactics to relationship-based negotiation from (almost) the same side of the table seemed to occur during Meghan's time on the BAC, and although she has plenty of opinions, she comes from a place of logic and facts.
Or, you could say, they appear to be largely based on evidence, further reinforcing the idea that she probably picked the right career.
On 'protest'-style advocacy:
We wouldn't get anywhere if somebody wasn't being so obscenely noisy about something over the top. I've never been that person. There needs to be some other people that can get in the right room and sit at the table.
On the local neighbourhood bikeway network:
Looking outside of Vancouver, I started realizing it's weird that we have these residential bikeways. We have a whole network. I've presented workshops where these need to be defined because apparently in cities around the world they don't exist.'
On what Victoria got right:
You just can't compete with the Lochside Trail and the Galloping Goose — extremely useful, beautiful commuter routes to be on, and heavily used, right to the places where people need to go.
On what Vancouver is trying to get right:
The closest that we have is the Arbutus Greenway, but it doesn't really link municipalities. It almost gets you to Richmond. Not really places people need to go.
On Mobi public bike share:
Will it pan out to have health benefits? Questionable. Will it pan out to make dramatic transportation shifts? We'll see. Is it an important part of having mobility choices in a city? Absolutely.
On open data for transportation across Metro Vancouver:
In other cities, researchers have access to that data and can generate all sorts of analyses using their own city's data. And we can't do that here. That has been a real stumbling block — it's really hard for us to be data driven.
Others I spoke to expressed their passion around and resolve towards cycling in more stark terms, often with emotion, critque and even some profanity. That's fine, and it might help plant some click-bait inn order to get people to read about the fascinating stories about cycling in Vancouver.
But I found it most difficult to keep this post about Meghan short and snappy, because even minding her P's and Q's, speaking simply as an everyday cyclist — and eruditely as an academic — there's a lot of meaty subject matter than she brought to the table in our hour-long conversation over coffee.
Lycra and helmets and children (oh my). I just can't include it all, so I'll leave you with one parting thought — about, perhaps, the next shift we need to see...
Other cycling researchers come to Vancouver, and they say, "I didn't see cyclists anywhere." And I say, "How did you get to our meeting? Did you bike over here? You didn't go on Adanac. There were hundreds of cyclists just one block over from you."
The volumes of cyclists are one block off the main street. It has really been apparent to me that if you're trying to make that make that population shift, there's a visibility problem that we suffer from here, because we are one block off.
I think it matters if you see people cycling. "Why would I do that? I never see people on a bicycle."
It's time for Vancouver to step up and have people directly on the route itself.