Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ottawa: An Inextinguishable Hunger for Public Forums

I knew I wasn't going to have time to review David Byrne's book The Bicycle Diaries (what I have read is lovely: must continue reading and post review) before the Fall Festival descended. Which it did, last Wednesday. But, on Friday night, I did get to meet Mr. Byrne, and I got to sit in on the session he coordinated, a panel on "Cycling and the Livable City."

Byrne is the kind of celebrity that still thinks he needs to show his name tag to the bartender to get his free drinks. (My friend Terry, who was tending the bar, was amused when he tried.) And he structured the panel so that it was completely not about him, not about his fame, not about the Talking Heads or anything else like that. He made it feel like he was really just there to facilitate putting all these minds together and having a town hall meeting.

He lucked out with Ottawa. There's nothing this town likes more than a good town hall meeting. Unless it's a chance to cross-examine a representative of the National Capital Commission. Oh, wait - they got both! Heaven!

The panel consisted of Byrne; Jeb Brugmann, the urban theorist; a representative from BIXI (I've sadly forgotten his name: he was warmly received, did a presentation about BIXI, and then got no questions directed at him for the rest of the session) and Marie Lemay, who's now the CEO of the NCC.

Most of the questions got directed at Lemay, naturally. And it was clear that the 400+ people that were in the room were almost all cyclists. There were questions about whether the paths would ever be clear for winter biking - I thanked the woman that asked that one - and the answer was, they're hoping to run a pilot project this winter where they'll keep one path maintained through the winter. I cornered Lemay in the green room afterward and asked her which one. She told me, but I don't think I can actually say, since she doesn't want to start any rumors, and the pilot project itself isn't a given yet. I'll just say it's a popular path... but sadly not part of my commute. There were a lot of questions about what the city was ever likely to do to bring street cycling up to the levels of the bike paths. Lemay couldn't answer that one, since she doesn't speak for the city: it seems clear though that most cyclists in Ottawa think that the city doesn't actually care about cycling as an option. There was some hostility towards City Hall apparent.

And there was at least one left-field question where a woman asked about whether Ottawa was going to start "importing" "the kinds of bikes they have in Europe" that you can ride wearing your business clothes. I refer her to my second ever post on this blog, about biking in a dress. You can get those bikes at any bike shop, darling. This afternoon I passed a gorgeous red Raleigh bike - swoopy and with lovely big chrome fenders and a squooshy seat - chained outside a Bridgehead. Which I'm sure you would have looked lovely on in your heels and work skirt.

Anyway, the biggest issue that came up in the session was probably the fact that while we have great paths here, the street biking can be ... dicey at times. The NCC, and Marie Lemay, seem to be really committed to making Ottawa a cycling-friendly city, and BIXI seems to have had a really good test run here. But then you get off the paths and onto streets with little or no space for bikes.

Just found an interview on All In A Day with Roger Geller, the cycling coordinator from Portland, Oregon - who was a guest speaker at Citizens for Safe Cycling on the 20th - that talks about some of the same issues too. One of the neat things about having David Byrne here for this panel was that it was a chance to see which issues are constants around the world and how different places deal with them.

And I picked up a copy of the Citizens for Safe Cycling's "Chain Mail" newsletter... I may have to join up.

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