January 04, 2024

Reflecting on Cycle Toronto with Alison Stewart

Since 2008, Cycle Toronto has become Toronto’s main active transportation advocacy group. You may have seen them speaking at a recent press conference about Yonge Street, handing out lights during the October “Get Lit” campaign, hosting “Bike Valet” parking at special events, or organizing group rides such as the “Coldest Day of the Year” Ride happening on Saturday, February 10. I spoke with Alison Stewart – their Director of Advocacy and Public Policy – on Sunday, December 17 to learn more about what the group accomplished over the past year and her perspective on cycling in this city.

Alison at a 2025-27 Bike Plan consultation in November 2023

RZ: Tell me about your bike called “La Banane”.
AS: La Banane Roulante (or LBR) is my favorite bike. The reason she's called La Banane is because she's a curvy Dutch upright that is a bright yellow; and I love bananas. I’ve had her since 2013.

RZ: You first started with Cycle Toronto as a volunteer and Ward Captain of the (then) Ward 28 group as well as the Yonge working group. Tell me about that experience and what issues you faced then.
AS: In 2013, as an antidote to my budding road-rage from the frustration of car drivers yelling at me or almost hitting me, I started volunteering for Cycle Toronto to effect positive change instead.

At the time, Ward 13 (Toronto Centre) was Ward 28 and I was a reluctant Captain and then Co-Captain of the ward group which was a great way to discover the world of cycling advocacy which included volunteering on the Yonge Working Group. I loved being in my community, attending events, and just trying to explain to people why biking is so easy, efficient, affordable, and joyful. What I found a bit intimidating was that it was very bro-centric and discussions often centered on the details of cycling infrastructure. Cycling has historically been dominated by men. This is largely because of the lack of safe infrastructure which is more intimidating for women, children, etc.

A lot has changed since 2017, so when I started volunteering again in 2021 – now armed with a Master of Public Policy Administration Law – I joined the Anti-Oppression and Advocacy Committees. In 2022, to help with organizational transition, I took a contract role as Advocacy Manager, then as co-executive director, and am now Cycle Toronto’s Director of Advocacy and Public Policy. Sometimes life works out. It's wonderful. I get to do the things that I really enjoy such as working with a diverse range of people in the community, organizing events, and spreading the joy of biking. I also formulate policy recommendations, as well as negotiate and meet with councillors, the Mayor's Office, Business Improvement Areas, and different cycling groups from across the city to keep building on the momentum that's been achieved in Toronto over the past few years.

Alison with Mayor Olivia Chow during the Big Toronto Bike Ride in September 2023

RZ: What kind of learning curve did you experience shifting from being a Cycle Toronto volunteer to part of their staff?
AS: It was huge. Whenever you start a new job, especially if it's in a new sector, there's always a bit of cultural adjustment to be made. In this case, while I have volunteered for a range of non-profit organizations throughout the past 20 years, I’ve never worked for one. I was coming from working for York University as a Director of Strategic Partnerships where I managed a budget of over a million and was responsible for generating $200,000 in net revenue. While I didn't have access to an abundance of resources, I was able to leverage support from the large body of faculty and students to plan my work and implement my strategy. One of the biggest challenges of Cycle Toronto was realizing that you're it; being a small team. It's either you do it yourself with maybe a bit of support from other staff members depending on their bandwidth, or you rely on volunteer labour. Having been a volunteer, unless you're retired and have more time to donate, you know you’re juggling project timelines with other people’s schedules and bandwidth. This was a big cultural shift for me.

One of my first big projects was working with what is now our Alliance for Safe and Active Streets for All to put together a campaign for the 2022 municipal election. I had never worked on an election campaign. I was new to working at Cycle Toronto and didn’t know a lot of our partners and collaborators, so I was literally thrown into the fire. Thankfully, I had the support and the people I got to collaborate with, and they all knew what they were doing and were all very supportive. We launched a successful campaign and I’m stronger for it today. Now I can organize a group ride and a press conference with less than three days, without sweating. 😉

RZ: Tell me more about the Alliance for Safe and Active Streets for All.
AS: The alliance evolved from a coalition of different organizations which includes 8 80 Cities, Walk Toronto, TCAT, and Friends and Families for Safe Streets. Since 2006, we had come together to cocreate a joint election campaign, which made me ask: “Why would we disband at the end of our election campaign when we have four years to get our priority actions over that Council term?” As a result, we decided as a group to formalize our alliance as well as to expand to include different organizations that are aligned with our objectives.

The Safe and Active Streets for All candidate scorecard for the 2023 Mayoral By-Election

Today, we have the same founding groups that I mentioned, as well as TEA (Toronto Environmental Alliance), the Bicycle Mayor of Toronto which is currently Lanrick Bennett Jr – there will be someone new in the New Year once his term ends, but he may stay on as Charlie's Freewheels – and Access Alliance Multicultural Health Services. We are also working with TTC Riders and Gig Workers United, although they're not currently formal members. We have a formal terms of reference and one of the things that we've committed to is taking an equitable approach to our shared advocacy projects. For example, before supporting Automated Speed Enforcement (ASE) as a tool to make our streets safer, we did our research and found it can disproportionately impact equity deserving communities. We consequently support ASE only if it is implemented in an equitable manner.

RZ: What are some of the equity issues you have been dealing with at Cycle Toronto? I know there's the bike share pricing and the idea of registering e-bikes and e-scooters.
AS: Bike Share is a focus. Like many of our members, I'm a Bike Share (Toronto) member and a big fan of the program. I think it is probably one of the best run city programs. That said, it's not as equitable as it should be. While working with Gig Workers United, we discovered that not only are food couriers some of the most vulnerable workers on our city’s streets and roads, but many of them are also non-status, many of them are international students, and almost all of them are racialized. I was told some spend as much as 35% of their wages on Bike Share. When I asked their Executive Director how that is possible since bike share is only $100 a year for membership plus tax, she said it’s because people can't afford to pay the annual membership upfront and therefore, use it at a casual rate. That insight shaped our advocacy and served as a reminder that it is important to consult with the communities that will be most impacted by policies.

We sought Bike Share (Toronto) to offer monthly billing for the annual memberships so that it is more accessible to people. As a result of our advocacy, people have the option of paying for the annual membership in three payments and we will continue to advocate for making the program more accessible; especially for people who live and work in Scarborough, North York, and Etobicoke.

Another thing regarding your point about licensing of e-bikes for business. We are against the licensing of any form of micromobility. The City has looked into the licensing of bicycles time and time again, so much so the City of Toronto has a dedicated website explaining why licensing bicycles will never be a policy that they will consider. What concerned us most when this was brought up is that some people are targeting food delivery couriers which is disingenuous and unfair. On our streets, roads, and sidewalks, people essentially are behaving the way that is most convenient to themselves. Whether you're a driver, cyclist, e-bike rider, scooter rider, or a pedestrian, people are increasingly behaving with little regard for others. What we need are safer streets with more cycling infrastructure and better pedestrian realm. To target one specific type of road user is pretty much biased and verging on racism because they're also a very visible group. They ride with their bike food backpacks and are mostly racialized. So, our position is that we need to take an equitable stance and that the targeting of any one user is a barrier to finding a solution that will benefit everyone.

RZ: There has been a fair bit of bikelash happening with the Midtown Yonge bikeway and the Bloor bike lanes in Etobicoke. How has been Cycle Toronto helping to address this issue?
AS: One of the things we've been doing is focusing on research-based solutions and facts, and not necessarily responding to the bikelash. What we learned with the Midtown Yonge Project is no matter how much data you present, those that are against bike lanes will always be against them. One of the things we're working on is taking a closer look at the data to highlight the social inequities to where the majority of collisions are taking place compared to where the complaints are coming from. Whether it’s in the city core or in Etobicoke, the voices of wealthy homeowners often get more attention than the people who will benefit from bike lanes the most. They're the people that are traveling from far and wide delivering your food or trying to get to work when the subway isn't working. We will be continuing to look at the data and find a better way to highlight this issue because it is really about equity.

Alison (right) promoting the Yonge4All campaign at the 2022 Cycling Good Cheer ride

Right now, nine out of ten cars at any time of day are transporting just one person. If those people took to the subway, biked, or even walked, there would be more room for emergency services, businesses to get around, and those that actually have accessibility needs and need to drive. This is what we need to keep bringing to the forefront and we will be working with councillors and their constituents to advocate for solutions that benefit everyone. We need to make sure they're not just hearing from a small proportion of people that are complaining, but also from their residents who want active transportation options and safer streets that include reduced traffic speeds, protected intersections and other initiatives that support Vision Zero. We're going to continue doing what we do, which is building community level support and collaborating with other community members and community groups to demonstrate that most people want safe streets. Our work will be focused on building support for Eglinton and Danforth-Kingston so that the 2022-2024 Cycling Network Plan is successfully implemented.

RZ: What were some of the highlights for Cycle Toronto for this past year?
AS: I think one of the successes of Cycle Toronto – and it's one that we share with the cycling community at large – is the fact that we began the first month of the year watching the Midtown Yonge Complete Street be voted in to be made permanent. As somebody who began volunteering for Cycle Toronto in 2013 and on the Yonge Working Group, it was pretty amazing because I don't think any of us thought we would live to see protected bike lanes on Yonge in our lifetime.

Another huge success is bike share including their four-year expansion plan, the investments they're making to expand their offering into the suburbs, as well as taking a more equitable approach. One of the things we advocated for and succeeded in was making them consult with the community. We can also talk about implementing the Cycling Network Plan as well as upgrades to existing bike lanes like College Street which is now a wonderful example of a best practice in terms of a high-quality protected bike lane. Cycling in 2023 is now an integral part of the city's transportation network, so I would say that that's probably one of the biggest successes. Even the fact when we saw the voting history of Council, when the former Mayor Tory was against making the Midtown Yonge Complete Street permanent and wanted to extend the pilot, he lost that vote.

RZ: Are there any specific campaigns Cycle Toronto is focused on for 2024?
AS: One of the items I foresee is bringing ActiveTO back to life and seeing Lake Shore Boulevard West turned into a complete street. The City is putting together the Cycling Network Plan for 2025 to 2027, so part of what we're going to be advocating is making sure that plan is going to support the city's target of achieving 75% of all trips in Toronto five kilometres or less be done through active modes of transportation.

RZ: I hear you have been doing rides with the Toronto Cruisers. What is that group about?
AS: Advocating for safe cycling infrastructure, road safety initiatives, and complete streets can be a very stressful job whether you get paid for it or are a volunteer so it is important to get out and enjoy biking.

Natalie (a.k.a. Flower Bike Fairy) and Alison at a Critical Mass ride in October

My friend Jennifer Hollett and I came across the (Toronto) Cruisers during COVID. It’s a joyous group of people that ride once a week from mid-May to the end of August to bike. We light up our bikes with disco lights, music, and monthly themed rides, which is a really energizing and positive experience. When I began working for Cycle Toronto, I wanted to bring this bike joy to the community of advocates. For example, for our Big Toronto Bike Ride – Cycle Toronto’s annual fundraiser – I put together a playlist and brought a little bit of that Toronto Cruiser vibe. Anyone I bring on a Toronto Cruiser ride loves it, so I invite the whole cycling advocate community to come out and enjoy the ride!

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I did an interview with Jennifer Hollett about her journalism work back in 2014.

RZ: What final message you would like to give to the cycling community out there?
AS: I would just like to thank everyone who puts in their time and contributes to making Toronto a vibrant cycling city. I would also like to encourage as many people as possible to try biking in the winter if you haven’t already. It's getting easier and easier. The city is doing a better job clearing the bike lanes – a perennial issue, as well as construction zone safety – which we will be following. Try and get one of your neighbours or one of your friends that have never tried biking to bring them out on a bike ride such as the Critical Mass rides which take place on the last Friday of every month; rain, shine, snow, or any kind of weather.

1 comment:

  1. Its funny this is the first I have heard of Cycle Toronto being interested in Lakeshore Blvd West as a Complete street. I have been involved in Etobicoke cycling for over 20 years.