February 22, 2020

BIKE MINDS 2020 - Using Data to Effect Change

On January 30, 2020, I was honoured to join five other presenters at BIKE MINDS; a bicycle storytelling series co-founded by Matt Pinder and Michelle Kearns. The theme of the event was "Bikes and Growth" and featured the following:
  • Julia Huys - A lawyer who shared her experiences cycling from London (Ontario) to St. John's (Newfoundland) with her father
  • Kevin Dunal - A corporate executive who shared his story about how he and his wife became carfree
  • Ryan Shissler - Cycle Toronto's Communications Lead who shared how the bicycle helped deal with his mental (and financial) health
  • David Shellnut - The Biking Lawyer who reflected on his recent assault by a motorist and shared information on what to do in the event of a crash
  • Agata Rudd - An environmental entrepreneur who talked about biking 5000 km in southeast asia with her partner
My story about about using data to effect change in Toronto's cycling community. I encourage you to read the recap of all speakers on Dandyhorse and view all videos here (except for Kevin Dunal's due to technical difficulties). This post includes the video of my presentation as well as the transcript.

Good evening! Thank you Janet Joy for emceeing Bike Minds tonight, as well as to the fellow presenters for your inspiring stories.

While my love for cycling and politics started during my youth, it wasn’t until seven years ago when I started biking in Toronto – and after a few years of accounting experience in – when I combined the two interests. During my time doing bike advocacy – including with Cycle Toronto and writing my Two Wheeled Politics blog – I found a path which involved the use of data and personal experiences to effect change which I would like to share with you.

Follow The Money
2001 Bike Plan Map
When learning the ropes back in 2013, I found out how far behind Toronto was with their 2001 Bike Plan which was less than a quarter completed and I started asking the question, “why was the bike plan failing?” Given my accounting background, I read the City of Toronto’s budget to find some answers given – to paraphrase Brent Toderian – budgets rather than visions reveal a city’s true priorities. While reading the notes to find out what the $8 million per year at the time funded, there was a note saying it included 80 kilometres of bike lanes over ten years. Compared to the almost 500 kilometres called for in the bike plan, something didn’t add up.
Cycle Toronto distributed these spoke cards in June 2015 in response to three cycling deaths
I used the next one to two years to learn more about the city budget and raise awareness by talking with city staff and fellow cycling advocates at every opportunity. I helped some of Cycle Toronto’s ward groups prepare a joint submission for the 2015 budget and did a deputation at city hall that year. This awareness helped lay the foundation for Cycle Toronto’s own campaign for more funding – specifically $20 million per year – in response to three cycling deaths in June 2015. City staff in turn looked at different funding levels for the new bike plan, which was ultimately doubled to $16 million per year when approved in 2016.

Collect The Data
One of the Dandyhorse year in review articles I wrote with Albert Koehl
Unfortunately, increasing the budget wasn’t enough to build momentum. There were several problems such as the city not fully spending their budget, poor co-ordination with capital works projects, and the need for every bike lane to go back to city council. To help hold the city accountable, my friend Albert Koehl approached me with an idea to track the progress of the bike plan (or lack thereof). To do this, we identified which projects were approved each year and either visited the sites ourselves or asked local advocates to confirm the installations. Sometimes, the advocates already posted the new bike lane on social media. Each year since early 2018, Albert and I prepared a year in review to present our findings.
Map of bike lane installations from 2016 to 2019 - Orange represents 2019

Last January, our Dandyhorse article “WTF is up with the bike plan?” revealed only 25 kilometres of bike lanes were installed from 2016 to 2018. The findings of this widely shared article generated discussion in the media and helped prompt the city to rethink the bike plan; instead opting for three year plans with a proposed long term major cycling network. Unfortunately, 2019 was even more dismal with only three kilometres installed; meaning less than 10% of the proposed 335 kilometres were installed over four years. To assist people in visualizing this lack of progress, I put the bike lane installations in this map which, along with the latest year in review, was widely shared and got picked up by BlogTO.

Make It Personal
My bike and train commute on Bike to Work Day 2015
Using such hard hitting data is more effective when we can relate to it on a personal level. Back in 2015 when I was working in Pickering, I drove to work. At the time, I assumed it was too far to bike to work from Parkdale and it was impractical by public transit. However, the Pan Am Games were coming to town and I had used bikes and GO Transit before to visit family in Ajax, though there were rush hour restrictions to deal with. I also heard of some people who biked at least 30 kilometres each way to work, which is almost as far as my work at the time. Something had to change. I looked up a few options to get to Danforth GO – the closest station which I could bring my bike on the train – and realized I could use the Waterfront Trail and some quiet streets to go from Rouge Hill GO to work. On Bike To Work Day that year, I finally biked to work which took an hour 20 minutes including the train ride.
One of the Tour de Bloor meetups in 2017 to promote businesses along the Bloor bike lanes
The first time doing the bike and train commute felt great and I remembered how priceless my boss’ reaction was when he saw my bike. As I biked to work more, I started realizing things I didn’t before when driving when you are focused on getting from A to B and treat everything as an obstacle. On a bike, you are more likely to notice nature such as bunnies hopping on a trail or stop at a new business for food or drink. Even better when meeting up with friends such as with the Tour de Bloor meetups in 2017. It’s also a lot easier to socialize on a bike and you never know who you end up riding with for at least part of your commute.
Flooding on the Rouge River in 2017
However, this routine wasn’t without its challenges. The lack of winter trail maintenance in Pickering ruled out winter cycling, while there were times the Rouge River flooded and made getting on the bridge difficult. Riding on Danforth did not feel safe and I ended up avoiding the street when the Woodbine bike lanes opened the last summer before switching jobs. Using Woodbine allowed me to get to Danforth GO almost exclusively by bike lanes, but it meant not seeing some of the shops on Danforth. It all goes to show people riding bikes will frequent shops more if protected bike lanes are installed on arterials such as Danforth and Bloor.

Bring It Home

With the data collected and a story to share, it’s time to bring it all home and apply what I learned to a campaign. For me, that meant the Bloor bike lane extension to Runnymede which I have been working on with Albert Koehl and Laura Bast of the Davenport group, as well as Cycle Toronto staff. We used the dismal installation numbers as justification to push for a 2020 installation of the Bloor extension in a community letter which got 100 businesses in the extension area alone plus another 50 from other businesses and community groups. We distributed 8000 postcards in the area and organized the “Westward HO!” event last April to rally supporters. All three councillors in the area expressed support for the extension and encouraged residents to attend the recent public meetings (including one earlier today).
Westward Ho! event in April 2019
While there remains key committee and city council votes in May, I remain cautiously optimistic we can celebrate the new extension in August. Maybe Danforth too if we are lucky. Until then, let’s keep asking questions, keep getting the data, and keep sharing our stories with those outside of this room.

Thank you.

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