After almost-frantically taking notes, I stepped out of Andreas Røhl’s talk at SFU with a mischievous smile: “our Elephant is culture” I was thinking “and our challenge is reaching balance.”
When it comes to issues of leadership for change, there will always be an “Elephant” in the room. Adreas referred to topics that need not be brought up as they tend to clog the discussion. For Copenhagen planners, it seemed unnecessary to talk about Health as a component in the city’s efforts to promote cycling. Instead, they focused on the more tangible benefits like ease of use, access and infrastructure. Of course health for the user is there. But in communications, talking about health is like talking about brushing your teeth: planning is a tedious occupation; don’t bore your audience to death.
Røhl, Copenhagen’s Bicycle Program Manager, is on leave from his current position. He’s joined the team at Urban Systems in their process of consulting the City of Vancouver. His talk – Sticks, Carrots and Tambourines – attracted a massive audience to SFU’s Harbor Center lecture hall. Many points relating to the promotion of bike riding were brought up in the talk. A few short words were presented before Andreas: Brian Patterson represented Urban Systems, one of the evening’s sponsors; Dale Bracewell, Manager, Active Transportation at the City of Vancouver mentioned some points from the city’s perspective. Then a panel made up of Andreas, Dale and two others were seated on stage to elaborate some more following the talk: Erick Villagomez, editor of Spacing Vancouver and Tania Lo from Momentum Magazine.
It seems to me that North America’s Elephant in the room is Culture. One of Røhl’s slides showed his observation of what discussions about cycling look like in Copenhagen vs in Vancouver (or in more general, North America)
Civil Cycling (Copenhagen): Convenient; Citizenship; Life quality; Mass culture
Militant Cycling (Vancouver): Survival; Sports; Subculture; Rebellion; Critical mass; Environmentalism
Among bikers in any city there will be those who employ this type of cycling or the other. Probably, whether one city is perceived this way or the other, relies on its broader set of values and social habits: in other words, its culture. First we notice aspects of behavior. Then, we tend to describe them in fond words or in mockery. After generalizing we use titles that simplify our discussion. This is the birth of the Elephant. We don’t like others questioning our culture. Some of us don’t want to let go of the car. Others (cyclists in this case) find it hard to grow out of fighting for the cause even after trends have shifted. Andreas Røhl’s message on this was that you can live with more than one means of transportation.
It’s “only” a matter of promoting a culture of change.
The whole talk was compelling. Our City is faced with the challenge of facilitating the change without dictating it. Some of the solutions are common sense: provide infrastructure; invest in programming; listen to the citizens. In Copenhagen there is an underlying history of utilitarian bike riding. This supports their success in reclaiming the roads. Denmark too has seen its lowest usage of bikes in the 1950’s like the rest of the developed world. However, biking never reached the status of subculture as in some other places.
In light of the apparent tension between cyclists and car drivers, be it isolated incidents or ingrained conflict, a balance will be found. We are experiencing a transition from car oriented infrastructure to a more varied and wholesome flow of transportation types. We need to be aware of the Elephant in the room. Whether we talk about it or not, what matters most is what we want of our city. It’s not about biking. It’s about balance in our lives. It’s about our interests and our culture.