Cycling, Performance and the Common Good: Copenhagenizing Canada's Capital

By Scott, Nicholas A. | Canadian Journal of Urban Research, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Cycling, Performance and the Common Good: Copenhagenizing Canada's Capital


Scott, Nicholas A., Canadian Journal of Urban Research


INTRODUCTION

Imagine, for a moment, cycling through Ottawa, Canada's capital city. What sort of place do you picture? What does it feel like to be cycling there? Do you imagine gliding along the Rideau Canal, the wind blowing gently through your hair, with rollerbladers and dogwalkers parting as you wend your way along a beautiful tree lined pathway, watching the boats sail by? If you imagine cycling like this in Ottawa, you are not alone. This idyllic cycling experience is marketed to tourists around the world by the National Capital Commission (NCC), the crown corporation that manages an urban system of such multi-use capital pathways, as a distinctive and pleasurable part of Canada's "greener capital" city (http://www.ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places-to-visit/parks-paths/ things-to-do/park-cycle-canadas-capital).

Now imagine, for a moment, getting off the pleasurable capital pathway, and entering the urban fray on Bank Street, Laurier Avenue, Somerset Street or, unlucky for you, Bronson Avenue (a notorious arterial highway running to the airport). What happens next? Suddenly thrust into another, messier Ottawa, you breathe heavier, start sucking in tailpipe exhaust, and compete with cars, trucks and buses for scarce road space. You worry about winning the next 'door prize.' This dichotomy encapsulates Ottawa's competing identities as a city and a nation's capital. On one hand, for many people, Ottawa is understood through the prism of Parliament, museums, parks and memorials as a predictable and orderly display for the Canadian nation. On the other hand, especially for people who live, and spend time, in Ottawa, the city is always already a practical, unfolding urban environment, full of tension, contradiction and ambiguity.

In this article, I explore how cycling, as a burgeoning system of urban mobility, cuts across these two Ottawas, with a focus on what happens when cyclists leave the protected capital pathways and bike into the lesser known Ottawa as a dynamic unfolding urban environment. The Canadian Journal of Urban Research has rarely explored bicycle travel (see Agarwal and North 2012). While there are important exceptions, such as the Toronto Cycling Think and Do Tank and UBC's Cycling in Cities group, cycling generally garners little attention overall in Canadian urban research. Where cycling is of focus, the primary concern is with explaining cycling behaviour in parsimonious models that show, for example: cycling is surprisingly safe; more men than women cycle; gender disparities are less where cycling rates are highest; and cyclists prefer short trips through dense, mixed use terrain (Ledsham et al. 2014; Pucher and Buehler 2012). These findings are insightful, and extend knowledge on the social determinants of cycling. But this behavioural research fails to advance theoretical and critical understandings of cycling as a moral and embodied performance that challenges conventional ways of using the street.

I address this lack of critical cycling research in Canada through a theoretically-driven case study analysis of cycling in its capital city. Ottawa is a stage, unique in Canada, where national ideas about urban cycling, from the NCC, wrangle locally with those of a city. My empirical analysis draws on a larger study on the production of mobility and space in Ottawa, undertaken between 2007 and 2012, which includes twenty in-depth interviews with city planners and community activists, an analysis of various official planning documents and extensive fieldwork. Additionally, my analysis here draws on a follow-up interview in 2015 with a key informant in my initial study, Robin Bennett. I rely on Robin for his historical insight. He was Ottawa's first, and for much of the 2000s, only, full time cycling planner, a kind of 'one man cycling department.' Finally, I also examine the most recent Ottawa Cycling Plan (2013), and draw upon my own experiences of everyday cycling in Ottawa (2005-2013). …

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