A changing climate for cyclists

Story by Todd Aalgaard
Illustration by Dave Murray

This article originally appeared in our winter web issue and was first posted on the dandyBLOG on January 4, 2012.

A changing climate for city cyclists

Biking to work one morning in early January, a realization struck me halfway along the Bloor Viaduct: with the winter we're having, Toronto could very easily be Vancouver. This particular morning was balmy, pleasant, even sultry. Smells wafting west along the Danforth could have been the smells of Kitsilano. The viaduct itself, framing a breathtaking view of the Don Valley that morning could have been the Seawall, or any of Gregor Robertson's new dedicated bike lanes. The fact that I was on a mountain bike better suited to trails than bike lanes didn't help this sense of geographic disorientation, but I went with it, even getting a little wistful for those old coastal stomping grounds. On the mild, unseasonably warm wind, I could feel the presence of one home in the air of another.

What shook me out of that reverie, of course, was a considerably not-so-bucolic realization that came about four seconds later: it's Toronto. It's January. What in the holy everloving hell is going on?

Worse, some of us might wonder, is this a bellwether? Some confirmation that the defining seasons of the Toronto experience are not what they once were? That's where we're at now, with climatologists saying no, this probably isn't just a mild winter. There are changes happening in the skies all over Canada, and as cyclists in this country's biggest city are now keenly aware, those changes may go a bit beyond how many layers we wear on our bikes.

If these changes are just becoming apparent now, though, they're coming at a particularly grim time to be observing their effects. Late last year, Conservative environment minister Peter Kent announced the intended consummation of one of his party's longest-held goals: the withdrawal of Canada from the Kyoto Protocol, the massive, 191-nation agreement signed in 2005 intended to combat climate change. Around the world, the move cost Canada a lot of respect, having once been seen as a leading light in global efforts to mitigate a worsening disaster. But it's not surprising in the least.

"Kyoto is essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations," wrote Stephen Harper in 2002, then-leader of the Canadian Alliance. Under the agreement, Canada would be one of thirty-seven countries—referred to as "Annex I" signatory states in the protocol’s language—that would commit to the reduction of key greenhouse gases by an average of 5.2% over a four-year period.

The protocol expanded upon the definitions agreed to in 1987's Montreal Protocol, tightening the net around heavy emissions as well as CFCs. Collectively, it was an agreement to back off the natural resource orgy that had defined much of the post-war twentieth century, with an eye firmly set on big industry.

Little wonder, then, that Stephen Harper, the man whose government regards environmentalists as "radicals" and "enem[ies] of the people of Canada," would see the whole thing as some ticking left-wing time bomb at the heart of a "stronger" Canada.

Kent addressed the 2011 Durban conference last December. “Kyoto,” he said, "Is in the past for Canada.” To outside observers, it was a deft political move, waiting until the absolute last minute—which the Durban conference ultimately represented—to announce that Canada wasn't going to play along anymore. Kent emphasized that we're supposedly doing well enough on our own, with Canada's greenhouse gas reduction targets in line with the United States, framing the entire agreement as overreaching, anti-economy, unnecessary, whatever. Kyoto, in short, had become irrelevant.

Since the words "climate change" first entered the public dialogue, every cold snap and unseasonably rainy summer has thrown fuel upon the skeptics' fire. How can global warming be a problem if we have a cold snap one week (after it's just been eight degrees) in January?

Think of global warming as a given, something which has been observed for decades, then think of climate change. When we go from step one to step two, we're close to step three—and that's when all bets are off.

Earlier this month, David Phillips, a senior climatologist with Environment Canada, addressed what Daniel Sellers of Torontoist called "The Winter That Wouldn't Be." Phillips outlined the mechanics of Canada's weather, and how our oddly balmy winter is because high pressure in the Arctic, in a phenomenon called "Arctic oscillation," is forcing the jet stream to neatly divide the weather in North America at high Northern latitude. Usually, the jet stream is what keeps cold air in the north and warm air in the south, but its behaviour this year indicates a change: the jet stream is no longer "meandering," and that demarcating line in our climate has shifted north. The warm winter air usually experienced as far north as, say, Kentucky, has crept up our way, resulting in the extreme ride up and down the barometric scale that we continue to experience. The Canadian winter now holds short somewhere around Hudson Bay.

Ominously, Phillips told Sellers his thoughts as a scientist. “There's no normal weather anymore; it's one extreme to the other," he said. "Arctic ice is the refrigerant of the world. And when it disappears... then you should expect profound changes to our weather. And I think we’re seeing that.”

It's one of the crises defining these nascent days of the twenty-first century. On one hand, you've got climate change battering our physical world, taking a real toll in human lives and destroying livelihoods. On the other, the slow, groaning collapse of modern Western capitalism, also taking a real toll in human lives and destroying livelihoods. In both cases, there's the prospect of social and political turmoil. As far back as 2007, the RCMP was discussing contingency plans for what to do in the event of mass migration, like what we'll see when refugees start flooding our shores from regions decimated by rising tides and catastrophic weather. Meanwhile, nations are strained and ready to snap under the weight of austerity, less concerned than ever with the plight of their own people, and obtusely opposed to rethinking energy and infrastructure in response to these crises. The cost of the 2008 economic crisis, coupled with the challenges posed by climate change, has left governments unwilling to foot the bill for progress. …So where does that leave cyclists? The answer is simple: right in the thick of it.

I should be clear: cycling, by itself, is probably not enough to put the brakes on the worst effects of climate change. The more pedals that turn, however, and the more people that take to their steeds in the dead of winter, the greater the momentum for a different, better world. With the atmosphere already choked by vehicular emissions, the environmental benefit of bicycles is pretty self-evident. But how about the next level, when entire neighbourhoods are built with cycling accessibility in mind? In places ranging from Montreal to Portland, we've seen neighbourhoods revitalized when local businesses and citizen committees recognize cyclists as a viable community, resulting in districts engineered around cycling the way they were around cars. Now picture fifteen, twenty years from now, when larger districts may be built from these smaller ones, each a building block for a different way of imagining a city. We're against a wall, in part, because of our investment in the suburban, car-friendly megacity. Encouraging and expanding bike infrastructure, though, while doing the same for other options—like Light-Rail Transit—may have the effect of localizing sprawl, cultivating better conditions at the grassroots. And with things concentrated more locally, the effect of urban emissions on climate change can be dramatically reduced.

But to even contend where cycling-related progress is concerned Canadians need to shift gears. In 2004, the City of Winnipeg found that three percent of Winnipeggers commute by bike. In Victoria, B.C., one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country, was at just five percent in the same year. Our numbers have improved, but we're still well behind the leading cycling cities of the world, where total ridership for commuters hovers around twenty to twenty-one percent.

Progress, however, may come from the most unexpected sources. Locally, it may be that the Ford Era is what pushes cycling and cycling advocacy even further to the fore, unlikely though that seems.

The City of Toronto as we know it today owes a lot to the integration of cycling infrastructure. In 1996, it was Jack Layton, then a Metro city councillor, who first saw need for more bike lanes and parking. Gradually, his vision over the following years resulted in the Bike Plan, descended from an ambitious initiative to put 1,000 kilometres of bike lanes on our city's streets. Sixteen years later, it's his son, Mike, giving the city's thriving, diverse cycling community a platform at City Hall.

"Part of it is just getting folks together," said Layton councillor for Ward 19, "And, having a dialogue about what our city needs, instead of how to cut things from our city. Having a vision of something people can be hopeful for is much stronger." Layton's idea: instead of a mish-mash of individuals, create a platform for entire organizations—the Toronto Cyclists Union, for example—to bring their members' concerns to the city, advocating at an official level. Not to exclude individual participation, but to create a "congress," effectively, one that balances the views of different groups and unions.

At the national level, if cyclists are going to do the same—bring forward this critical advocacy at such a critical time—the same thing needs to happen. And if it can happen in the Toronto of Rob Ford, it can happen in the Canada of Stephen Harper.

Nationally, it needs to be big, beautiful, and bold. With enough organizing, it may take the form of something like 2009's Pedal for the Planet campaign, a cross-country ride to bring attention to climate change before that year's Copenhagen convention. To grab national attention, riders from as far afield as Victoria, Whitehorse and Regina arrived in Thunder Bay in late August that year, cycling the scenic Lake Superior route. It was a classically Canadian undertaking. The idea was to cycle straight for Ottawa, carrying an eleventh-hour message. And before it ever arrived, it was already getting Parliament's attention. “These cyclists are to be congratulated,” said NDP Member of Parliament Tony Martin, “For reminding us of the importance of doing something about climate change.”

But with Harper in charge, we've got a long, tall hill to climb.

In 2012, it means that we're very dangerously close to running out of time. We need to pick up the pace now if we’re going to be able to make the climb. We certainly cannot rely on a government like Harper's for solutions. Like a Critical Mass that spans the entire country, citizens (who happen to be cyclists, like you dear reader) need to be louder, elbowing themselves more prominently into the public debate. Putting the environment up there with female emancipation in the long, proud, revolutionary history of bike-related progress, cycling in the twenty-first century can be an example to the rest of the country, if not a rallying cry to other progressives. Harper has edged Canada toward a cliff with his trademark incremental style. For Canadian cyclists, the same patient tenacity can keep us from the precipice. Six years into this government's rule, past the point of no return, we need to put ourselves right in the path of the Conservative juggernaut.

Politically, we need to take the lane.

This article originally appeared in our winter web issue.

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One response to “A changing climate for cyclists”

  1. hamish wilson says:

    Of course bikes are good for climate protection – that’s what prompted that 192 study that gave Bloor it’s best for east-west assignation.
    But as cyclists, we aren’t Gaia’s green gifts to the world as the high-tech/end bikes can have a significant footprint, eg wheels from France, parts from Japan, Thailand tires and aluminum has had some permanent greenhouse gases associated with its smelting – oops!!
    The situation has been far worse than what was originally hinted at in that we have had no snow or frost really, and what’s worse, the mainstream eg. the Star, has been far less cognizant of the scope of the abnormality as to change things requires changing consumptions.
    And yes, the Harper Conservatives are climate criminals, but I don’t see that the current crowd of activists/groups are up to the level of fussing of the Pankhursts et all who endured a great deal of real privation and clash with the shytstems a hundred years ago, from strong direct actions of window-breakings and arson.
    On the upside, this warm “winter” has meant a civic savings of maybe $10M, and that money could readily do all the bike lanes in the Bike Plan, the Bloor and Danforth lanes and still have a lot of money left over for Bike Month.

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