Only a handful of people can claim to have been working in cycling advocacy in Vancouver in four different decades.
Richard Campbell is perhaps the most prominent.
Due to his knowledge of the issues, his visibility in the movement, and his relentlessly single-minded approach, Richard is the name everybody knows.
Because everybody, it seems, has worked with Richard in one way or another.
Using such broad generalizations about a person is usually the mark of either sloppy research or writing, but with Richard, it would be pretty hard to prove me wrong on this point.
Like Ringo or Oprah, he has a last name that nobody ever needs to use. Just go talk to Richard.
But if you know him, you may not be able to picture Richard the teenager.
I was getting concerned about the environment — this was one of the waves of concern around climate change.
I wanted to get my own car and I realized, "Oh, this isn't a great thing to do."
I was looking for an alternative. I got myself a ten-speed, and taught myself how to ride a bike in the back streets of Richmond.
It started off for recreation. And then for utility. At some point I gave up my car.
Back then when you saw another cyclist on the road, it was like, "Hey, hi how's it going?"
Richard was young, and he was out of work, but he wasn't idle — he was figuring things out.
He began volunteering with The Wilderness Committee, an important voice in the Vancouver's emergent advocacy community, and a leading edge in the fight for eyeballs, which at the time was a war waged in print. ("I was helping out in the mailroom and stuffing envelopes, stuff like that.")
At the movement level, environment has long overlapped with cycling — if not at the institutional level (in terms of fundraising or campaigns), then at the cultural level, as groups of people with shared values, ideology and language.
A lot of environmental advocates rides bikes. And a lot of people who ride bikes fly the earth flag. It's the travel mug and cup-holder thing.
In terms of figuring things out in general, I know it well. I had jobs like Richard had at the Wilderness Committee, and at around the same age. I didn't like it, but I was paid for the work I did, and I didn't look for more than that.
Richard was a volunteer in a place he valued, and where he was valued, with is the ultimate volunteer experience. There was no money, but it was still a value exchange — The Wilderness Committee got Richard's sweat and attention to detail so important things could get done. And he got to learn, and meet new people. Like The Bicycle People.
I heard about things Gavin and The Bicycle People were doing. It was the grassroots community I wasn't much aware of.
There was a ride, probably sometime in 1990. I showed up, there was like 100, 150 people.
We rode around with gas masks.
There hasn't been a great Hollywood film about the urban cycling movements in North America, beginning in the 1970s. But that could be your opening scene right there.
It could be the way he said it, or the way it might look on the screen. Picture polite, conservative Vancouver of the 1980s, with Richard, Gavin and a few others, bare-chested and on their bikes at Beach and Denman, wearing gas masks and waving flags, with AC/DC on the boombox.
This is not what happened. It's a completely fictional image. But again, think movie.
There wasn't really much going on for cycling in the city back then.
There wasn't any of the bikeway network. There was a bit of path around False Creek but it didn't connect yet. It's not like there were twenty bikes at a light. Usually it was just you and traffic.
So it was a way for people to get together. It was really good at creating a community that you need.
Over the past few generations, Vancouver has cultivated strong precedent for marginalized but organized, vocal minorities to express their anger, and do it in creative — and effective — ways.
Strathcona preservationists in the 1960s. Greenpeace-branded environmentalism in the '70s. Adbusters anti-consumerism in the '80s.
The template was there, and perhaps some cultural DNA from those earlier movements rubbed off on The Bicycle People.
It was a protest movement. We wanted to get people together and making a statement, hey we've got some problems out there. We've got pollution, we have climate change — that was part of the big focus.
Some of it was certainly that there's too many cars around, it's not safe out there, we need alternatives. Change needs to happen.
The activism was fun — the rides, and stuff like that. And it was somewhat empowering too.
If it sounds a little bit like Critical Mass, then you could be right. There are still stories to be told about Critical Mass specifically, but let it not be forgotten that in Vancouver, its seeds were planted by The Bicycle People.
Most people would not associate Richard with performance-based activism these days; so much of his recent career has been focused on strategy, policy and funding that make the wheels go 'round.
Take away the gas masks, and The Bicycle People represented communities that wanted change. Which would require influence. That can only be earned through more reach. And that took more people. And money.
There were grants available from Environment Canada — you needed a society to do that. So we actually tried calling the society The Bicycle People, but that was rejected.
'Better environmentally sound transportation' was a slogan on a poster I made at a meeting?
Andy Telfer said, "Why don't we call it B.E.S.T.? We tried that, and that was the name that was accepted."
That was almost 30 years ago, and while the name's precise meaning is eerily more relevant now than it's ever been, back then nobody understood the implications of trying to Google "BEST vancouver". (Try it. And then try "better vancouver".)
But it was an excellent name for getting grants. Which they eventually did.
Right out of the gate, they formed a Board, and got to work.
We would pick a particular issue, like Burrard Bridge or the Lions Gate, or the opening of the Cassiar Connector.
[Cassiar was] probably the first time we actually had a measurable impact. They didn't improve the bridge much for cycling, nor the access to the bridge. It was a missed opportunity.
They were having the opening ceremony, and it was in the tunnel, the Minister of Transportation was there. We had managed to rally around 70 people on bikes out there.
When the Minister started speaking, everyone spontaneously started ringing their bells. It was in the middle of the tunnel and all of a sudden I was surrounded by ten cameras.
After that there was a policy on every new bridge that they would do something for cycling. And I think that was a direct result of that.
A milestone cycling policy — but what about the Cassiar Connector? What bridge?
The Ironworkers Memorial Bridge connecting Vancouver and the District of North Vancouver was upgraded in 1992, alongside the construction of the Cassiar Connector, a six-lane tunnel passing under Hastings and Adanac streets, feeding bridge traffic into the city and further along Highway 1. While the bridge was given 120cm-wide pedestrian and bicycle paths, it was a perilous approach from both North Vancouver and the bridge's southern landing in the vicinity of Cassiar Street.
It took twenty more years for the Province to return to the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge and finally install sidewalks wide enough for a bicycle to safely pass another bicycle (or a pedestrian) safely. Not to mention improved connections on the north end in the District of North Vancouver.
But also, some things didn't change.
Access to the bridge is really quite horrible. Arguably it was made worse.
I think they added the barriers a couple of years later. Back then you'd be cycling over the bridge, there's be no barrier between you and the traffic, and it was really quite nasty. And portions of it still are.
With B.E.S.T. , Richard would serve as founding Director, President and eventually Director of Active Transportation.
In 1998, he joined a small group of people in founding the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition, a regionally-focused non-profit that would focus exclusively on cycling advocacy in Metro Vancouver, for which he was the first President of the Board.
Throughout all this time — and over and above all the infrastructure and facilities he has worked so tirelessly for, including but not limited to the Cambie Canada Line Pedestrian and Cycling Bridge, the Central Valley Greenway, the Stanley Park Causeway improvements, bike lanes on Burrard Bridge, and so many others — he's also continually thought big.
Nobody like Richard exists at the strategy or policy level in our provincial or local governments. There may be leaders and lawmakers who work with advocates to advance transportation cycling behind closed doors, and the growing numbers who will pay lip service to the viability and value of cycling to the media and the public, but nobody has political will to challenge the status quo and take on all the haters the way Richard does.
Because in addition to having everything to gain on behalf of his community, he also has nothing to lose. And maybe neither do we.
Invest in cycling, and you might be able to delay hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in the transit corridor.
One of those trains is $5 million. So if you don't need a train because more people are biking, that's something that can be put somewhere else in the system for expansion.
It would take some planning work to say, okay we're going to invest ten or fifteen millions dollars in the Central Valley Greenway route, and that will become a viable option for folks.
Bikes are a great complement — the transit system gets overloaded between five and ten kilometres from the downtown core. In Vancouver, it's Metrotown to the Main Street section. So get more people on their bikes for that segment.
So let's clear the air here. Richard's overall point is we should invest $1 billion in cycling in the Province of British Columbia. A Billion for Bikes as a campaign is brilliant for its simplicity and boldness, because as a 10-year line item in the provincial budget, it's a concept a politician can understand, if not agree with.
But to people who, over decades, have accepted scraps from a province unwilling to make a major commitment to active transportation, "A Billion for Bikes" isn't just too simple or too bold, it's too brash. It's too much.
I'm used to riding on the shoulder here, and you want me to suddenly take the lane?
One of the advocates has actually said, "This is way too much money, this is ridiculous. Why put it out there, you'll just get laughed at?"
Well you might get laughed at the first time, but you keep putting it out there and you back it up with numbers and success and experience elsewhere, you can start to make the case.
But you don't do that, you're never going to get the funding that you need, and it's never going to meet anywhere near its potential.
So back to how you can make change in cities. Set aside all the navel-gazing of urban planning and problem-solving of engineering — all that ideation and creation of systems of movement.
Instead, think about history and number — what we've experienced in society to date in this city, and how we can measure it, and telegraph it ahead. And then, let's agree on what's a reasonable expectation for the future. Let's now call that a vision.
It's easy to make the theoretical case, "Oh you build this, and people will bike."
But there wasn't really the evidence that people would do that. Now with the explosion in Vancouver of the past four or five years, you can start to make that case because you're actually seeing the numbers. The city is keeping the numbers on a yearly basis.
So you can start to point to investments and other efforts that have increased the number of people on their bikes. For a while there, while transit was increasing in the region, it was decreasing in the City of Vancouver while more people were walking and cycling.
And if you look at other cities around the world where they don't have many people driving, typically what you'll get is 30% of people using transit, and 30% of people walking and cycling.
We're not doing too badly on the walking, but it's the cycling, it's the low hanging fruit. There's a lot of people that want to do it, that aren't doing it simply because it's not safe and convenient
Like many people who have been working in the field forever, the logic and facts seem to spill out quite naturally. And it always sounds very reasonable.
But as with others I've spoken to, I sense a bit of frustration in Richard that, once again, he has to tell this same story. To lay out the same logic, provide the same vision, and continue to push government from the outside.
NDP, Liberal, Green, NPA, COPE, Vision — it’s all the same. ("Some of this stuff, like UnGaptheMap work, should really be done by government. It's a bit annoying that they're not.") The decision-makers may change, the numbers may begin to shift, new campaigns may come and go, but the need, the imperative is still there.
And so is Richard. He’s not going to stop until he convinces you. And it’s a pretty compelling argument.
Move it from the theoretical 'build it and they will come' to 'we built it and they came’. Use those examples to make the case of why it should be planned as a form of mass transportation, and funded accordingly.
People want to support cycling because they want to do it, not because they think it's a way to get other people out of their cars. And that's something we need to address.