James Gordon, Musician, City Councillor, Commuter Cyclist

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A few weeks ago, I caught up with James Gordon , City Councillor for Ward 2, who was bike riding to a gig with a guitar on his back. I knew that he was a very interesting guy, and thought I would get his perspective on cycling in Guelph. He was kind enough to do an interview with me. Here are some of the issues we discussed.

Why is riding a bike important to you?

I’ve been a musician my whole adult life. I tour by car. It feels like I drive for a living. The lifestyle of non- stop touring is pretty brutal on the body. You work for a few hours then get back in the car. It has become extra important to me personally, when not on the road, to keep the car in the driveway. The physical activity is important to me.

How has riding a bike changed your relationship with your community?

I connect with my surroundings more readily while on a bike. I’ve become more accessible; people stop me when I’m on my bike. Some people want to talk about my vintage bike. I think that since I and the bike are recognizable, it does make it a conversation starter.

Regularly riding a bike around Guelph has also been an awareness raiser for my job on council. Now, when issues come up related to bike trails and bike paths, I know what people are talking about. Near my place on Dufferin St. for example, at first I didn’t like that they paved the Trans-Canada Trail and put a big fence by the tracks, but now I realize that it does make an efficient bicycle highway. The TCT is an enabler for active transportation. It increased my awareness of its value.

What are the factors involved in deciding to use a car or a bike?

As a musician, I am usually lugging around sound equipment, so I need a car for this. I bike more now that my car died; only my wife has a car. For now, I’m seeing what it’s like to not get a new one. I now rent a car when I tour, and so far it seems to be a better deal than owning one.

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What is the hardest thing about using the bike for transportation?

Almost everywhere I cycle in Guelph, I become aware how inadequate bike safety is. So I sometimes take the sidewalks when I don’t feel like there is a safe option. In Guelph, we should have options so that you don’t feel like you have to go on the sidewalk to avoid getting killed. Also, with my 3 speed, the hills are hard!

Also, when my mother was in the hospital, and needed help, I noticed that I was limited on a bike by what I can carry and what I can get to.

Were there fears you had about city biking in the beginning that have been disproved? Any that have been proven valid?

I actually had a bike accident 10 years ago when I wasn’t a consistent helmet user. I was blown off the road by a transport on Elmira Road. I landed on my helmet and I lost a tooth. Now, I know better that you’ve got to watch out, and you’ve got to wear a helmet.

Do you find yourself trying to convert non-cyclists to utilitarian cycling?

I’m not that zealous about it. I do it by example. For instance, when there are council meetings, my bike is often the only one there, though councillors Allt and Hoffland often bike, and Mayor Guthrie rode his bike in a couple of times.

What kind of bike do you ride?

It’s a Raleigh Superbe, and it’s 40 years old. It still has the sticker of Forum Sports on Wyndham Street. As a Guelph history buff, it means a lot to me.

There is a cool story behind this bike. The bike was given to me by my dad when I was a teenager. Later, it was given back to me by my own kids after they fixed it up.

I notice that since I really like my bike, I bike a lot more. It suits my personality. I like how I can sit up on the bike rather than lean over. Having a great bike is like having a beautiful musical instrument. If you have a beautiful instrument, you will play it more.

It was a free bike and that was important too!

How would you respond to people who feel a car is just safer?

I think that I have a particular perspective, being on the road so much. It can be really dangerous riding a car. For example, especially in the US, there is a real macho car culture. It is very common to see a guy with his SUV, 4 wheel drive, think he is invincible. People like that get into accidents all the time. When on a bike, I am constantly aware of my surroundings and am very careful.

In Europe where they figured out the bike, they don’t have to have to wear helmets because they are safer riders and they have better infrastructure.

What needs to happen in Canada to make the culture, and eventually the roads, more bike friendly?

I think that in order for us to spend our energies on bike safety and make things more inviting, we have to reach a critical point where people think this car thing is no longer the best option. So far, only very aware activists think this way.

Ten years ago, the price of gas went up, so people were looking for options. Now, there is gridlock, so people often don’t get to work on time if they use the car.

Another point of advocacy is getting off consumerism. You don’t get any traction trying to get people to spend less. But if you get them to look at other communities, you see that switching to bikes is not a sacrifice. Now that we are getting bike infrastructure, it is no longer a valid argument that it is not good to go by bike.

As well, we need more people recreational cycling so that they can see that commuter cycling can be done. Car culture is so entrenched that we don’t even know that that we legally have a right to share the road. If you think that you are in the way of cars, you haven’t shifted your thinking.

What are the top 5 five things you think people get out of utilitarian cycling?

Cardiovascular exercise, community connection, the satisfaction of lowering your carbon footprint, having an economic advantage. Also, an urban biker feels more connection with nature than a car driver.

What bit of advice would you like to share with new bike commuters?

When you actually get on the bike, you can find your own comfort level. You will know what you can do and can’t do. Find that comfort zone. Do what you can, then work yourself up to greater distances if you want.