Bikes on Air: interview with Kevin Sylvester

This article appeared in the first issue of dandyhorse in the summer of 2008. Get this issue here. Since this article first appeared the Ontario government has passed a law banning handheld cell phone use and distracted driving.

By Tammy Thorne
Photo by Molly Crealock

It all started one winter morning in 1999 when Metro Morning host Andy Barrie asked Kevin Sylvester how his commute in that day was. “Snow is not a problem, ice is,” he had said matter-of-factly.

Kevin Sylvester isn’t romantic about the bicycle. It’s how he gets around. However, he does not shirk the call to advocacy and says he is okay with being called an “advocate.” He does, after all, mention cycling whenever he gets the chance on air. Sylvester works as an atypical freelance radio host on CBC’s Radio One for some of the most popular shows, such as Metro Morning.

“I’d do a sports report and tack on a ‘bike report,’ where I’d talk about construction or road closures and weather conditions from a cyclist’s perspective. People started calling in. There was a huge, positive response. That is because there are so many people who bike in this city. They couldn’t get enough. So, it became a bit of a shtick that I did, but it was also a value added service.”

Sylvester says he “may be less obnoxious” when ranting about bikes on air than when he started 9 years ago. “It made sense to talk about bikes since Metro Morning is trying to build into the texture of the city. I think it added credibility to the show. No one was giving road reports from the cyclist’s perspective, and we need to know how to get home safely too.”

Indeed, Sylvester’s every day person approach to cycling provides a refreshingly normalized take on cycling that just happens to reach a huge audience. But, he has much more to say about cycling than what you hear on the air. One of his biggest pet peeves: drivers who talk on the phone.

“I can almost guarantee that if I die on the road, it will be because of some jackass on a phone. I do not understand why it is not illegal in Canada," he says.

Even though he only lived in Vancouver for half a year, while on a work assignment, he is a huge fan of that city’s bikeways. He cites Adanac, Ontario and 10th streets as the gold standard for major bike thoroughfares that we should emulate in Toronto on streets like Richmond and Palmerston.

“If we had a bikeway on Wellington, for example, with no lanes it would cause a huge uproar. But look at 10th in Vancouver – cyclists have priority. They have no lanes, just a big wide road where motorists know not to speed. They then choose other routes.”

Similarly, he says, we would have to have the same tacit understanding in Toronto where streets like University or Spadina would be understood as fast, car-oriented streets while others like Palmerston and St. George would essentially be bikes only. “And, why isn’t St. George car free?” he asks rhetorically and launches into a rant about the ridiculousness of our city’s over-accommodation to car culture.

Sylvester also notes that small businesses, like cafes, tend to pop up all along these successful swaths of bikeways in Vancouver and other cities, since cyclists can stop off wherever and whenever they want, without difficulty (or worrying about parking.)

He realizes this is not a popular sentiment among many cycling advocates, but he says unapologetically, “Bike lanes are not the solution.”

Overall, he says everyone just has to slow down. “It’s about finding your own pace. The pace of the bicycle, the pace of the city... it’s a perfect fit,” he says.

“I have never enjoyed driving down a tree-lined side street before. I do enjoy it every day on my bicycle though.”

The CBC recently installed secure, underground parking with space for 150 bikes. Story and photos from the unveiling: New secure bike parking facilities at CBC celebrated

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