I returned from Burning Man a few days ago. Similarly to last year, I’ve come back inspired – and somewhat tired. My week in Black Rock City was admittedly a lot tougher this year. It was oppressively hot, which took a toll on my energy to explore the expansive pop-up city. But, while I return physically tired, I feel emotionally and mentally rejuvenated. As the saying goes, “the playa provides”.
I left for Burning Man emotionally exhausted. I’ve spent the last year and a half living in Kitchener and working on my PhD at the University of Waterloo, while doing my best to advocate for cycling infrastructure in a city that desperately needs safer streets. I arrived in Kitchener with an optimism for the city that slowly eroded to a point of hopelessness. I’ve had friends ask me why I let these issues get to me. It’s quite simple, actually. When your daily bike commute involves near misses with speeding cars and run-ins with the angry people driving them, the stress accumulates. When you, justifiably, see every vehicle on the road as a potential threat to your safety, streets become a minefield of sorts. Their potential as vibrant public spaces disappears.
The straw that broke the camel’s back for me before I left for Burning Man was a Twitter discussion (maybe more aptly labeled as a war) sparked by a column in my local newspaper. The TLDR of the article was that cyclists should follow the rules of the road. These sorts of columns are nothing new, and people who cycle (PWC: person who cycles or people who cycle. I’m using this from now on!) have probably encountered some version of it in their own cities. The message is straightforward enough, but, in my mind, was a little out of touch with our current context. I’ve never really seen these “think pieces” as helpful to making our streets safer. Most PWC know the rules, and the ones who don’t follow them likely won’t be swayed by a newspaper article. What I do see these articles doing is adding fuel to the divisive “cyclist” vs “driver” fire, and maybe even emboldening some to use their cars to be more aggressive towards PWC. This is dangerous in a city like Kitchener, where we have very little cycling infrastructure protecting us. Finger wagging at rule-breaking cyclists in a city with no separate cycling infrastructure is like scolding a drowning swimmer for not staying in their lane.. I just don’t see it as helpful in the midst of what I see as an emergency. We don’t have any floatation devices handy and the lifeguard is nowhere to be seen.
Finger wagging at rule-breaking cyclists in a city with no separate cycling infrastructure is like scolding a drowning swimmer for not staying in their lane. I just don’t see it as helpful in the midst of what I see as an emergency. We don’t have any floatation devices handy and the lifeguard is nowhere to be seen.
The ensuing online debate provoked by this article was what really took it out of me. It turned into a circular argument where facts on cycling infrastructure weren’t acknowledged, nor the complexity of the issue at hand itself. It just became nasty and I felt gross after a certain point of engaging in the back and forth.
This social media conflict connected to a deeper sentiment that I’ve been thinking about since I’ve been involved in the urbanist conversation: How do we best move forward on the way we move in our cities? In other words, what will it take to get quicker action on better cycling and pedestrian infrastructure? I don’t have any answers at the moment.
As some of you might know, I’m big a Twitter user. When I lived in Edmonton, I used Twitter to highlight urban design issues I saw as problematic and bring attention to them. I was told by local politicians and fellow citizens alike that my tweeting was useful. I guess I could have called the municipal hotline to report my concern, but I didn’t see that being as powerful as an open, public discussion on these design flaws. I am aware, though, that embedded in this approach is an element of public shaming. Revealing a city’s flaws on a public platform with the potential for virality can perhaps serve as a motivator for politicians and city officials to respond more urgently than they would to a polite email or a complaint on the city’s mobile app. And so, I’ve spent a lot of my time on Twitter being vocal about urban issues I see affecting quality of life and citizen safety. But, maybe my efforts are futile. I’ve had a few people in Kitchener tell me they think my tweeting is too harsh or that it’s detrimental to the cause. My response has been something along the lines of, “has asking nicely for bike lanes or better crosswalks accomplished anything?”.
At the end of the day, I just want my city to be safer for everyone. To be happier and healthier. And, at this point, I’m not really sure on how we go about this best. To be honest, I find the constant task of highlighting the flaws in my city burdensome and, to some degree, toxic. The negativity gets to me. But, I haven’t seen other viable options that will expedite the process and I don’t think we can afford to wait around. I don’t want a tragic traffic-related death to be the impetus for our politicians to move on something that should have been a priority years ago.
I started this blog post talking about how my trip to Burning Man re-energized me and rid me of my emotional exhaustion. I witnessed 70,000 people come together to build a city out of nothing where people (on foot, bikes, pogo sticks, and art cars) manage to co-exist and get along. The residents of Black Rock City create something amazing with very little and I can’t help but imagine what is possible in our urban centres where we have an abundance of resources and ideas. I think the key is collaboration and an intention to be good to one another. I hear this intention vocalized by politicians, but I need to see it materialize in my built environment. I am hopeful we can find a way to move forward and progress without the need to shame or blame. There will always be a need for being critical. I don’t think being critical is bad. But, there is a difference between being a critic and being a cynic and it would help our cause to be reflective of the distinction between the two. If we want to be heard, we can’t let people dismiss our voices as being “negative” or “cynical” – it just plays into their agenda to keep our cities car-centric.
If you have any ideas on strategies to move the urban needle forward, please let me know by commenting below, tweeting me, or emailing me. We’re all in this together and I truly believe we can do great things if we recognize each other’s humanity. We aren’t cyclists, drivers or pedestrians. We’re just people trying to move around our cities, and hopefully along on the way we can have a few meaningful and positive connections with each other.
Interested in bringing me to your city to give a talk about the ideas discussed in this blog post? Get in touch by clicking here.
featured image: people gathered around the Tree of Tenere