December 21, 2011
Back when Jack Becker lived in Calgary and worked as an engineer for Imperial Oil, he would often hear a familiar question: How can you work for an oil company and be an advocate for cycling — aren’t the two roles at odds?
In a city where virtually everyone has some connection to the petroleum industry, it’s a question that has been fielded by nearly everyone who thinks the city could be a little friendlier to bikes. So what’s the answer?
Becker’s comes in the form of a shrug. He sees little contradiction in the two roles. “You just keep them separate,” he says. “They had my loyalty at work, but I happen to think there are problems with the transportation system.”
That practicality has kept Becker working to make Canada’s cities more bike-friendly for decades, and will serve him well in his newest role as chairman of Velo-City Global 2012, a four-day conference planned for Vancouver in June that is one of the world’s biggest gatherings for cycling planning. Becker says bringing the conference to Vancouver from its traditional European homeland is a great opportunity for Canadians to gather insights from all over the world.
For Becker, who currently splits his time between Calgary and Vancouver, his job as chairman of the conference is drawing on his work as a cycling advocate that has included stints working alongside late NDP leader Jack Layton in Toronto, in Calgary when cycling advocacy was in its infancy, and, more recently, during Vancouver’s bicycle blossoming.
Velo-City can be a haven for urban planners, traffic engineers and all-around urban cycling geeks, but Becker has a larger goal with the conference. “We’d like to get at least five per cent politicians,” he says. “Ten per cent would be real success.” Becker is convinced if politicians see how to build a truly friendly bicycle city, and the advantages that can bring, they’ll help spread the ideas.
“The conference’s main focus is government and municipal staff and people who support them,” he says. “We want them there to tell other politicians what they’ve accomplished and how they’ve done it.”
Velo-City is also a chance for Becker to draw on his unique background, which mixes engineering (“The problem in North America is the education of engineers is only about how fast we can move cars”), a familiarity with Europe (“There are cities in Europe that have done a great job turning it around for bikes . . . but there are a lot of European cities that can learn from Calgary and Vancouver”) and advocacy (“Toronto in the 1990s was a difficult slog. There was still this attitude from the ’50s”).
During a chat in Calgary earlier this week, Becker expounded on all the reasons he thinks cycling should be embraced — it’s healthier, cheaper, and more sustainable for people and for cities — but he veers from some advocates by saying that cycling isn’t the goal in itself. He speaks just as passionately about the romance of pedestrian-friendly streets and reaches into his big bag of anecdotes for examples of cities where cycling fits into more livable communities.
“Cycling isn’t a goal . . . it’s not about transportation,” he says. “It’s one of the options for delivering livable, sustainable, active cities and urban centres. We have to find how cycling fits into that goal.”
In Calgary, Becker says he’s been following the developments around the city’s new cycling strategy and has praise for Calgary’s multi-use pathway system. He also doesn’t buy the argument that the city’s winter is too long to become a cycling city — he’s ridden his share of cold kilometres, and he points to colder, snowier cities that have a higher share of bicycle commuters than Calgary. Becker says he sees the potential in Calgary for stronger cycling communities.
“I think the East Village is a good start,” he says.
In the meantime, Becker has his hands full with Velo-City. He says he wants to get past the opinionated debate about cycling to help move the issue forward.
“Even when I asked the mayor of Vancouver ‘What do you want out of the conference?’ he said ‘I want evidenced-based research to help make policy,’” Becker says. “So hopefully we’ll be able to offer a little perspective.”