Peter S.

Peter has spent much of his career at the nexus of not just two worlds, but four.

One pair of worlds has consisted of his long-time employment in local government working on transportation planning, which coincided with his early, influential role as a lead volunteer advocate with a provincially-funded cycling association — a tricky balance on its own. 

The other set of worlds was similarly fraught with potential conflict — as both a confident vehicular cyclist, comfortable sharing roads with motor vehicles, and as one of the people responsible for ushering in dedicated facilities for a new generation of bicycle users, particularly women, youth, and other 'interested but concerned' riders.

He might just as easily not found himself in such a position, were it not for his spirit of friendly competition.

Originally from Agassiz, Peter moved to Vancouver as a teen, and two close calls on the road in rapid succession —one with a bus, one with a truck — led him to abandon cycling for a full decade.

It wasn't until after he'd tucked some life experience under his belt, and received post-secondary credentials in urban planning, that a bicycle came back into his routine. 

I had been walking to work because we lived within about four kilometres. And then we moved to Burnaby mountain to a housing coop.  So the distance ballooned to 18 kilometres, and I started driving. 
A very good friend of mine who lived in an adjacent housing coop said to me, "How can you possibly justify driving a car to work and back?" 
He was cycling similar distances because he worked in Vancouver. I said, if he can do it, I can do it. 
So I went out and bought a bike, and started riding again. I went from not cycling at all, to cycling to work days when the weather wasn't really bad, to daily cycling.

The 1970s was as much a time of cultural change in Vancouver as the '60s, and not just in neighbourhoods like Kitsilano (a haven for hippies and the birthplace of Greenpeace), The West End (an Eden for gay culture) and Strathcona (an early ground zero for the fight against gentrification, nestled between Chinatown, Gastown and the Downtown East Side).

It was also happening in the seat of government itself. And that's where Peter worked — at Vancouver city hall, as a planner.

Though it wasn't exactly a revolution, biking to work was a sign of times yet to come, and for Peter it came down to a few very practical considerations.

I figured out how to be comfortable through driving rain, and how to pack my gear properly, and so on. 
One factor which was very supportive was the fact that at City Hall we had a shower and change room, which had been the brainchild of councillor Helen Boyce. She wasn't a cyclist, but she understood that it was important to provide those facilities for people who did want to commute actively. And she pushed it, and got it done. 

No longer comprised almost exclusively of white men, members of council were collectively becoming more representative and reflective of local government's various constituencies (though, a few hangovers from the old boy era persisted until the 1980s — the term 'alderman' for council members of both genders, as well as the double initial. As in, "Now see here R.A, I think D.H. and W.O. have a point.")

These newly acknowledged constituencies included not just women and ethnic minorities, but also people of all stripes with values and concerns more global, and perhaps more existential, in nature.

People these days may find it strange, but by the mid-seventies and early eighties, we knew about global warming. It's not a new thing — we knew way back then that we needed to reduce the use of internal combustion engines
And that's why, when my friend challenged me on it, it didn't take me long to come to the conclusion that he was absolutely right, and that I had no defence.
Transit was relatively poor in those days — a bicycle was by far the most efficient way to do it without starting up an internal combustion engine. 

If you want to get a much better sense of some of the origins and influence Vancouver's new urbanism movement, check out this excellent piece in The Guardian on the rise and fall of the grand inner city freeway plan from the decade that preceded this point in time.

So you may agree that the cracks in the establishment thinking were starting to show, and it was up to people like Peter — and a few other 'pre-advocates' who found themselves embedded in places of power — to stick their fingers into those cracks and start wiggling around.

But of course, Peter could only go so far and keep his job. He knew enough not to overtly rankle his employer. So he wisely decided to look beyond City Hall, for other ways to make a difference.

Working in traffic management and transportation planning, I had some background knowledge of those areas. I started looking around to see who else was involved.
I met Ken Wilson, who was the vice president of recreation and transportation for the Bicycle Association of BC as it was called in those days. All cycling endeavours were contained under that umbrella. It was pretty well the only game in town.  
I think he felt that keeping the recreation and transportation sector alive was important. He had the support of Danelle Laidlaw, who was the executive director, and who was really quite strong in recreation and transportation.
Those two individuals got me involved in advocacy. I said, "Well maybe that's something I can take on." And I did. 

And thus began Peter's foray into the world of volunteer advocacy, meeting with provincial government officials and staff on regional cycling issues, while somehow balancing his day job in transportation planning for the local municipal government. 

Was he looking for headaches?

I was motivated personally as a daily cyclist, and as a transportation practitioner I saw how a lot of transportation infrastructure was contrary to properly accommodating cycling.
I felt myself in somewhat a unique position — having an understanding, and being able to talk the language of the transportation practitioners. 

It's a sentiment that is reflected by dozens of people I have spoken to on this project, and not just as generalized sentiments; people specifically remarked on Peter's role in the evolution of cycling in this region.

The benefit of having someone with the expertise and the cultural knowledge, working both provincially and locally, is something that impacts today's vast numbers of people who use bicycles for any utilitarian purpose.

But it wasn't all warm and fuzzy. In fact, many of Peter's stories about projects he worked on sound like they come straight from the Keystone Kops. And not for lack of trying on thre advocacy side. Projects like:

  • BC Parkway ("Kind of fiddled into existence just before Expo 86 — some of it was just crap, and we said so, but their timeline was so tight that essentially the city engineer got the call saying, "whatever they want to do, let them do it.")
  • Cambie Bridge ("I tried to get my bosses to put bike facilities when it was being built, which was blown off.")
  • Mandatory Adult Helmet legislation ("We said whoa, we don't think this is a good idea, we're not prepared to endorse this, we have a lot of questions, [and] we expressed our concerns about suppressing cycling demand — but it was too late. The cabinet made the decision, they were essentially just informing us.") 
  • 1996 Burrard Bridge trial ("It's such a stupid thing — we should have done it southbound. Secondly, we should have at least given it the next day.")
  • Port Mann Bridge north access ("We were told at this meeting, we know this is not optimal, that it should be better, but what we'll do is we'll let them build it the way it's designed, and then we'll come back and fix it later — and the 'fix it later' never came.")
  • Pitt River Bridge west access...well, go for a ride east along the Traboulay PoCo Trail, and see for yourself.

As we know, good things can come from mistakes, whether our own or those of others. For one, you learn. Secondly, when you reach bottom (or if you can convince yourself, "OK, this MUST be bottom"), you can only go up, right?

But in the case of trying to influence government, if you give up after even numerous losses, you might miss that one important opportunity to actually help bring about important change.

Such as it was with the 1992 Cassiar connector project, which was supposed to provide a proper cycling connection from the south end of the Second Narrows Bridge into Vancouver and Burnaby.

Towards the end of the project, I showed up at a construction meeting and I was told, without warning, "Oh that path that was on the plans, we didn't do that, we were running short of money so we did something else."
They didn't even tell us what they were doing. They just went ahead and did it.
Out of that we actually began a dialogue with the Minister [Art Charbonneau]. Danelle and I met with him in his office in Victoria, and we began a dialogue. There had been contact between Cycling BC and the Ministry prior to that, but as far as I know that was the first time that we had a face-to-face on cycling issues. 
Danelle and I met again with the next Minister of Transportation, Jackie Pement. At that meeting I proposed to her that the province set up a matching fund for cycling infrastructure in order to prompt municipalities to take on creating cycling infrastructure. Senior staff were looking terribly concerned and negative.
Three months later, the government announced it. For a time it was known as the Cycling Network Program. Now they call it Bike BC.

Persistence leads to the ability to form relationships, which can lead to shared understanding, which can eventually lead to change.

And then there are straight up wins, the kind of thoughtful work conducted by many people of like mind, which is difficult and sometimes not obvious, but can have the greatest and most immediate impact. The kind of impact you might never be able to actually predict, and if you did, they'd call you crazy.

Like local street bikeways. A simple concept — relatively inexpensive push-button signals, traffic diversions, and minor improvements at crossings to allow bikes to stay off major arterials and away from heavy motor vehicle traffic, and achieve greater continuous passage along longer distances. And could have been seen as micro-engineering, or meddling in communities, or simply a waste of time.

Local street bikeways, in my view, really opened up cycling in Vancouver, and by extension the Lower Mainland. 
The first project was Adanac. At the Hawk Street cul-de-sac, there was no let-down on the west side. You could get onto the sidewalk, and then you had to jump down to get onto the road.
So people been building guerrilla bike ramps. Someone would take a sack of cement, mix it up and build a ramp in the middle of the night. And then the city crews would find out and break it up, and then somebody would build another ramp. So we thought okay, this is obviously the place to start. 
We had 1.3% mode share for cycling in the City of Vancouver in 1994, which would have been just after the Adanac bikeway was completed.  By 1998, it had doubled to 2.7%. That was the period of time during which that initial rudimentary network of local street bikeways was built.

Today, areas of Vancouver have 10%, 15% and even 20% mode share, due in large part to an ever expanding and network of bike-friendly routes.

Talking to Peter, and not always clearly thinking of which hat he may have worn on which issue or project, the lines can blur between where his work in Vancouver's planning department ended and where his regional advocacy via Cycling BC, VACC/HUB, BCCC, and other groups began. 

He's quick to not only clarify his opinions, but highlight the efforts of others, just as easily as others highlight his own.

I give Gordon Price and enormous amount of credit for institutionalizing cycling, not only in Vancouver but actually regionally. He was very good, and even while he was the council liaison to the Bicycle Advisory Committee, he hardly ever attended a meeting. 
I think he did that purposely — first of all, so that he wasn't identified as a single-issue candidate. Very easy to be 'the cycling councillor'.
And I think he cleverly set up conditions where advocates could have a bit of leverage with staff without interjecting himself. 

The bottom line with Peter, setting aside for the moment the enormous breadth and depth of his involvement in cycling in Greater Vancouver over four decades, is that he could very easily have found himself greatly conflicted, and thus ultimately ineffective, in either his advocacy work, his staff role at the City of Vancouver, or even both. 

Instead, he found a balance, and one which speaks to the unique, historical evolution of this region's advocacy movement, and a that which may yet be in our future.

There are good models out there like Vélo Québec, and the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, where activists became practitioners. And in the case of those two organizations, they're hired to deliver bicycle projects. So the advocates have become practitioners.
I really like that model — advocacy really becomes financially self-sustaining, the advocates become the experts. Whereas I think here we have a lot of advocates who don't have a lot of expertise, and they're focusing on the separation. We need to mature to the point where we have advocates who are knowledgeable enough to advocate for quality, separated infrastructure.
What it requires is acquiring enough knowledge as advocates to be able to speak to those issues.