January 11, 2024

Early Days of Cycle Toronto with Yvonne Bambrick

Last month’s interview with Alison Stewart took a more recent look at Cycle Toronto including a reflection of last year’s accomplishments. However, I wasn’t that familiar with their early days as the Toronto Cyclist Union (a.k.a. Bike Union) given I first got a membership in September 2012 and joined the local ward group in Parkdale (then Ward 14) in early 2013. I spoke with their founding Executive Director – Yvonne Bambrick – on November 13, 2023 to learn more, as well as discuss the role of BIA’s, Vélo Canada Bikes, and "The Urban Cycling Survival Guide".

RZ: Walk me through how the Bike Union was established.
YB: Back in 2007 and 2008, I was part of a group called Streets are for People! which started Pedestrian Sundays in Kensington Market and the Garden Car I still maintain 18 years later. At the time, Dave Meslin was tired of there not being a solid citywide cycling advocacy group in Toronto, so he pulled together Streets are for People! and others to talk about his plan for starting one. The group became known as the Toronto Cyclists Union following a vote on the name. Dave – who started lots of awesome projects in Toronto over the past 20 years – was looking for volunteers and it was right up my alley, so I jumped in.

Fast forward, Dave had taken on a lot, but got burnt out and had to step back completely. Four of us stepped up to take the role of the executive team to take Dave’s concept, flesh out the various ideas like the ward advocacy program, and try to fund ourselves, as completely as possible, through memberships rather than grants. This group included Rick Conroy – the first co-ordinator – and assistant coordinators Craig Barnes, Heather McDonald, and me. I was also the public facing communications person. Our volunteer board was formed at the same time and one of our goals was to hire an executive director within the first year. We were able to do so based on the funds we managed to raise through a big membership push and some grants. I was hired as our first Executive Director – which also came with the communications role – and the rest is Bike Union/Cycle Toronto history.

RZ: Tell me more about Streets are for People!
YB: Streets are for People! launched in 2002 and I joined in late 2003 when I got back to Toronto. It was a funny bike gang / group of anti-car activists which included Shamez Amlani from La Palette, long-standing local musician Michael Louis Johnson, Kelsey Carriere who then worked at La Palette while studying, and others who cycled through as we undertook fun public space reclamation actions. We created several petition cars, the original garden car, parking meter parties, and car-free day parades. Kelsey and Shamez did a “no smoking challenge” that traded quitting driving for quitting smoking. We reclaimed unused public space with big community gatherings and picnics. When road work or streetcar track rebuilding shut down portions of roadway, Michael Louis Johnson would set up a film screening or live music concert in the middle of the closed road. We had some pretty great (and unexpected) parties in the road, in underutilized spaces like empty lots, and in automobile parking spaces – reclaiming these as public space for the community as often as possible.

Yvonne (2nd from left) with the Streets are for People! group (via Himy Syed / Local Wiki)

I definitely think some of the stuff we did to reclaim public space all those years ago had an influence on our current policies. For me, as someone who initially used street parking spaces for alternate uses as an activist, it’s been pretty cool to see those same ideas come full circle in City-sanctioned ways in my role with the Forest Hill Village BIA. We put out our first on-street parklet on the road in two former parking spaces back in 2018/19, and I’ve since helped City staff develop the CaféTO program alongside my BIA colleagues. Road closure events like Pedestrian Sundays in Kensington Market have become much more common throughout the city with festivals galore throughout the summer months. During the hardest parts of the pandemic, road closures and the reclamation of roadway space as active outdoor community space became more important than ever.

RZ: What were some initial challenges the Bike Union faced?
YB: It was challenging to get people involved in every ward, but we knew local advocates with local knowledge of issues & problematic conditions could get the ear of their own City Councillor unlike someone from outside of the ward. That’s the premise of the ward advocacy program, as well as to emphasize that cycling is a citywide issue and safe bike infrastructure is even more needed in transit deserts with wide, fast suburban roads. Things are further apart in the suburbs, there are few if any safe places to ride, and people have a greater need for cost-effective and accessible transportation such as bicycles. It took a long time to get the ward advocacy program off the ground in those first two years, as well as grow our membership.

There were activists and groups like ARC (Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists), as well as the City of Toronto Cycling Committee, but we didn't have that middle ground of a reliable, collaborative, and accountable organization. It can be difficult for the City to work with activists who are doing things they’re not supposed to in order to make a point, but then came the Toronto Cyclists Union that followed the rules, worked collaboratively within the system, went to council, gave deputations, worked on petitions, and mobilized support. We needed both activists and organizations who could work within the system to move things along that arduous path through City Hall and various committees.

Yvonne helping put up a ghost bike for Adam Excell in June 2015

I was the only staff person. While trying to grow our membership to fund the organization, we realized early on we also needed to submit grant applications, grow awareness by tabling at various events, respond to media inquiries, take on safety initiatives such as bike light giveaways (a.k.a. Get Lit), get sponsors on board, host fundraisers, and partner with different organizations. It was a bit overwhelming. Dave had this vision of a “hands off board” that would occasionally give advice, but what we really needed was a working board; something the board evolved into over time. I had never worked with a board before and many board members had not served on boards previously. It was all new and we just hit the ground running because there was a need for the work we were doing. I'm proud of the work we did, and we accomplished and learned a lot in those first two years.

RZ: What were some of the highlights at the Bike Union during your time as their ED?
YB: It was all a highlight! Everything we did was new and not done before. One of the most unexpected things that some people might shun now, but got people talking at the time, was the Thank You campaign. This involved giving Thank You cards to drivers who, for example, shoulder checked before opening their doors, didn’t right-hook a passing cyclist at intersections, and for being a great driver that took care with cyclists. It was a positive campaign worth trying.

Starting the Bike Stations – an idea out of San Francisco – was also important; meeting cyclists where they were on busy routes and giving out information such as our Toronto Cycling Handbook which was translated into 14 languages and undertaken with one of our first partners, CultureLink Settlement Services. This ongoing partnership is important for reaching newcomers and overcoming language barriers when sharing cycling safety information. The Handbook offered basic but important information that a lot of people might not otherwise have been exposed to – it’s one of the things I’m most proud of.

Having a woman as the leader and spokesperson for the Bike Union was quite a shift at the time. Sure, I was still a white woman, but having a woman cycling in dresses with flowers all over her bike basket in this public leadership role helped break down stereotypes about cycling amongst the general public. “Cycling” was no longer just middle-aged guys in spandex racing road bikes (a.k.a. MAMIL’s). It became a mode of transportation open to all and without the need for special sports clothes.

We sometimes had sponsored light giveaways and people loved the Bike Valet! Craig Barnes spearheaded that one by bringing valet bike parking to concert events and festivals – which would hire us – and made into a small revenue stream. Our membership benefits increased and the lock removal service was amazing. Thinking back on all the partnerships, services, campaigns and ideas, I think our biggest success was getting bikes and bike culture into the mainstream by regularly being featured on all the major networks/paper/stations. Talking about cycling was an absolute privilege, and I did it in a way that made it accessible to many people and helped them think differently about riding a bike for transportation.

NOTE: The member benefits were discontinued in 2021 when Cycle Toronto became a registered charity.

RZ: Was there anything you wished you could have done more while with the Bike Union?
YB: One thing I wish I had done more was talk about how I was also a driver. I wasn't a regular driver like I am now – sadly – because of work, but I wish I made that link a lot more to reach even more drivers with my messaging. I was sort of ashamed (from my anti-car days) to talk about driving at all and didn’t want to be seen that way, but in hindsight it might have helped. I know what it’s like to be a driver and understand the value for drivers of cycling infrastructure because bike lanes work for everyone. On-street bike infrastructure allows greater predictability on the roadway and reduces the element of surprise that a passing bike can have where no infrastructure exists. When there’s a bike lane, you’re going to expect bikes there and be more likely to watch out for them – they help drivers understand they’re sharing the road with people riding bicycles. If you’re in a regular lane next to a long line of parked cars, you may not be expecting bikes, even if you should be because bikes are everywhere!

If I had more time and experience working with a board, I might have tried to tap people for certain projects, figured out how to make committees work, and pulled more people in with specific experience. At the time, I was young and eager to make it all happen – it was a very demanding and rewarding role.

RZ: As Manager of the Forest Hill Village BIA, what is the role of BIA’s in promoting cycling?
YB: BIA’s have a lot of sway in the community and City Council in that they have responsibility for the public realm from building facade to building facade. That said, Transportation & Traffic Management run our streets along with other departments such as waste management and emergency services. BIA’s can communicate with their business members to share relevant information to help bring people on board to new ideas, support proposed changes to local roadways, and help bust some myths.

For example, there is that longstanding myth that if you take away parking in favour of bike infrastructure, customers have nowhere to go, and main street shops will lose business. We know from studies by TCAT that this isn’t the case and most people shopping in local stores arrive on foot or by bike, with a very low percentage arriving by car. There are always adjacent places to park if a bike lane removes parking in front of a shop. If people can park on the far side of a mall parking lot, they can certainly park half a block away from a shop on Bloor or College Street.

Yvonne (centre) at the "Bike Lanes Mean Business" event in January 2016

BIA’s can help communicate the benefits to their members, which is easier when the BIA’s board and their coordinator, manager, or executive director “get it”. Every BIA is in a different state, has their own internal struggles, and can be messy. They are run by volunteers and have money on the line.

It's a unique environment in the city. It can be rewarding to be able to work with community members and the city at arms length to do good work in the public realm. BIA’s do advertising for their community, host events, and improve the streetscape. While many BIA’s now better understand the value of bike infrastructure and cycling in general, they're not all at the same stage or level of understanding. Myths do persist and BIA/neighbourhood cultures vary widely.

RZ: You used to be on the board with Vélo Canada Bikes. Why is it important to have the federal government at the table?
YB: I joined the board of Vélo Canada Bikes in 2016 and served until late 2021. I helped produce our National Bike Summits in Ottawa and photographed our events. The Bike Summit included an Education Day where we made appointments with our MP’s and shared with them the role and value of cycling, what we were aiming to do in our communities, and how they could help at the federal level by supporting a national active transportation strategy. We were also aiming for a dedicated funding pool to be shared with communities across the country.

Having a national strategy makes it clear riding bikes is not just a downtown Toronto or Vancouver thing, but also looks at the role of cycling for transportation in rural, suburban, and downtown contexts. Often enough, large transportation projects have viewed active transportation components as a “nice to have” and something that could be easily cut if budget issues arose. Having dedicated funds tied specifically to active transportation and buy-in makes enhancing the safety of those walking or cycling a “must have” that can’t easily be ignored by provincial and municipal governments.

The National Bike Summit also featured a ride around Parliament Hill where we would have various MP’s join us, have a barbecue, and a meet-and-greet. It was a chance to ensure active transportation was on the minds of our MP’s, which we were successful. Shortly after we got our National Active Transportation Strategy and dedicated funding approved during the pandemic, my life did a 180. I am now married with children and have a whole other family business to help manage, as well as all the other work I was doing before. I had achieved the goal I set out to achieve with Vélo Canada Bikes and stepped down when I didn’t have the capacity anymore. There are always people ready to support cycling and ensure bicycles remain part of the conversation of how we plan our cities so we can keep moving people safely and efficiently as our populations grow.

RZ: What inspired you to write your book “The Urban Cycling Survival Guide” in 2015?
YB: Being the “bike lady”, I was regularly asked for resources. As I was mentioning before, I loved being able to give people the Toronto Cyclists Handbook, but it didn’t cover everything. The book was about filling an education gap and putting accessible information in there for all road users.

Yvonne & her "The Urban Cycling Survival Guide" book at Books on Bloor in May 2015 (via Jun N)

I really wanted us to understand how to coexist and work with what we have. I talked about the different types of bike infrastructure we have, but also how to navigate spaces where there is none, the importance of advocacy, best practices, and what to look out for. I covered everything such as how to get started, what kind of bike might work best for your needs, how you lock it up, how you take care of it, how to ride in different conditions, and how to ride with dogs or kids. I had a lot of information in my head, and it was a very cool exercise. As someone who was always busy with a variety of projects, I didn't know I could stay focused for long enough to pull it together. It took many very late nights, weekends, and holidays to get it done, and on deadline too!

RZ: What message would you give to people looking to start cycling or being involved in general?
YB: If you haven’t been on a bicycle since you were a kid/teenager, I would say start by finding a friend that rides a bike, borrow a bike share bike, and just ride together somewhere nearby to see how you feel and get used to riding again. If you ride occasionally for fun, decide on an errand you want to do by bike. I would also suggest to anyone starting cycling for fun or transportation to buy my book, The Urban Cycling Survival Guide. I address everything in a straightforward, funny, and easy to read way with lots of great visual content. There is also lots of great content online including on Instagram and Facebook, the City of Toronto’s cycling map, Google Maps’ biking layer, and through Cycle Toronto. Having a bike buddy is helpful, so go out with a friend who's ridden before.


  1. Those were exciting times. Coming from nothing quite a bit was accomplished in those early days. Everything felt new and we were accomplishing real change.

  2. Thanks for this. I remember meeting many of the people in the photographs and participating in the events Yvonne spoke of. At the time, I didn't realize that I was living in the midst of Toronto's Golden Age of Advocacy.

    ~ veronica