Today’s edition of the Globe and Mail has a feature story called “Grow up, cyclists”. It’s a story about bicycle advocacy in Toronto, the city’s Bike Plan and the Toronto Cyclists Union. The Cyclists Union is a project in development, set to launch in June. I’m the project coordinator.
As a community organiser and municipal advocate, I rely heavily on mainstream media to spread ideas across this large city. Sometimes the message gets distorted by the media, and that’s often just part of the game of activism. But today’s article, and specifically the headline, went a little too far and I’d like to respond to that. (And it won’t fit in a ‘letter to the editor’, so thank you Spacing). I feel the article is unnecessarily divisive and also contains a few factual errors.
The headline is “Grow up, cyclists” followed by “It’s time for bikers to drop the gimmicks, says Spacing’s Dave Meslin. Out of a chorus of fractured voices, he’s forming a union that will present one strong message at City Hall”.
1) I never said that cyclists have to ‘grow up’. I aspire to be a Peter Pan myself and would love to see a little more youthful optimism in our political culture. I did say to the writer that we need to come up with messages that are less ‘activisty’ and develop a more ‘mature aesthetic’, but that was purely in the context of how we need to reach suburban motorists, not just the converted. My point was that we need drivers to get out of their cars and try riding their bikes more often. To reach those drivers, we need a different style of message than we would use to talk to the Critical Mass scene. But we also need a Critical Mass scene.
2) As for gimmicks, again I think my lines were taken out of context. What I said to the writer was that because the environment is such a hot issue and the call for sustainable transportation is louder than ever and accepted by all political stripes, and the number of cyclists is growing, we don’t need to rely on gimmicks anymore to be heard. My point was that I’m confident the time has come for cyclists to be taken seriously as an organised community, rather than ignored as a marginalised voice. But that doesn’t mean we should drop the gimmicks! And it doesn’t mean that I’m judging other organisers or offering them advice. Any strong movement has a diversity of approaches and tactics. Anyone who knows me, knows that I use and love gimmicks in all my work. (I learned the value of politically relevant gimmicks from my late dear friend, Tooker Gomberg.) The Bike Union will be full of gimmicks, and it would be a shame for the bike movement to lose any of its tricks, from street parties, to guaranteed bikelanes, critical mass, world naked bike ride, cute bumper stickers, guerilla bike lanes, etc.
In short, I respect and support all the cycling organizing that is happening in Toronto.
3) The article states that I am “the man behind spacing magazine”. While I played a significant role in founding the magazine four years ago, I have not been involved at all since then and can take no credit for their incredible success. I’m proud to be identified as part of their team, but it is inaccurate.
4) The article states that the City was aiming to install 30km of bikelanes this year but so far they are only at 18. Those numbers are from the City and are pure spin. The City has only installed about 6.5 km of bike lanes this year, not 18. And in order to meet their own commitments to the bike plan they need to be installing over 100km per year, not 30.
But the real issue I have with this article, is there headline choice. The writer, Tenille Bonoguore, made a few smalls errors and worded things a little differently than I would have liked, but that’s life. What the Globe did was pull the two most divisive phrases out of the entire article and use them in their headline. The phrases are “drop the gimmicks” and “grow up, cyclists”. The implication is that there is some level of conflict, fueled by opposing and competing views as how to organise within the bicycle movement. But if you read the article you’ll see that neither of those quotes are attributed to me. They are the writer’s own words.
The Cyclists Union project aims to unify the cycling community, not divide. While there are voids to fill, and new approaches to be tried, that should not reflect negatively on the amazing work being done.
When asked to participate in this story, I was hesitant to agree because I had an instinctual feeling that they were looking for conflict. Groups working together isn’t as sexy as groups fighting for turf or criticising each other. In the end, the writer produced a decent article, but the way it was framed changes the context and makes the entire piece read in a different manner. The focus is unnecessarily negative, rather than positive, as I had feared.
In the end, organisers put a lot of trust in the media and sometimes you get burned. I just wanted to clarify these points on behalf of everyone who is working on the bike union. Toronto’s bike activists deserve a medal, not a patronising suggestion like ‘grow up’.
Dave Meslin, project coordinator
Toronto Cyclists Union