Monthly Archives: March 2018

Let’s Make Our Roads Safer for Everyone

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I’ve been buzzed while cycling more times than I can count. Spend enough time on a bicycle in Waterloo Region and you’re likely to have experienced it, too: the near-misses between passing cars, the drivers who hang onto every inch of pavement on the road. For a community that prides itself on forward-thinking and innovation, the truth of the matter is this: when it comes to getting around, people on bicycles are often treated as second-class citizens—never mind what Kitchener’s, Waterloo’s, and Cambridge’s Bicycle Friendly Community designations would like you to believe.

To ride a bicycle in Waterloo Region is to be at times encouraged and other times exasperated by the pace of change in our cities, where oversights and missed opportunities pop up on our roads as frequently as the potholes that follow a February thaw. For every two steps forward, we can’t seem to help but move one step backward—a chain that keeps falling off with each pedal stroke.

Anyone looking for Waterloo’s newly-introduced protected bike lanes on King Street—one of the biggest selling points of a redesigned uptown streetscape after months of road construction—will find a row of parked cars instead. Two of Kitchener-Waterloo’s most vital arteries for pedestrian and bicycle traffic—the Iron Horse Trail and Spur Line Trail—lack virtually any signed or protected street crossings, with cyclists and pedestrians forced to wait at busy four-lane roads for a chance to play George Costanza in Seinfeld‘s ‘Frogger’ episode. We’ve seen dozens of shared-lane markings (or ‘sharrows’) painted on city streets, only to realize that nobody really likes them—not even the cyclists they supposedly protect.

“Right now, we’re still hodgepodge—a bike lane here, a bike lane there. And it’s great when you’re on those bike lanes, but then those bike lanes end after 200 metres or a couple kilometres,” says Graham Roe, co-owner of Berlin Bicycle Cafe and one of the cycling advocates who lobbied for the protected lanes uptown. “As cyclists, we’re still in the gutters.”

It’s enough to make you ask: how did we get here?

It’s not as though our city councils are blind to the issue. The City of Waterloo’s plan for a high priority network is a direct acknowledgement of what so many riders have been asking for: a minimum active grid focused on improving the uptown core. In Kitchener, city council is nearly halfway through a 20-year cycling master plan aimed at expanding its on-road cycling and trail network. Just this past year, Cambridge introduced a two-kilometre multi-use trail along Conestoga Blvd.

These are promising signs of councils that want to do the right thing, but it’s not enough: Kitchener’s spending on bicycle-friendly infrastructure last year was barely 1 per cent of what it spent on road reconstruction and resurfacing in 2015 alone. A 20-year plan is a nice sentiment to share, but what about right now?

“People prioritize the motor vehicle. That’s the design of the fifties—we’re still stuck in that mode of designing our cities around the automobile,” says Roe. “I could blame the motorists, but I don’t. I blame the system.”

The end result is a series of improvements that our cities seem to view more as gifts to be given praise for than investments in a safer, healthier community. After all, cycling may be an annoyance to some drivers, but to those who get around on two wheels, the difference between good and bad infrastructure can be one of life and death.

“Bike lanes save lives, because they create separation between drivers and cyclists. But other studies are showing that cycling has effects on cancer, and mental health, and chronic health issues,” says Robin Mazumder, a University of Waterloo PhD candidate researching the psychological effects of urban environments. “I see politicians talking about how they want healthy cities, and I’m like, give me a break. Build some bike lanes. What more do you need?”

If we truly want to prioritize active transportation, then let’s do it right. Let’s give our cyclists and drivers alike what they both want and build our streets for both of them, keeping them separate whenever possible. The research bears this out: the City of Portland did a study into cycling habits in 2016 and found that of all potential riders, nearly two-thirds are interested in getting around by bicycle but have concerns about their safety. A University of Waterloo report in 2015 found that the two greatest barriers to cycling uptown were a lack of bike lanes and traffic worries.

The interest is there, but the infrastructure is failing us.

“In Netherlands, Denmark, even in Montreal… they’ve all figured this out. It’s not rocket science,” says Roe. “As long as vehicles can go 50 to 70 kilometres an hour, you can’t share that with a bicycle.”

It’s not as if we’re without precedent in Canada: Calgary—yes, sprawling, car-friendly Calgary—went down this road in 2015 by introducing a downtown grid of protected bike lanes and has seen a 40 per cent uptick in bicycle trips in and out of the downtown core since the lanes have gone in. Sidewalk cycling—one of the biggest indicators of poor cycling infrastructure and a leading cause in bicycle-involved collisions—dropped from 16 per cent to just two per cent. In Ottawa and Gatineau, over 50 kilometres of parkway roads are closed to vehicles on summer Sunday mornings for bicycle, rollerblade, and pedestrian traffic—a tradition that has lasted since 1970. Change is possible.

Mazumder knows this firsthand. While living in Edmonton—another Alberta city better known for car culture than bicycle commuting—he joined a group of cycling advocates in successfully introducing a pop-up bike lane in the city’s downtown.

“My first year in Edmonton, I didn’t ride my bike, because I was terrified. I didn’t think it was possible,” he says.

Taking a page from a similar project in Minneapolis, the group worked with the city to install a series of pylons and flowerpots spanning ten city blocks, creating a makeshift bike lane for a span of two hours.

“It [was] a way for residents to experience something tangible. For the people that might have had an issue with a bike lane in their community, they can see what it would actually be like,” says Mazumder. “When you’re opposed to it, all you see is something that’s going to create traffic problems. And it also gave the cyclists something to see: this is what it could be like biking on a street with a bike lane.”

Today, that bike lane has become permanent. Since then, the city has launched an entire downtown grid.

“In less than two hours, we were able to communicate something [and] show people what it could be like. Politicians came out to it, and they ended up re-prioritizing their budget,” says Mazumder. “I never would have thought that was possible.”

Better bike infrastructure isn’t just about safety—although safety should be reason enough. It isn’t just about creating healthier communities or lessening the burden on our environment—although it does that, too. Better bike infrastructure is good for business. One of the biggest “what ifs” bike lane opponents hold onto is the potential loss of business from less parking in our downtown cores, but the numbers suggest the opposite is true. The same University of Waterloo report surveyed shoppers in Uptown Waterloo and found that those who travel by active and public transit make more trips and spend over twice as much as those who drive there.

The arguments against spending on cycling are wearing thin. It’s been done elsewhere and has been proven to work. It promotes a healthy, active community while minimizing pollution. It’s good for business, and it puts the focus on keeping all of us safe—not on finger-pointing between drivers and cyclists over who’s at fault and whose behaviour needs improving.

“I think there’s a lot of hope here,” says Roe. “We have a small city; we can make changes much quicker than a larger city like Toronto can. If we can put protected bike lanes on King Street, there’s no excuse that we can’t put them on every single road that we need them on.”

We’ve been innovators before, ready to champion new ideas. Let’s embrace an idea that makes sense for all of us—not just in the short-term, but in the long-term, too.

This is an extended version of an op-ed from the Waterloo Region Record on Saturday, March 24th, 2018.



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Story Untold: “In the End, It’s All Artistic Expression”

Story Untold with Chali 2na

Chali 2na is a born storyteller. Gifted with one of the most iconic voices in the history of hip-hop — a deep, rich baritone that rides over the groove and pulls you in with gravitational force — the Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli emcee breaks into a smile as he begins to tell his greatest story of all: the story of his life.

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Born Charles Stewart, the Chicago-born wordsmith rose to fame in the late 1990s and early 2000s with Jurassic 5 as part of a wave of alternative hip-hop groups coming out of Los Angeles. He has performed all over the world, reaching Gold status in the United Kingdom for the group’s 1998 debut album. His first love, though, was breakdancing and graffiti.

“Living in Chicago, we didn’t know too many people who were involved in the culture yet, and Chicago was house music central … we were trying to be little outsider kinda cats, so when hip-hop came, it was that outlet,” he says. “The pursuit of that outlet led us to the North side, and we met some of the craziest breakdance cats on Earth.”

2na remembers Chicago’s South Side as a place filled with gangs and drugs in the mid-to-late 1970s — influences he sought to avoid and found an escape from in hip-hop.

“It was easy to just get sucked into that – especially where I [grew up]. So to have something that I was able to occupy my time with that was creative, it was something that drove me,” says 2na.

“Living in Chicago, we didn’t know too many people who were involved in the culture yet, and Chicago was house music central … we were trying to be little outsider kinda cats, so when hip-hop came, it was that outlet.” – Chali 2na

When “Rapper’s Delight” came out in 1979, 2na recalls his entire school memorizing the lyrics. Half a country removed from the epicentre of it all, he would visit the library in Chicago to read up on the growth of the culture in New York City: breakdancing, graffiti, music, you name it.

“Whatever [hip-hop culture] was associated with, we’d go and try to suss out where that is,” he says. “Oh, I heard the graffiti writers’ corner is this train station. It was like a treasure hunt, man, and I loved that.”

When 2na’s family picked up and moved to Los Angeles, he carried a piece of his hometown with him, tagging building walls with the moniker ‘Chicago 1000’ — a nod to the legendary New York-based street artist Futura 2000.

“I figured if he’s 2000, I’ll be 1000,” says 2na. “So that was my form of rebellion at the time: tagging ‘Chicago’ all over LA.”

Los Angeles opened his eyes to an entirely new world of hip-hop culture, where groups like the Souls of Mischief and Pharcyde would soon make a name for themselves. At the centre of it all was a health food store at the corner of Crenshaw Blvd and Exposition Blvd that held a weekly open mic night drawing artists from all over the city: the Good Life Cafe. On Thursday nights, the place would fill with listeners and artists could sign up to perform one song. It served as a trial by fire for many artists, as the crowd wouldn’t hesitate to interrupt a poor performance.

“They had a chant: ‘please pass the mic.’ They would chant; they wouldn’t let you finish [your performance]; the plug would get pulled on you; all kind of stuff.” – Chali 2na

“You’d try to see if you could strategically place your name and hope that they get to you. You didn’t want to be first, but you didn’t want to be last; you wanted to be somewhere in the middle where [the venue] is packed,” says 2na. “They had a chant: ‘please pass the mic.’ They would chant; they wouldn’t let you finish [your performance]; the plug would get pulled on you; all kind of stuff.”

It was there that Jurassic 5 began — a fusion between two groups at the time: Rebels of Rhythm and the Unity Committee. It started as a collaboration on one song, “Unified Rebelution,” which the group debuted on a Thursday night.

“Nobody saw it coming — at all,” says 2na. “We [acted] like we were showing up as usual and just coming to the Good Life to chill and watch; we didn’t tell [anybody] we were going to perform. [So then they say], ‘Okay, so next we got… I guess a new person; I’ve never heard of this one before. Unified Rebelution. Unified Rebelution, y’all in the house?’ All of us got up on the stage, and everybody was like “OHHH S–T.” We did “Unified Rebelution”, and the rest is history.”

So began a four-album run that would carry 2na and Jurassic 5 around the world, reaching as high as #15 on the Billboard 200 chart. 2na continues to tour and release music to this day, having put out a solo studio album in 2009 and four EPs since 2012.

“This is something that we stumbled on, and for people to hold it so dear to their hearts is amazing to me. I’m honoured to be a part of that,” he says.

This interview is originally from a 2013 conversation in London, Ontario for The Come Up ShowSubscribe to Story Untold Podcast on: iTunes | Google Play | Stitcher

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Story Untold: “The World’s Not as Big as People Think”

Story Untold with Spencer Conway

Many dream of seeing the world. Spencer Conway has done it from atop a motorcycle. Since leaving his job as an English teacher behind at the age of 41, the Biddenden, Kent resident has logged over 100,000 kilometres on his Yamaha XT-660 Tenere, circumnavigating Africa and South America — becoming the first person to complete the Africa bike trek solo.

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He’s traversed deserts and jungles, enduring mud roads and sandstorms while raising over £25,000 for Save the Children. He’s also been through some of the least-travelled places in the world over the past decade, surviving crashes and even a near-fatal shooting crossing the border between Kenya and Somalia — a place, says Conway, where he came across a training ground for pirates:

“They just turned around and started shooting an AK-47. It took off the back tire; got a bullet hole through the swing-arm; the brake caliper exploded, went through my arm, came out the other side; fell off, broke three ribs. [I] jumped back on the bike, but I had no tire; it was gone. I just had the rim … the police later told me that they must have run out of bullets.”

In South America, Conway endured bullet ants and serious illness.

“I rode for 14 days with man flu — that’s what they call it over here,” he says. “I had malaria. I ended up collapsing in the streets, and then I was in hospital … and then straight after that, [my girlfriend] got blood poisoning, and she was in hospital for a month. On these long trips, you’ve just got to take it as it comes.”

Conway’s travel method is unorthodox: he carries no GPS, no phone, and no maps.

“It was a way of seeing [something different],” he says. “If you follow [the same routes as everyone], you always end up in the same places as everyone else.”

He’s also encountered his share of roadblocks. Just 200 kilometres from his destination in Colombia, Conway was denied at the Venezuela border and had to take a 12,500 kilometre detour to finish his trip around South America. In Africa, he waited at the Angola border for 36 days before he was allowed to cross.

“A lot of riders make the mistake of living in their speed,” says Conway. “You’ve got to respect other people’s way of life.”

His expeditions have been featured on the Travel Channel, broadcast to over 130 countries and territories. As Conway tells it, his taste for adventure has always been there.

“My father worked for overseas development, so we moved all over the world,” he says. “I was brought up in Kenya up until I was six and then Swaziland in Southern Africa until university, and then I came over to England. But we always travelled, and I rode motorbikes from a young age.”

His next goal is an even bigger one.

“My main aim is to become the first person to circumnavigate every continent in the world over the next ten years,” says Conway. “As long as you’ve got water, fuel, and a tent, the world’s not as big as people think.”

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Story Untold: “My Whole Life Had Been This Question Mark”

Story Untold with Pauline Dakin

Pauline Dakin has a story — one she was warned never to tell. A childhood marked by unanswered questions, the Run, Hide, Repeat author was twice uprooted from her home by her mother and moved — along with her younger brother — thousands of kilometres away from family and friends, both times without warning.

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“I don’t think either one of us had the language to talk about it … until the second time we disappeared,” says Dakin. “At that point, we were a little bit older, and so we would debrief in the family room, saying ‘what is going on?’”

Originally from North Vancouver, British Columbia, Dakin’s parents had divorced after years of tension and abuse. Her father was an alcoholic, and her mother had sought the support of a minister and counsellor, Stan Sears, to deal with her growing distress. Soon Dakin’s mother was bringing her and her brother along to Sunday morning church services where Sears would preach.

“Stan was a really compelling person. When he talked to you, he really looked at you and paid attention to you. He was full of fun and mischief […] and he really became like a dad to us,” says Dakin.

At the same time, strange things had started happening at home. One day, Dakin’s mother would whisk her and her brother away to go bowling during the middle of the week instead of going to school; another day, Dakin and her brother would be forced to wash their feet vigorously when they got home and walk around the house with plastic bags on their feet.

“Every once in awhile, it started happening that you’d come home and you’d have to be rushed out the door, because something was going on. One time, I came home and mom was emptying everything from the fridge into a garbage bag,” she says. “It made no sense.”

“I don’t know at what point that seemed unusual to me; I was just used to it.” – Pauline Dakin

Then came the move to Winnipeg. Dakin’s mother had taken her and her brother on a vacation to Manitoba with Sears and his wife, only the vacation turned out to be permanent.

“She didn’t even tell us before we left; we just thought we were on vacation, and then when we got to Winnipeg, she told us we’re not going home. I couldn’t understand it,” says Dakin. “She just said, ‘I’m sorry, I’ll have to tell you when you’re older. You’ll have to trust me.’”

Another move followed a few years later, this time to St. John, New Brunswick. Once again, Dakin’s mother followed Sears and his wife. This time, Dakin was given notice but warned not to tell any of her friends that she was moving away. A teenager by this point, she figured it must have had something to do with her father.

“We knew that she did not want us to have contact with him, and so we decided he must be the threat that [my mom] was so worried about,” she says.

Dakin carried on, eventually beginning a career as a newspaper reporter in St. John. Her mother moved out to Halifax, starting a masters degree. Sears retired to British Columbia. Life returned to some semblance of normal, until one day Dakin got a phone call from her mother, promising to explain everything.

“My whole life had been this question mark: What the heck is going on?” – Pauline Dakin

Her mother asked her to meet at a motel in Eastern New Brunswick, but not to park directly at the motel. Instead, she was to park at the gas station across the street, where the two would rendezvous in a separate car and return to the motel. Dakin’s mother was on edge.

At last inside the motel, Dakin’s mother knocked on an adjoining room to reveal Sears, who Dakin hadn’t seen in years. They began to tell her a story that would change everything Dakin thought she knew about the people in her life.

“They start to tell me that the reason we’d been on the run all those years is that we’d been running from the Mafia,” says Dakin. Her father was involved in an organized crime syndicate, and there had been threats against her family’s life.

“They tell me that we’ve been receiving protection from this covert anti-organized crime task force, and that in fact, Stan has been working with them,” says Dakin. “This task force ran these communities in remote parts of the country that were partly a prison system for people who were convicted by a military tribunal of organized crime activities — so they would be stuffed away in these prisons for life — but they were also communities for people who had been affected and were on the run.”

“For my mother, truth and trust were at the very top of the pile. Growing up, she would often say to me and my brother […] ‘if you don’t have trust, you don’t have anything.’ So I just knew in my heart that she would not lie to me.” – Pauline Dakin

Dakin listened as her mother told her that soon, she and Sears would be going inside this community — known as the ‘Weird World’ — and living out the rest of their life there. They had come to say goodbye.

A budding journalist at the time, Dakin was floored by what she’d heard. Having honed an instinct for sniffing out lies through her profession, she was confronted by her own mother and Sears, the two people she trusted most.

“For my mother, truth and trust were at the very top of the pile. Growing up, she would often say to me and my brother … ‘if you don’t have trust, you don’t have anything.’ So I just knew in my heart that she would not lie to me,” she says.

The following months were a dark time for Dakin, warned not to tell her friends or colleagues so as not to endanger them. She was told that she was being watched by the government agency, protected from threats by the Mafia.

“Everytime I walked out my door, I was looking over my shoulder to see if anybody was following me,” Dakin says. “I became quite paranoid, and I started isolating myself from people.”

Stan gave her letters from people she’d known back in British Columbia, now imprisoned in the Weird World after getting caught up in the Mafia’s plans. They wrote to her to apologize, he told her.

“All these people who had somehow been caught up in organized crime and imprisoned, and they had repented, essentially,” she says. “And here are all these letters from people telling me things I know are true that I remember, and their writing looks like other examples of their writing that I have from the past, and I’m thinking, How would you know that stuff otherwise?

Sears would return from time to time, delivering new letters and warning of impending threats. Dakin sold her house, quit her job, and moved to Halifax to be closer to her mother, preparing for her own venture into the safety of the ‘Weird World.’ Stan told her a cabin was being built for her there. Always, the promise remained just out of reach.

At some point, Dakin stopped believing Sears and her mother. She’d notice Sears tripping up on an inconsistency in his story, only to divert her mother’s attention when she tried to challenge him on it. The last straw came when Dakin decided to stage a break-in to her home, determined to catch Sears in a lie. She called her mother and told her the house had been broken into.

“She calls me back, and I was so afraid to answer that phone. And sure enough, she said, ‘yes, there were people picked up outside your house.’ … The story was that people who had been following me had broken into the house looking for certain things, and they’d been taking pictures of me, and they found those pictures in their car,” says Dakin. “The whole thing was a lie.”

“All of these years, all of the running, all of the severed relationships, all for nothing. Why the hell would anybody pull this on us?” – Pauline Dakin

Dakin wrestled with anger and bewilderment in the weeks after, at a loss for why Sears would have created this elaborate ruse. She confronted her mother to tell her the truth, but her mother remained convinced: the threat was real.

Sears eventually passed away. So, too, did Dakin’s mother. Still, she searched for an answer.

“None of my reading ever made any sense. It never fit. I could never find the diagnosis that made sense, until one day I was reading something in a medical journal about delusional disorder. I went, Oh my gosh, this is it. It just perfectly fit,” says Dakin.

Now years removed from the confusion and constant paranoia of her past life, Dakin had become a mother and was looking for a way to tell the story to her growing daughters. The anger — intense so many years ago — had softened. Life had gone on.

“It was as though weight was falling off me,” she says. “Dragging around a lot of anger and resentment and bad feelings for so many years, that’s a lot to carry around, and it’s not healthy. Suddenly, to have the understanding that yes, Stan fooled us all, but it wasn’t malevolent. He didn’t mean to hurt us; we just got caught up in something he was going through … I didn’t have to be angry anymore.”

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