Last month it was the first time I took my kids to the closest beach by bike. Port Stanley is 45km from my house in London, Ontario. My three kids are 8, 10 and 12 years-old and when I announced the trip, they all had a skeptical look on their faces. They also knew that I had done that ride several times and they quickly realized that I was not joking. Long rides were one of the new habits I acquired because of the pandemic. I’ve been using a bike as my main way to get around for more than fifteen years but I only started doing long bike rides more regularly in 2020 when it was one of the few available options to get a good workout with all the gyms, clubs and swimming pools closed.
The ride to Port Stanley
Our convoy had ten people. Six of them are under the age of 20. The youngest was 8 years old. It also included very good friends who were riding with us and that helped to make the trip feasible with the young ones. I knew the route like the back of my hand. We rode through the TVP (a bike path along the river that crosses the city), painted bike lanes, rural backroads, small towns and finally into the whistlestop trail. It took us many stops along the way and over three hours to get there. That is okay. It was Sunday and we were not in a hurry.
The excitement after getting all the way from London to Port Stanley using our own legs was stronger than the fatigue. We swam, played frisbee, went for walks, read books and did all the good things we do at the beach, including treats like pizza and ice-cream.
We knew that riding back was going to take long but we didn’t want to leave too early. First because we were having fun and second because it was too hot to bike in the afternoon. Kids (and adults) were exhausted when we got back home! Also happy to spend a super fun day with friends and proud to accomplish such a feat. Our very own Freedom Convoy.
Not for everyone
Unfortunately, many people can’t enjoy the beach because they don’t have a car, don’t feel they are capable of biking all the way to Port Stanley and don’t have a support group that makes every challenge that much easier to face. But the main barrier for biking is not the distance, after all, we can do that with an eight year old. No, the main barrier is road safety.
People are afraid to ride a bike in London and even more afraid to let their kids ride a bike. Even though cyclists accounted for only 2% of traffic fatalities in Ontario last year, being one of the most vulnerable road users leaves cyclists afraid, exposed and helpless. Motor vehicles are responsible for one person being injured every half-hour in Ontario in distracted driving collisions (g1.ca).
Under those conditions, the current infrastructure serves confident riders well but it is terrifying to the less experienced. The dismal infrastructure for cyclists of all ages and abilities sends a clear message that bicycles don’t belong on the road and that poses an even greater danger. An episode of road violence took place in the very route we used just a couple of weeks after our ride when a group of cyclists from the London Cycling Club were brutally attacked by a person driving a black pickup truck.
For mobility equity
We cannot dismiss this as a minor problem or an isolated event. Two of the fundamental human rights are the right to be/feel safe and freedom to come and go as you please. No matter how rich or how poor you are, everybody should be allowed to have fun and enjoy the simple and free pleasures available to us such as going to a public beach. Denying that opportunity for those who don’t have a car because they chose not to or because they can’t is a massive social injustice, particularly because many of those in that situation already have less privileges.
You can argue that not everybody is as fit as an eight year old boy. That is true, many of us aren’t. And cars and bikes are not the only two options. There is also public transit… or there could be. In 1904, an electrically powered railway from London to Port Stanley was launched and in its second year of operation it carried 441,592 passengers. You don’t need to take my word for it, this is public information displayed in Port Stanley by the Lift Bridge behind the public library.
Pause for a moment and let that sink. More than a hundred years ago we already had a public and electric transit system that transported more than twelve hundred people per day between London and Port Stanley. I’m sure we could have that again if we really wanted it. When city builders and decision makers choose to leave behind and deny basic rights for those who need it the most, they are perpetuating inequality in one of the most pervasive ways.
More than a hundred years ago we already had a public and electric transit system that transported more than twelve hundred people per day between London and Port Stanley.
Addressing the root cause
The right to ride a bicycle without being threatened or going to the beach or pursuing any activity that boosts our physical or mental health is more than just a nice to have. Obesity, depression and other mental health problems are reaching epidemic levels. Certainly, part of the solution is to increase the capacity to provide services that will help individuals that don’t have an active lifestyle, are isolated or depressed. But this approach addresses only the symptoms, acting after we already have a problem thus perpetuating it.
We need to act on what is creating that situation in the first place. One way is to give dignity back to people by allowing them to access any of the assets that their city has to offer, reaping the benefits that all those activities can provide. That includes access to workplaces, parks, libraries, grocery stores,schools, community centres and, yes, going to the nearest beach. It is key to give everyone the freedom to make that choice without the need to beg for help, spend an unreasonable amount of time or be forced to use a vehicle that they can’t afford or operate. Mobility, the right to the city and what it has to offer are basic human rights that we are denying to our most vulnerable.
We can do better
I see a future where my kids will bike with their kids to the beach safely and their freedom convoy will have hundreds instead of just ten people. And their friends, who chose not to ride a bike, can take the train any day any time, paying a fare as cheap as a cup of coffee. This is a possible future (actually this is already a reality in other parts of the world) and I hope we start building it (bike lanes and train tracks) as soon as possible. Meanwhile, I will keep riding on our freedom convoy. Want to join?