January 22, 2024

Yonge4All & Cargo Bikes with Robin Richardson

Almost a year ago to this day, Toronto’s cycling community celebrated the successful outcome of making the Midtown Yonge Complete Street permanent. The Yonge4All campaign played a big role in making this happen, as well as inspired a Scarborough offshoot called Danforth-Kingston 4 All. I spoke with Yonge4All’s spokesperson Robin Richardson on January 2, 2024 to discuss the campaign and her Happy Fiets cargo bike business.

RZ: What first inspired you to get involved with the Yonge4All campaign?
RR: It's a funny story. I was riding a cargo bike up the Yonge Street bike lane in early 2022 and I was just about to turn off to head home when I happened to cross paths with Tom Worrall. I mentioned how nice it was to have a bike lane on Yonge Street after having lived here for ten years; I wouldn't go anywhere near Yonge Street with my bike before them. He then asked, “Did you know that they're temporary?” and I responded I hadn’t realized that. He explained that he was one of a group of advocates who were working on an effort to convince City Council to make them a permanent part of the network and asked if I had any time to contribute to that effort. That’s how I started, and it became a passion very quickly as I learned more about what a complete street is: more than just a bike lane, but really a safe and welcoming place for everyone whether they're walking, biking, catching the bus, using a wheelchair, a little kid on a scooter, or even people driving a car. I thought, I love this idea and we can't possibly let this slip through our fingers! So, it became a big part of my life.

RZ: How did some of the past road safety campaigns influence Yonge4All’s efforts?
RR: We took a lot of inspiration from the Bells on Bloor campaign; particularly how they reached out to all different kinds of groups, residents’ associations, schools, business owners, and local councillors. They – along with (then) Councillor Mike Layton – commissioned a study with TCAT to measure the impact the addition of bike lanes had to local businesses along Bloor, which was compared to a comparable stretch without bike lanes. What the study found was people who bike, walk, or take transit not only spend more on each trip, but also visit more often, so they're the best customers small businesses have. The leader of the local BIA made a deputation to that effect.

People who drive tend to go to the store they intended to go to, buy the thing they went there to get, and drive away again; whereas people walking or cycling are more likely to go to multiple stores and restaurants in a single outing (or trip chain). They also tend to be more spontaneous. If they see a window display or get hungry, they might make a stop they hadn't planned to make because it's so easy to do when you aren't hauling a car around and don't have to find a place to park.

Even so, there are a number of small business owners in Midtown Yonge who were not convinced. We all like to think we're unique and special. You can show this study from Bloor, and they say they’re not Bloor. They’re different, their clientele is different, and/or their neighborhood is different. The truth is I don't think it's all that different. The community may be a bit more affluent, but a lot of people in this neighbourhood like to walk and cycle. By making it safe and comfortable for them to do so, you increase foot traffic, you increase lingering, you increase window shopping, and you increase business.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: A similar situation played out along Bloor in The Kingsway.

RZ: Walk me through some of the activities the Yonge4All campaign has done to make the bikeway permanent.
RR: I think the most powerful outreach we did to gather new supporters and volunteers – as well as make our case at IEC – was the petition we circulated in support of keeping complete street infrastructure on Midtown Yonge. We got lots of signatories online through social media and mailing lists from organizations like Walk Toronto, TTC Riders, Cycle Toronto, and others. However, what was most powerful was the time we spent standing on street corners and going to events such as Open Streets TO with the petition in hand and talking to people using the street. We talked to people from toddlers to seniors, cyclists stopped at red lights, pedestrians waiting to cross the street, and transit riders waiting for their bus.

Robin presenting the Yonge4All petition prior to the January 30, 2023 IEC meeting

There are challenges to that approach. It's very time-consuming, there are lots of people out there competing for your attention, and many people didn’t want to engage. For those who did talk with us, we realized the term “complete street” isn’t well understood yet and many people – like I did – didn’t realize the complete street was a pilot project at risk of being removed. It would be helpful if organizations like Cycle Toronto, Walk Toronto, and others emphasized that a complete street is for everyone because it always tends to come down to the bike lanes. Nobody objects to better bus stops with benches or nicer sidewalks, but bike lanes are a contentious issue for drivers because they're typically placed in roadway space that used to be dedicated for cars.

While our petition data showed most of the signatories lived in a close radius to the area, it’s important to note Yonge Street is also a tourist destination for people from other neighbourhoods, other cities, and other countries. What we wanted to show was the Midtown Yonge Complete Street benefits not just local people, but the whole city. Finally, we reached out to residents’ associations, businesses, and other community groups which really helped given a number of those organizations were willing to either write a letter of support or make a deputation at the IEC meeting.

RZ: You touched on this briefly about the need to communicate the complete street concept, but what were some of the other lessons Yonge4All has learned?
RR: We learned the status quo is a very powerful motivator for some folks. Change can be scary; especially if you lived in an area for a long time and are used to doing things a certain way. You can feel threatened by change and a lot is changing in Toronto with this stretch of Yonge seeing an enormous amount of development and a lot of residential towers going in. Right after our campaign, there was a change in leadership at the mayoral level, but there was also an election during our campaign in which one of the local councillors changed from Mike Layton to Dianne Saxe. It’s human nature to be apprehensive about change of any kind which I already knew. You have to work to be empathetic – understand where people are coming from and what the roots of their concerns are – and try to help them see that the change can be positive for them as well.

The other lesson that I took very much to heart is a positive campaign where you talk a lot about the benefits to everyone and use words like inclusion, safety, and welcoming make people feel better. But if you talk about how dangerous cars are, pollution, traffic, and other negatives – even though what motivates you is eliminating those things – people just hear the negatives which makes them feel kind of bad when they hear about your campaign and less likely to support you. Anybody who rides a bike in Toronto has had moments where they felt pretty negative about car traffic, but I think that the way to win over folks that aren't already on board with cycling infrastructure is to play up the many benefits that it brings to everybody and not just cyclists.

RZ: With the Midtown Yonge bikeway being made permanent for about a year now, what has Yonge4All been doing to get the complete street extended north and south?
RR: We have been working with Councillors Saxe and Matlow to continue improving the section that was already approved; offering suggestions such as fresh paint, benches, and planters to make it safer and more welcoming.

Secondly, we have been reaching out to the councillors responsible for the areas immediately to the north – Matlow and Mike Colle – and to the south – Chris Moise – to strengthen those relationships and talk about the benefits of complete streets. All of those councillors voted to make Midtown Yonge permanent and said they also support extending it – so we feel very optimistic – but we want to make sure we can help to allay any doubts with community support. We will be meeting with Councillor Matlow this month and this first order of business is to ask how we can help him get this extended to the north. We feel strongly that all sections of Yonge Street should enjoy the benefits of welcoming sidewalks, protected intersections, upgraded bus stops, and bike lanes. Though the slow pace of Metrolinx construction on Eglinton has stalled our northern progress, the businesses and restaurants there are busy with local residents, visitors, and food delivery cyclists – all of whom need safe ways to travel to and through the area.

To the south, we are waiting for yongeTOmorrow to begin, which will give the city an opportunity to connect the two pieces of complete street with a segment from Bloor to College/Carlton. That part of Yonge is very busy with food delivery folks, students, and commuters, and it offers an important alternative to University during construction.

RZ: Speaking of construction, a developer recently wanted to close the Midtown Yonge bikeway for up to three years. Tell me more about the press conference and rally.
RR: I have to give credit where credit is due. Alison Stewart at Cycle Toronto organized that rally, and we were very happy to support her. We were notified by Councillor Saxe that this was happening. One member of our group who is a developer reached out to the company behind this project; working behind the scenes to explain there are other ways to do this and proceeding as is would be a public relations disaster for them. Councillor Matlow – whose ward covers that development – is very dedicated to keeping people in his ward safe, so he worked to find an alternative way for the developer to stage their materials and have the access they need without putting people at risk. City staff were also integral to that effort. We hope to understand more about the development when we meet with him this month, but we're just thrilled he was able to do that.

Robin speaking at Queen's Park in support of Bill 40

However, the message we said at the press conference is that it shouldn't come down to the local councillor going to battle for something like this. We need a citywide policy because construction is happening citywide, and it shouldn’t be the default for developers to use sidewalks and bike lanes for storing construction materials or – even more frustrating – their workers’ private vehicles. We see that in many different places. I see it every weekday morning when I go past the ROM where there’s a narrowing on University. Some of that appears to be actual construction work, but a lot of it seems to be a parking lot for the workers. I don't think that's an appropriate use of public space and it's certainly not OK for public safety to be compromised just for the convenience of developers when there are other ways they can do that work. We've got examples from other cities both here in Canada and around the world, so there are precedents they can follow.

RZ: Let's switch topics a bit. Why did you start the Happy Fiets cargo bike rental service?
RR: I started Happy Fiets in early 2021 as an extension of my advocacy work. My overarching goal is to help people drive less and biking more is the easiest way to accomplish that. A bicycle is a lot faster than walking and you can go door to door unlike transit, so biking is easier for errands, bringing your kids places, or taking your dog to a new park. My partner Matthew and I had each invested in a cargo bike not long before the pandemic began. We used to have two cars, sold the big one, used the proceeds to invest in cargo bikes, and immediately saw our quality of life improve. I chose to specialize in electric cargo bikes because they make it even easier for people who maybe don't think of themselves as cyclists and never really used a bike to commute, take their kids to soccer, do the Costco run, or anything average people think they need a car to do.

Helen and I rented this Bullitt cargo bike from Robin's Happy Fiets in July 2021 to transport Mozzie before we got our own Muli cargo bike

At the time I started Happy Fiets, it was hard to get a hold of bikes because bike shops like Urbane Cyclist and Curbside Cycle – the two main purveyors of cargo bikes in the city – weren't allowing test rides or in-store shopping during the pandemic. It was curbside only, no pun intended, so that made it difficult for people to take the leap into buying a cargo bike given the high price point of $6,000 to $7,000 before adding accessories. The idea of Happy Fiets was that people could rent one for a day, a week, or even longer to try it in their regular life, as well as to try different kinds so that they could pick the best cargo bike for their situation.

Since then, I've had customers rent them for all kinds of things I didn't anticipate. Four brides used them to either be biked down the aisle or enter their reception afterwards, the film industry used them for location shoots in the ravines and elsewhere, and tradespeople used them to move their equipment. I’ve also had tourists who were visiting Toronto and didn't want to rely on transit or rent a car while they were here, so instead they rented a cargo bike. I can meet them at the train station so they can put their suitcases in and ride off. It’s fun to meet cargo bike people from all over!

RZ: What do you feel needs to be done to further encourage this growth in cargo bike usage?
RR: There are three main barriers people identified to me as what's holding them back from getting a cargo bike, with our number one being infrastructure. If you live in a neighbourhood that isn't well served by trails and bike lanes, it's very hard to give up what feels like the safe way of getting your kids around by car.

The cost of cargo bikes – especially electric ones – is a barrier for a lot of folks and our governments can do more to facilitate that. We’ve seen governments offer rebates and other supports for folks transitioning to electric cars. However, we need to prioritize the transition from motor vehicles to bicycles because they benefit our society much more.

The Richardson family with Matthew (centre) holding a Bullitt cargo bike

Finally, we need better bike storage options, especially for larger bikes like cargo bikes. A lot of folks in Toronto had their bicycles stolen, including my family which had two bikes stolen. If you're looking at a bike that costs $5,000 to $10,000 and you're not sure it will be there in the morning to take your kid to school, it's almost impossible to justify that to yourself. I think bike lockers that protect not only the bike, but also accessories such as lights, panniers, kids’ seats, and helmets would make a huge difference in adoption. Especially when they can be placed near your home, work, or wherever you need to go. I believe those should be provided by the city. I think most people would be willing to pay a reasonable amount to use bike lockers, but they are very few and far between. There tend to be wait lists for them and they aren't in all the places people need to go.

RZ: Do you have a final message for the cycling community regarding Yonge Street or cargo bike living?
RR: The best way to make cycling safer and more welcoming is to play up the benefits we personally have experienced. Very early on, my friend Dave Edwards asked me to help maintain the @biketo Twitter account. He said I should introduce myself and talk about how I became a cyclist. I was reluctant, but he insisted people want to hear personal stories – including the mistakes they made and the benefits they experienced – instead of statistics or being lectured at. So, I wrote a Twitter thread about how I used to drive an SUV everywhere and transitioned to cargo biking. It felt embarrassing to write it, but it was very popular. People loved it, shared it, and commented on it.

Before Happy Fiets and Yonge4All, I never started a business or helped run an advocacy campaign. Those were brand new challenges for me which were very nerve wracking, but it was so meaningful to me that I did it anyway. What I would say is don't give up. There are more of us out there with every passing year. When I started Happy Fiets, it was rare that I would spot another cargo bike while out and around the city. Now, I've been stopped at a light with three or four other cargo bikes which is thrilling to me. It's easy to get frustrated by the pace of change, but I think it's going to be one of those things that goes very slowly, very slowly, and then very quickly all at once. We just have to keep making it safer for people to do this using every connection we've got, challenging ourselves to go outside of our comfort zone, speaking to anybody we think might be able to help us, and having faith that we're going to get there.

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