If you’re relatively aware of politics and urban issues in Metro Vancouver, you’re probably familiar with a few names and faces on Van Bikes; if you actively follow local transportation issues you may know a handful more.
But you really have to geek out on three decades of local government and the evolution of cycling policies to know Nelson. Despite his influence and impact, there's a reason for that.
Before he found himself in the centre of what's often considered the first wave of transportation cycling advocacy in Vancouver, Nelson was just a guy, cycling to work. Today, not a big deal, but honestly, back then…
I used to ride from the West End down to Steveston every summer when I worked as a pool supervisor. In Richmond there was no infrastructure, but it was like, eh, I'm going. I was just in it.
That's round trip 40km.
Probably more like at least 50. I did that for probably five, six years.
There wasn't as much traffic then in Richmond. There were big, giant ditches that would suck up cars though. Yeah, on Bridgeport Road, No. 3 Road, the ditches, they were like canals.
I used to drive, I had a nice brand new car. The interest on this was like 18%, and I just decided I wanted to bike full-time.
So literally, I was driving one day and I stopped on Granville Street and I sold my car. I was just like, I don't want to work full-time and just pay for my car.
He remembers the earliest, somewhat less-organized days of transportation cycling activism, which actually started before Expo '86, which is often cited as the start of a first wave of that movement.
I'm talking late seventies. Some of these people were advocating, and there was some presence at City Hill, but people just thought they were all nutters.
Well, they dressed like they were the hipsters. They were like hippies. Big time.
In the 1980s, as an employee of the Vancouver Park Board, Nelson’s skills and leadership in recreation, youth education and community programs caught the eye of city staff and council, including Councillor Gordon Price and Mayor Gordon Campbell.
The rising popularity in cycling, and early rumblings about the impact of fossil fuels and densification from development growth, led to the realization that there was probably more to gain from working with cycling activists, than excluding them or working against them.
And as part of that, Nelson would become critically important as someone who was able to work with city staff, elected officials and the public on nurturing those first shoots and green sprigs from the ground — that which would eventually grow to become Vancouver’s cycling network.
There was this unsanctioned bicycle committee, this small core group, and they were seen as the fringe. Gordon [Price] asked me to be on the committee, and said, "You need to learn the language of the engineers. You need to learn the language of the planners."
Which was very smart, and I did and I learned that. But at the same time Gordon restructured the committee and also made it a Committee of Council, so we had direct link to City Council.
The more I spoke to Nelson, the more it became clear that this was not some big government initiative to change society.
First, it was the work of one person, encouraged by a councillor and the mayor, to corral a group of activists and help organize their voices into something that could be codified into reasonable policy; their work would inform what became the city's first Comprehensive Bicycle Plan.
Second, it was a committee that had to work with, and solicit the support of, city staff. This was the group of people upon whom these 'nutters' had to rely, to take their recommendations and turn them into plans and designs...and ultimately infrastructure that could be built by the engineers. No small task.
Lastly, the resulting plans, at times, needed support from the pro-business, pro-development NPA-led Council.
Today, someone with this responsibility would be paid big bucks to do that job. And there would be a line a mile long to get that job.
I was strictly a volunteer. I worked almost full-time for nothing, for four years. Pushing all these recommendations, to all these various departments.
And if I got push-back from departments, and I did a lot, I just went to Council. You know, we're trying to do this, and we're getting pushback. But we had full support from Council.
So okay, definitely not some big government initiative, led by a bureaucrat in a cushy chair. But at least Vancouver had other examples to draw from — at least there was a blueprint, right?
There was some strong stuff going on in Toronto before us. Not a lot in North America.
But we were in a better position because of our design. We don't have freeways in the City of Vancouver. In Seattle, they can't do this kind of stuff because they destroyed their city with freeways. And we haven't. None whatsoever.
The lack of freeways, and the relatively late development of downtown, opened up some amazing possibilities for Nelson and the newly formed Bicycle Advisory Committee (now the Active Transportation Policy Council), and very early on.
When I was first living in the West End, there were all the rail tracks still here. False Creek was just a pit. I remember my brother bought a boat back in 1979. There were big signs on the water, right there where BC Place Stadium is now: "Do not fall into the water - toxic." It stunk.
So after Expo '86, that's when Gordon Campbell and Gordon Price were restructuring the advisory committee, and we thought okay, this is going to be seaside. So we ended up calling it Seaside.
This is going to be Seaside, and this will be our hub. It's recreational, it will connect. And we saw all these connectors.
Not all visions of change went through council smoothly. Despite idealogical alignment on some issues, residents in some communities used their privilege to take a contrary view of proposed changes, to steer cycling paths elsewhere.
Oh, the Kitsilano people. They were advocates for cycling and transit use, but oh, you can't go down Point Grey Road. No, you can't do that.
And it was so ironic that they came out of the environmental and peace movement, and they advocated for all those things. But when it actually came down to putting something like this through their neighbourhood — absolutely not suitable. Ah, it's too narrow of a road, you can't take away that parking — none whatsoever.
It just took thirty years, that's okay.
Despite seeing some big wins come over the past thirty years, as a result of those early efforts from the Bicycle Advisory Committee, Nelson is still very much aware that ignorance about the civic planning process can drive votes and, for all the wrong reasons, undo some of the progress that has been made.
This isn't Gregor Robertson. This is specific policy that we put into place thirty, forty years ago. This is what we decided to do incrementally, over the course of years.
So you just can't point your fingers at him. And these are all people about my age, saying, "Gregor Robertson and the [expletive] bike paths." I was like, "Get a grip. You have no idea, you don't know the history.”
And that's all I can say. You don't know your stuff, you don't know what you're talking about. That's the bottom line.
I ask Nelson, what keep him committed? Why do all that work for free, when there was no certain outcome, no idea how it would all end up?
Because it was important…it was going to make the city a better place to be.
I remember riding to the Lions Gate Bridge when the sidewalks were like this wide, and they were literally dipped in. And the buses come by and you had to duck your head in, otherwise you'd get whacked, right?
So when people say, "oh what a waste of money, re-doing that bridge", now I look at the amount of cyclists coming over that bridge every day. And Burrard. And Cambie Street.
What about now? Does he ever feel the pull back into advocacy, with conditions so different for cycling, people inside City Hall and outside, in our schools, communities and workplaces, so accepting of active transportation?
No, I appreciate just watching everybody, and I know — thanks, I did my job.
Seriously, I look at that and I go, I've made people's lives better. Based on some stuff that I got excited about years ago. I was in the right time, in the right place. I've made the city better, in such a nice way. That's pretty cool.