COLUMN

Wheels within wheels on Yonge

KATHERINE GOVIER May 31 1993
COLUMN

Wheels within wheels on Yonge

KATHERINE GOVIER May 31 1993

Wheels within wheels on Yonge

KATHERINE GOVIER

Bike to Work Week in Toronto was kicked off last Monday with a flap-jack breakfast in Nathan Phillips Square. This proved to me what I have long suspected: what Toronto really wants is to be Calgary.

Calgarians may not bike to work. But surely they own the public pancake breakfast. It is one thing to put on your flounced dress, your cowboy boots and Stetson hat, and stand in the sunshine on the 8th Avenue Mall eating pancakes and bacon tossed off a hot grill, watching the 4-H club do its morning allemande left and do-si-do. It is quite another to dodge taxis in rush-hour traffic all the way down Yonge Street to claim soggy flapjacks, which were cooked yesterday, while a comic talks about drug dealers and bicycle thieves.

I’m not sure you can do flapjacks with bikes. Bikers are lean and mean. Pancakes and syrup bulge and are mushy, and their effects show when you wear Lycra shorts. But that wasn’t the only reason the breakfast was flat. First, no Torontonian over the age of 12 and past the first generation of immigration will pass time in a public park. Even if you get them out, Torontonians are too uptight to hoot and holler in the street in the morning without an organized competition with bats or pucks.

The first person who spoke to me when I locked my bike in the square offered me a free therapeutic massage from Sutherland Chan. What he said was, “You look like you need one.” He was having trouble finding customers because, he said, most people were too shy to have their shoulders rubbed.

I enjoyed the massage. The five miles downhill from home had been hectic. Actually, getting out of the house was the hardest part. There was so much I had to remember—lock, backpack, pantleg straps, sunscreen (ozone depletion), helmet, sunglasses, shoes with closed toes, mug (reduce, reuse,

Allan Fotheringham is on vacation.

There’s no end to what Torontonians can do when they get rolling—and try to have fun like Calgarians

etc.). Just think if I had really being going to work—I’d need a towel and a change of clothes, plus my notebook and file folders. Do laptops fit in backpacks or are they, like the lap and the back, destined never to meet? And what do you do with the dry cleaning?

I’d done three blocks on Yonge when I started to see bikes. Then they started to whiz past me from behind. These were the professionals. Couriers, all sinew, keep a silver whistle between their teeth, and if they’re still alive they have good reflexes.

“Oh, I forgot it’s Bike to Work Week,” said one caustically as we waited at a red light. “There’s a couple of hundred of them at Davisville. I passed ’em all.” He wasn’t coming for breakfast: he had calls already.

The closer I got to downtown, the more obstacles appeared in the right-hand lane. Stopped cars, with flashers on. Luggage dumped out a taxi door. South of College, a homeless person decided he had to walk into my lane. He was slow and wavery. Three bikes swerved to miss him, everybody swearing. The homeless person veered into the middle of the road—safer to walk with the cars.

The homeless were not entirely the losers in this, however. A fair number were collect-

ing a free breakfast. At least I thought they were homeless. Sometimes it’s hard to tell them from cyclists. Both carry a lot of bags and have ruddy cheeks. But the cyclists tend to be able-bodied. At least at first.

On the stage, an embarrassed couple demonstrated swing dancing. (Dancing? At breakfast? you could hear people think. Then you could hear their double-think, Aw come on, they do it in Calgary all the time.) It was cold and it felt like rain. Sheepish-looking people dismounted, locked up and gobbled two pancakes without benefit of fork while staring at the picnic tables. “There are 200 more biking in from the north,” announced the hopeful emcee. The 200 eventually landed, accompanied by cycling cops, but we still weren’t having fun.

Asking around, I discovered a surprising fact. Most of these people didn’t work downtown. They either didn’t work at all, or they worked at home, or they worked way out at Lakeshore and Kipling. That day’s Bike to Work campaign wasn’t reducing car traffic. It was just adding bike traffic. The pancake eaters supported biking, all right; most were members of a BUG (bicycle users group). The promise of festivities—or maybe the promise of making a political statement— had tempted them onto the streets to breathe the soot of rush hour.

Around 8:30 things did liven up. But the atmosphere was not so much festive as defensive. The comic told a joke about how, after you double-lock your bike and take off the front wheel and the seat, you can melt down the frame into its component metals—in order to avoid theft. BUGS are very concerned about bike theft; it’s epidemic in Toronto. Other BUG demands include: safe rooms to lock bikes in downtown offices and designated biking routes. BUGS also bug employers to install showers. These are all good ideas. But isn’t the biggest problem with biking to work in Toronto all those other guys in cars? How do you get rid of them? Wouldn’t it affect the economy?

Now, we’re talking. Problems. Issues. In a minute it will be economic downturn, sliding nicely down to end-of-the-world scenario. Can you imagine this happening at a Stampede breakfast? That’s the problem with Toronto: every fun idea has to become a political issue. The only thing that turns a Torontonian’s crank is a special-interest group.

But hey, it’s a lovable city. Deep down, Toronto never quits trying to break out and go wild. There are more fun events planned all week. The “world’s first choir on bikes” is one. Another is one of those contests where you decorate your bike, like we used to when we were kids—crêpe paper threaded between the spokes, paper rosettes on the handlebars and streamers. There’s no end to what Torontonians can do, when they get rolling. And you thought that they were just a whole lot of people standing around in the cold with their pant legs tucked into their socks.

Edmonton-born Katherine Govier is the author of Hearts of Flame.