Green Party leader not the only one who can’t ride a bike

Canada Politics
Elizabeth May pledges health transfers to reflect aging populations

The revelation that Green Party Leader and green transportation supporter Elizabeth May cannot ride a bicycle is the talk of Quebec media today.

“I don’t ride a bike,” May told Dandyhorse, a Canadian magazine for cyclists, in August. “I grew up on rural roads, where my mother decided it would be unsafe to ride bicycles.” 

The admission is seen as an embarrassing one by some in the media. Le Journal de Montreal and La Presse both ran articles quoting May saying it was a “catastrophe” for a leader of the country’s environmentally focused federal party to be a non-cyclist.

But May — who was not immediately available for comment —  is not alone in her inability to get around on two wheels. Six per cent of Americans don’t know how to ride a bike, according to a survey of about 1,200 U.S. adults done by YouGov in 2013. Cities across Canada offer bike riding and bike safety classes for adults, including both those who never learned to ride at all and others who want to know how to ride defensively on the road.

And while many Canadians know how to ride a bike, only a relatively small number commute by cycle. Just 1.3 per cent of Canadians ride their bike to work, according to Statistics Canada. And May’s mention of safety worries about cycling actually highlights the transportation issues her party works on, and brings to mind the ongoing tension between cyclists and cars in many Canadian cities.

“The biggest barrier to people riding is safety concerns,” Glyn Bowerman, the Toronto-based transportation columnist for Metro News, tells Yahoo Canada News. About 7,500 Canadians are seriously injured on bicycles every year, according to the CAA.

And while cities across Canada are looking at cycling infrastructure to various degrees, cycling advocates are calling for separate lanes that remove the possibility of cars entering cycling lanes because of either human error or a misunderstanding of the rules, Bowerman said.

But there are some considerable barriers to that goal, including often-poor relations between cyclists and drivers. In Toronto, for example, former mayor Rob Ford famously referred to a “war on the car” in his first mayoral campaign, and council removed bike lanes that had been installed by the previous city government.

“I think shared spaces can work,” Bowerman said, of cycling lanes on roadways, “but at lower speeds than a lot of people are used to and in a culture of mutual respect, which I don’t think exists in Toronto.”

The capital city of May’s home province is relatively bike happy, with the City of Victoria itself stating that 11 per cent of its residents commute on two wheels. But Victoria enjoys a moderate climate year round, and the city actively promotes cycling for commuting and transportation.

Though she isn’t included among those cycling commuters, May often promotes environmentally friendly policies, including travelling by bicycle. She outlined her party’s commitment to fighting climate change in a letter to the Vancouver Courier in June. And her party’s platform includes a focus on green transport and calls for increased federal funding for alternative transportation infrastructure, including for cycling, across Canada.

“Improved cycling infrastructure — protected lanes on high-volume, high-speed streets, and other designated space on quieter roads — that is well-connected across a city or region, is a key component to getting more people riding,” Erin O’Melinn, executive director of HUB Cycling in Vancouver, tells Yahoo Canada News. “This, along with a more robust education system, is necessary to get a significant shift into cycle commuting.”

The Green Party’s position on federal support for cycling infrastructure may be unusual in Canada, but other cities around the world already have well-integrated resources for bike commuters.

“One of the things that a lot of great cities across the world have in common is excellent biking infrastructure,” May told Dandyhorse. “In these cities you’ll see that bicycling is made not only convenient – but safe. It’s a scandal in Canada that cyclists in many cities are taking their lives into their hands to do something good for their health, good for the environment and good for the overall vibrancy of a city.”

Legislative and financial support from the federal government would be one way to help Canada move towards the European model, Bowerman said. Cycling activists have long worked towards a law requiring side guards on large vehicles in order to protect cyclists, he said, and federal funds provided to cities and provinces in order to support better cycling infrastructure would also help.

“What I would mostly look for from a federal government is just support in encouraging this kind of progress,” Bowerman said. “And maybe some cash.”

And if May is interested in tackling cycling once the federal election campaign ends, HUB Cycling may be able to help. 

“We have an adult Learn to Ride program that has 100 per cent success rate in getting people riding for the first time,” O’Melinn said.