Could Europe’s Velo-mania Come to Vancouver?

James D. Schwartz / Flickr

Over the past week I’ve visited Paris and Vienna and become enraptured by their bike sharing programs. Both cities boast cheap memberships for out-of-towners, which charge you by the half hour (Paris) and hour (Vienna) to ride. The first little while is always free encouraging members to quickly pick up bikes for short jaunts (rather than long scenic hauls). Here are a few general observations about both systems and the cycling communities that use them:

1. The bike share and it’s community (unsurprisingly) reflect the temperament of the host city. In Paris I felt myself transported back to 2000, shortly after I graduated from high school when I had no consideration of rules of the road aside from how to most quickly get from point A to B. The traffic insanity provoked by cyclists, moto-scooters, cars, trucks and pedestrian all flooding the cramped (buggy/horse and wagon designed) streets is impossible to exaggerate. Meanwhile in Germany, everyone, cyclists and bike share folks alike obeyed the little green man on the light like their life depended on it. The effective difference on traffic (and safety) is hard to over-exaggerate.

2. Hills make a big difference. During our time in Paris, we were staying in Montmartre, at the top of one of Paris’ highest points. When we tried to pick up bikes we had to go to 5 bike depots before we could find a pair of free bikes. The simple reason? The number of people going down far outranked the number of Parisian bike guys charged with hauling bikes back up the hill.

3. Don’t expect many gears. Most bikes might have 2-3 gears. No problem of flat European cities – but a very different situation if you’re talking about a hilly city.

4. The more stations the better. The more dense, the more stations. Unsurprisingly, Paris’ system was far larger and more intricate than Vienna’s. However both cities are Euro-standard dense. My feeling is in order to make these things worthwhile, you need to put them in an area where there are a lot of people (metro stations, popular parks, historical monuments) and a fair amount of short “hop” movement of those people.

5.  Celebrate the system. This is yet another layer of sustainable transportation that thanks to telecommunications, just adds to a city’s transportation and people moving infrastructure.

6. Cycling in the rain (if you don’t have the proper clothes) isn’t so romantic. Nope, we didn’t see many jolie girls in summer dresses happily peddling through puddles and a downpour. We did see business attired professionals using the bike share in Paris, but only when it was nice out. If you have a sketchy climate, consider factoring that into usage.

In Vancouver, there’s quite the discussion about whether we North Americans can transplant the bike share concept. The biggest hurdle we face right now is our helmet laws. But I think the other question we need to ask is if we have the transportation density and culture to make this addition to transit (cause in the end it needs to be about transit not just tourism) work.

Community on a European Vacation

As it turns out, the recipe for Community is very simple; Singing in public, beer, and a little dash of wild animal. Surprisingly, I am not talking about drunken nights of karaoke (exclusively). I recently spent 6 weeks studying in Copenhagen, Denmark and followed that up with a two week northern European Vacation. Below is a selection of the top five community building places and activities I encountered in my travels. These are the things that made me think, “Man oh man, I wish I could do this at home!”


1. Mauerpark Market and Bearpit Karaoke (Berlin)

Late on a Sunday morning we headed over to Mauerpark for the Berlin’s local favourite flea market. After several hours of exploring the winding stalls of the outdoor market, with several stops to rest in mini-manufactured-beach beer gardens, we had had our fill of bargain hunting and novel snacks. So, made our way over to Bearpit Karaoke just outside the market gates. We were lucky enough to arrive just in time to hear a rousing rendition of Frank Sinatra’s My Way performed by a bearded, German, older gentleman. I was not entirely surprised to find out that this was not his first time in the Bearpit. The only performer who gave him a run for his money was this little girl who made the crowd fall silent before we all joined in to clap along with her song. It was a gorgeous day and the hill over the stage was stacked with people of all ages and walks cheering on the performers. The organizers turned an umbrella, a wagon, a laptop, and some speakers into one of the best boundary breaking, community-building events I have been to.


2. Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Denmark)

This was my favorite museum and is a great example of how to make art an accessible and fun experience for a wide range of people. Before I made the trip myself I had heard from many people who couldn’t speak highly enough of the museum and one who said he took his kids there as often as possible. After spending several hours exploring the facility, all that I felt was missing was that feeling of backache that usually accompanies long walks on hard museum grounds. These grounds were not the usual museum grounds though and moved the visitor almost seamlessly between in and outdoor exhibits. There was even one point when we got to use a slide for transportation! (A transportation method that should be adopted on a much wider scale.)  Exploring the outdoors was a refreshing way to discover Louisiana’s impressive collection of sculptural works against a backdrop of the beautiful Øresund beach front and manicured hills that are perfect for a picnic on one side of the property and a beautiful lake nestled into a wooded area on the opposite side.


3. Midsummer’s Eve Celebrations (June 23, Copenhagen)

People go out en masse, not just to one spot but basically to any park, beach, or barge in town. They eat hogs, drink beer, and laugh and chat until someone lights a huge bonfire with a scarecrow/witch on top. That’s when they start singing in unison. Amazing.


4. A la Mort Subite (Brussels)

Founded in 1928, this was a stunningly beautiful Belgian bar whose name translates to  “At the Sudden Death”. Well if sudden death were to strike, there are plenty worse places you could be. Picture soaring ceilings, golden yellow walls and pillars, and locals enjoying a selection of Belgian beers so flavorful that it is probably impossible for anyone to claim they don’t like the taste of beer after trying these variations. This place had an incredible community atmosphere. We sat down at one of the long communal tables next to an older couple from Brussels who were only too happy to share with us the secret of the Brussels classic brew called Gueuze (it has to do with a reaction between the yeast and a bacteria that is only found in the air in Brussels) and their life long dream to travel to Canada. A perfect Belgian experience.


5. Elephants in the Park (Frederiksberg, Denmark)

Anyone who remembers when the Vancouver Zoo had a place in Stanley Park is not likely to have forgotten how awesome it was to go and watch the polar bears from the zoo’s outer confines. The Copenhagen Zoo has elephants that you can get within about 40 meters of from the surrounding park without paying the zoo’s hefty entrance fee. They play and throw dirt and swim and splash and break sticks and lift logs and sit on each other. Watching gigantic, beautiful, social creatures makes for easy conversation with the other observers and was a perfect place to chat with the very friendly Danes who always seem to out for a leisurely afternoon. The elephants were a mere five-minute walk from my apartment so I made a practice of visiting regularly.

If we can’t travel to Europe or have elephants in our backyards at least we can get together to drink some great craft brews and sing about it. Anyone got a karaoke machine?





The Pirates of Copenhagen

This has nothing to do with the Climate Conference - but it truly is a pirate ship with Danish quotations. I say, "close enough!"

This has nothing to do with the Climate Conference - but it truly is a pirate ship with Danish quotations. I say, "close enough!"

During a recent trip to a bookstore I came across Michael Crichton’s newest – and posthumous – book, Pirate Latitudes. That’s right. Mr. Crichton’s legacy, in this humble editor’s opinion, will not be dinosaurs or terminal men or aliens or medical dramas or climate change. It will be pirates. But, wait a second, let’s go back to that second to last topic. The climate change one. Mr. Crichton’s controversial piece on climate change, State of Fear, combined with his newest work, Pirate Latitude, rolled into the most recent – and hilarious – prank by The Yes Men inspired an epiphany and gave me an idea: what can the heads-of-state, protesters, businesspeople, lobbyists, scientists, fake-scientists, corrupt-scientists, students, and spectators learn about the environmental landscape as it relates to pirate communities?

Obviously, the answer is that we can learn a lot about the relationships between pirates, culture and the environment. So, Copenhagen, I hope you’re listening. Because it will be pirates, not lobbyists, businesspeople, scientists, or governments, who will save the environment. Here’s why and how.

Pirates as Environmental Stewards

Copenhagen stakeholders – Copenholders – pirates can teach you, all of us, really, about reducing and reusing; they know how to help people get by with less. Just ask any Fleet Street Banker or Liverpudlian Businessman or West Indies Plantation Owner or Admirals of the Royal Navy during the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries. These Captains of Industry and Government changed the environmental and cultural landscapes of our planet (slaves from Africa and introduction of new crops to the New World) to produce millions of things that made them millions of dollars. From time to time, though, pirates reduced the flow of such overproduction and – ahem - reused it themselves or recycled it amongst their brethren. Here is a specific example of how pirates don’t use the natural environment to produce things, in the recorded and unrecorded history of pirates, only one Captain ever commissioned a ship; pirates don’t build new ships. They reuse them. In 1695, Captain William Kidd (the self-proclaimed “Pirate Hunter”) built himself, I kid you not, a galley in England – no, he was not a viking. This was an odd decision. Speaking of odd decisions, here is a lesson for the COP15 decision makers to consider: use what’s already there! A recent story I had to hear from Fox News, divulged that over 1,200 limosines and 140 private jets had to be imported in order to accommodate the climate conference delegates. Pirates would’ve commandeered a bus and shared it. I’m just saying…

Pirates as Creators of a new Cultural Landscape

What happens on a pirate ship when the captain chooses a direction that the crew doesn’t like? Well, the captain changes his mind or goes overboard. It’s democracy at its finest. A recent article in The Independent by Johann Hari suggests that modern day pirates, like their historic brothers and sisters, have rejected today’s unequal, corrupt and punishing global “system.” Hari cites the last words of William Scott, a pirate hanged in Charleston, South Carolina during the Golden Age of Piracy: “What I did was to keep me from perishing. I was forced to go a-pirateing to live.” In spite of the consensus amongst the planet’s brightest minds, well, alarm bells aren’t really going off around the world. Greed is a big part of it. Manipulation and spin are parts of it. Fear of difference is a huge part of it. And the authoritative concentration of power is, perhaps, the biggestSeriously? 1,400 limosines? Do you guys "get" Climate Change?! part of it. Many pirates could have been members of the East India Trading Company or Royal Navy – some were and chose to leave the respective greed of the Merchant Marine (merchant ships were notoriously and unsafely under-staffed, as less sailors meant less overhead and more profit for businessmen in London, New York and Boston) and authoritative culture of the Royal Navy (apparently, you weren’t allowed to throw your captain overboard or take a nap that wasn’t scheduled). If true democracy really allows us to chuck our captains overboard then what do we really have now? Most of the world is on board with re-examining and altering humanity’s relationship with the environment. And the majority of our planet is also part of this wholly elaborate, interconnected global system that is moving forward like the smelly inertia-proof juggernaut that it is. For anything to change, our system as it exists today must be transformed. Or rejected and created anew. Whatever the case, pirates can – and should – be the drivers of such change. After all democracy existed on pirate ships before it ever existed in France or the United States. I’m just saying…

Pirates as a Product of their Environmental Landscape

Over the last two decades an unknown amount of toxic waste has been dumped off the coast of Somalia – what would cost $1,000 USD per tonne in Europe costs $2.50 USD per tonne in Somalia. Combine this with the overfishing along Africa’s longest – and most unprotected – coastline (nearly 3,000 kilometers long), and a different story of what makes a Somali pirate a “pirate” begins to develop. Greed and corruption from the rest of the world have thrust upon the people of Somalia, Nigeria, and the Strait of Malacca material conditions that represent just how much we need to take matters into our own hands. For example, over 70 per cent of Somalians refer to their former fisherpeople as “The Somali Coast Guard” not as “pirates.” Let’s take this as a horrible synecdoche of how things may very well unfold for the rest of the world; soon the coastal communities of Vancouver Island may harbour a few more pirates than they do today. I’m just saying…

Whether we all believe it or not, our planet is being pushed to the brink. We are a part of its landscape. As part of Team Earth, the world needs people to protect it from what is happening. So, play within the system or take a Yes Men approach and mock it through covert operations. Just take piracy as a metaphor and be nice about it, okay? I’m glad we had this chat. Now get out there and change the world!

- Sir John the Pirate Piratologist

Day of Blog Action 2009: Climate Change

This blog can also be read at under Making Contact – Finding Farley. Gotta love the link love – especially when more than 8000 blogs join forces! Actually, I think it’s closer to 10 000 now – Enjoy!

Today is Blog Action Day. This year, over 8500 bloggers all around the world are writing about climate change. That’s more than 8000 stories that reflect the personal impact climate change has had on over 8000 people and their friends and family. It’s a real wake-up call as we approach December 7th, the kick-off date to the Climate Talks in Copenhagen.

I can’t help but think reaching out to world leaders and the decision makers behind the policy that will shape the future of our planet is best done with a story. Make like a writer – tell them what you know.

Well, here’s what I know – I just watched a film called Finding Farley, the story of a Canadian family that sets out in a canoe from Calgary, Alberta in the hopes of reaching Cape Breton, Nova Scotia where they will meet Canadian author and activist Farley Mowat.

What I love most about Finding Farley is how the film uses different storytelling techniques to weave the journey together. It follows filmmaker Leanne Allison, her husband and biologist Karsten Heuer, their toddler-son Zev and their dog, a border-collie named Willow. The family uses Mowat’s books as their guide, a literary compass of sorts – from paper to foot. They bring a video camera with them so they can document their journey – from reel to real. Both Leanne and Karsten keep an on-going correspondence with Mowat as they traverse Canada’s landscape – from eyes and ears to paper. That paper reaches Mowat in Nova Scotia in the form of a letter and settles into his memory and imagination. The film presents a lovely cycle of storytelling – one that happens in the Canadian wilderness.

What I find extraordinary about this journey is the story that comes from a dedication to mimic and follow a storyteller on a path already taken. Leanne and Karsten show us what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. I don’t want to give too much more away. It’s a lovely film and I think you should see it.

On this Day of Action, when the power of the web and it’s engineers is harnessed to reach out and engage, Finding Farley is a reminder that the movement to protect our vulnerable planet and the wildlife that depends on it from climate change is sometimes best told through the stories of our own lives. Well done Leanne, Karsten, Zev and Willow!

An Island of local foods, thriving theatre … and dirty, dirty exhaust fumes

This past Saturday, I took advantage of the clear, crisp, sunny day and a few free hours to ride my bike down to Granville Island. As I whizzed along (well, maybe ambled is a more accurate term …), the fresh air did wonders for my spirit, leaving behind thoughts of impending biostatistics midterms and laundry piles at home. As I made my way past the tennis courts and Kids’ market, a slightly (OK, very), ridiculous perma-smile on my face and a saunter in my bicy-stride, I saw before me an illogical and incoherent sight: vehicles. Dirty, polluting, resource-depleting vehicles. And not just a few. They were everywhere. Is this some kind of Emily Carr inspired performance art piece, I asked myself? Surely this must be a group of forward-thinking, sustainability-minded students making a statement. Sadly, this was not the case. There really were an abundance of vehicles stuck in a horrific traffic snarl around the Island. The Island was replete not with the smell of local fare and the sound of street musicians, but with the smell of exhaust and the nerve-grinding sounds of honking cars and revved engines.

As of late, there has been increased hype around making Vancouver’s built environment more conducive to biking and walking. The benefits are evidence-based and success stories can be seen in many European countries (Denmark and Holland, to name a few). Active Transportation (i.e., walking, biking or rolling) has numerous environmental and health benefits, as well as economic and social ones. Cities that are more pedestrian friendly have been linked to increased local shopping and retail sales, and a more vibrant sense of community. Tourists find pedestrian-friendly cities more welcoming, and tend to spend more time and money in places where walking and cycling is more accessible.
I understand that, well, Vancouver ain’t no Copenhagen. We’re simply not at a place, be that politically or logistically, where a large-scale infrastructural overhaul can take place to make Vancouver’s streets just as accessible to bikes and pedestrians as it is to vehicles. But baby steps can be made. And I propose that making Granville Island car-free be one of those baby steps. There are plenty of public transit options around the Island for individuals to get to the entrance. We might consider creating more opportunities for street car linkage and increased bus service to the island. For those individuals who simply must take a vehicle, limited paid parking stalls can be kept available, with revenues going towards more sustainable transportation options.


As it stands, the beauty and distinctiveness that is Granville Island is being sullied and tarnished. And what kind of statement do we want to make in the world when they visit our beautiful province in 2010? I suggest we take this small step, make a statement about what we, as Vancouverites, stand for, and save this little Gem of an island from the tarnish of exhaust.