The flight from Seattle to Ottawa takes a solid 6 hours, releasing you into a land that seems mostly familiar yet strangely off, like looking at a “can you spot the difference?” page from an old Highlights magazine. The changes are subtle—distance measured in kilometers here, an extra “u” there, the absence of glaring poverty anywhere–but quickly begin to add up to create a unique tapestry worthy of further inspection.
I’d been invited to this tidy Canadian capitol city to give a talk to the annual membership meeting of Citizens for Safe Cycling, an advocacy organization that’s been working for the past 30 years to improve the city’s cycling environment. I also came with the fervent intention to ride, to share ideas, and to determine whether my experiences in the social media realm offered anything useful in their quest to fashion the bicycle into a primary mode of transport.
Energy levels in the Ottawa cycling community were high—the mayor had just announced that 24 million would be spent over the next several years to improve cycling infrastructure, and riders of all stripes have been rejoicing in the segregated bike lane that has graced Laurier street in Downtown Ottawa since the summer. Several of Ottawa’s city council members are expressly bike friendly, and there was no palpable sense of animosity between the cyclists and the community at-large. If anything, things were a bit too pleasant as I gently wound my way throughout the extensive greenway networks of the city on a borrowed Dutch bicycle, traversing farm, field and urban core with nary an insult thrown or close call with a car.
And yet, challenges remain. Ottawa is a classically North American city, blessed (or cursed) with endless open space, and subsequently built with the automobile in mind. Ottawa’s bicycle mode split is holding steady at around 2%, and there is a wide gap between the number of male and female cyclists. Many continue to view cycling as “recreation,” and the primary iterations of dress showed it. And of course all the familiar anti-bike refrains hung in the air—stories of business owners fighting bike lanes tooth and nail, city council meetings packed full of seniors tearfully lamenting that their grandchildren wouldn’t visit them if their parking was taken away, claims that bicycling just doesn’t fit with the “culture” of Ottawa. Many in the cycling community expressed frustration at dancing in perpetual circles around like-minded individuals. Wherever I went, the question on people’s lips was, “how do we get a new generation of people interested in cycling—so that it’s seen as something cool and fresh, but also incredibly normal at the same time?”
With this in mind, I chose to focus my presentation on “telling bicycle stories,” and discussed the various ways in which use social media to effectively promote cycling to new audiences. I spoke at length about my experience in Bellevue—as well as Atlanta, where I lived prior—of using Facebook and Twitter as a means of reaching out to people who wouldn’t ordinarily think of themselves as cyclists. I have found social media to be an incredible tool to portray cyclists in all their various incarnations—from glamorous to earnest to hale and hearty—and to tell the accompanying story. It’s extraordinarily easy to form “relationships,”on social media—all it takes is a few likes!– thus rendering it more likely that non-cycling groups will help spread your information. If the recent saga of the anti-bike GM ad is any indication, companies are clearly paying attention to what people are saying on twitter, thereby lowering barriers to access and increasing opportunities to insist upon change. Facebook is a dream for sharing clever transportation memes, luscious photos, and offering moral support and tips to newbie cyclists. It makes it simple to organize events like Tweed Rides, Bike Polo, and Heels on Wheels, increasing the appeal and fun factor of cycling to disparate audiences. Ultimately, social media has the ability to so beautifully demonstrate what could be, thereby allowing organizations to break out of the eggshell of preaching to the converted, and opening up a world of imaginative possibilities.
However, the alluring but sometimes unrealistic world of social media is not one to be inhabited exclusively. There is no substitute for actual civic engagement, for rolling up your sleeves to lobby for improvements to infrastructure that would make it easier to ride your bike. Ottawa is an example of an extraordinarily liveable place that is making deliberate strides to increase mobility for all its citizens. With a little more pizzazz and electronic engagement, they could easily catapult to the top of the list of the most bike-friendly cities on the continent; the dedication I saw from people in the cycling community was that apparent. In that respect, Ottawa wasn’t so different than the Pacific Northwest after all.