Stop me if I've typed this before (well — too late), but one of the gifts of this project has been meeting people whom I didn't know existed, people who have actually, quietly, played important roles in ushering in many of the changes that advocates fought for, in some cases for decades.
Rachel is one of them, helping turn policies and priorities for cycling into legacies.
Born in Halifax, her ultimate westward migration went through Winnipeg, where she completed high school and university. She came to Vancouver a lifelong love of cycling, a Bachelor's of Science degree. Oh yes — and a degree in civil engineering to top it off.
Because what do you do with a science degree in the early '90s, and there's no jobs?
I started working for a consulting firm in transportation engineering. If there were ever any cycling aspects to the projects that they were working on, they knew that I was interested.
Women were not unknown in engineering at that time — I spent a lot of time immersed in undergraduate engineering culture in the '90s, and a shift was clearly underway then with regards to the historical gender imbalance — but representation is just one small part of the story.
Culture is another, and change could be slow in that regard. Engineering culture is actually a recurring theme elsewhere in this blog, but not from a gendered perspective. And that's because even when people like Rachel do come along, it's hard to address the elephant in the room.
As a female engineer in training, they didn't necessarily pat you on the head and say, "there there", but it was a little like that.
Around the roles of women in society, if you're assertive, you're treated differently than a man who's being assertive. It makes you feel like you're always supposed to be nice.
Playing nice, coincidentally, was also in the cycling advocacy arsenal, so this was a tactic that served Rachel well in two different, marginal, but aligned worlds.
In the early days of cycling, and still sometimes now, people who see the world from behind the windshield of their cars don't necessarily take you that seriously.
One of my usual approaches was just to let everybody know that I rode my bike all the time, and if there were ever any cycling aspects of projects I was happy to help on them.
Rather than being hard-nosed about things, I was more of a soft-pedalling lifestyle bicycle advocate.
Be nice and work hard.
One of the first things you learn about Rachel is she's ready to laugh — few other portrait subjects gave Jenn and I so many genuinely happy (not just 'nice') — photographs to choose from, none of them forced or posed.
The image used in this profile is just about the only serious one, and I felt I owed it to anyone who knows Rachel to show her not smiling for once.
Her friendly, sociable countenance could have been a factor in making friends in her early years in Vancouver. Plus, she made a purposeful decision to do it, and do it right.
I knew people from Winnipeg who lived in Vancouver, but I wanted to expand my circle so that I wasn't just hanging out with my friends from Winnipeg.
So one of the avenues for that was meeting people in the cycling community. There were times almost every day when you'd nearly be hit by a car, and it was great to have people to talk to about those experiences, and work towards making improvements on that.
I didn't realize that riding my bike in city traffic was going to be so terrifying — there weren't really options going from Commercial Drive to the west side of downtown Vancouver where I worked, without being quite involved with traffic.
Rachel met and eventually started to socialize with some of the people found elsewhere in this blog. She casually breezes past the fact that she was around during the early days of Critical Mass. That she served on the Board of the VACC, which became HUB Cycling. And that she was part of the formation of the VACC Vancouver local committee.
It could be because, although it was an important time of her life and she made lasting connections, the role that came next to her was the real jewel in the crown.
Few have made the pivot as successfully — moving from advocacy into government, and helping to make a difference from the inside.
I moved to Translink in 2006 [in part] because I could actually work on transit and cycling projects. I was delighted about that.
When I first started at Translink I got to work on the Bicycle Infrastructure Capital Cost Sharing program and the Major Road Network Minor Capital Program. They've since combined to become the Major Road Network and Bikes program — MRNB for short.
Translink is the regional transit authority that also happens to be responsible for the major road network that lies outside of the province's purview (don't worry — it's complicated), as well as bicycling as a mode of transportation.
And those programs Rachel mentioned? They're important because they contributed to an opening of the cupboard.
(You didn't expect me to say "opening of the floodgates" did you? Remember, this is cycling!)
Municipalities would come forward with regionally significant projects, they would be ranked against each other, and Translink would pay up to 50% of the project funds.
One of the great things about that program is that it got a lot of projects off the ground. In many cases, the municipalities paid more than fifty cents on the dollar because only so much funding was available. But between the provincial funding and the Translink funding that was available from 2001 onwards, a lot of incremental cycling improvements were made.
And they continue — there's new projects every year.
Ignore my cupboard/floodgates crack — Rachel is absolutely correct.
And given the hoops and legalities, and yes, politics, that Rachel was exposed to and had to navigate in her role working at Translink and with its various stakeholders, it would have been very easy for someone coming from a 'classic' (or perhaps stereotypical) activist-advocate background to keep a cool head.
But Rachel had already learned in her earlier experiences that sometimes the best way to break the ice on new concepts, or really changes of any kind, is to start tapping at it. Gently. And sometimes the cracks eventually take on their own life. You just need patience.
BC Parkway was a big one for several years, getting it organized and off the ground, because the property ownership is actually quite complicated.
Translink has a license to use BC Hydro property for the Skytrain and for the BC Parkway, from about Nanaimo Station to almost New West station. It's called the Central Park Corridor.
But there's other license holders on that utility corridor, including Southern Rail. We can't just move in and build the BC Parkway on land that used to have rail tracks on it, because environmental reviews around contamination still need to be resolved. It's more complicated than one would realize from the outside.
Rachel's efforts over the years to advance and support steady improvements to the BC Parkway — things like lighting, accessibility and crossing improvements, signs including destinations and distances as well as pavement markings — led to an award from the Institute of Transportation Engineers for this wonderful and well-used facility.
Yet from where she sits, perhaps because so many of the things she works on are almost obvious and have been long-needed, she credits political vision and will for much of what we see today, especially in the City of Vancouver.
Because Mayor Gregor Robertson rides a bike, it's been easier to make improvements.
It's happening at a political level in Vancouver. I do think that having politicians that are interested in cycling and make it a priority for organizations, that makes things happen.
She's also quite charitable about former opponents to cycling improvements. In the time it took from her to leave advocacy to today, the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association has done "an about face", in Rachel's judgment. It's not only part of the puzzle, it's something to remember. That people can change.
And two decades is plenty of time to do an about face. It's fair.
But back in the day, I remember [them] saying, "Well we can't expect that people are going to ride their bikes into downtown."
So just when you think there's nobody looking out for the person on a bike in government, know that there are people like Rachel making incremental progress.
During Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place in 2016, I did a bike tour together with the City of Vancouver. People from all over North America and some from Europe were on our little bike tour, along the seaside bike route and out to the BC Parkway.
It was a beautiful sunny day, there were a million cyclists out. Looking at it from their perspective was like, wow — it's really happening here.
We've come a long way. It makes me feel hopeful.