Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What I learned in Europe

I recently had the good fortune to have taken part in a school trip to Europe.  We visited six countries in 10 days.  It was a whirlwind tour and an experience of a lifetime for the students who took part.  Having said that, it was also a fantastic experience for me, personally, even though I was technically "on the clock" and not in full relaxation mode.

But I learned a lot in the countries we visited, including Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and France.  There were places I liked more than others.  For example, I was amazed by both the physical and architectural splendour of Prague, the Czech capital, a place I would certainly return to, if only to avail myself of a missed opportunity to visit the Franz Kafka Museum.  And who isn't blown away by the splendour of Paris visiting it for the first time?  After fifteen years in the business, I finally threw off the yoke of being the only French teacher who has never visited France.  Bucket list checked.

There were some smaller centres which were also amazing in their own ways.  Dresden, Germany comes to mind if for no other reason than that one must be impressed by how there is no evidence today that the city was essentially flattened by allied bombing during the Second World War.  Cool it was, as well, to have visited the city of Innsbruck, Austria who have twice hosted the Olympic Winter Games in 1964 and 1976, when Denver, USA returned the bid originally awarded to them.

However there were a couple of things that all of these European cities have in common.  The first is the incidence of massive cathedrals erected over the past millennium.  Every city has one, and it made me reflect and marvel at the extent to which so much human ingenuity, architecture, creativity and labour have been invested in these colossal mausoleums built in homage to a god that probably doesn't even exist.

But there was something else that struck me.  Each and every city visited in the following order: Berlin, Potsdam, Dresden, Prague, Regensburg, Munich, Innsbruck, Vaduz, Lucerne, Basel and Paris,  without fail had both higher order transit and public bicycle share.  Berlin, being the first city we visited, has an underground metro, electric trams and Light Rail Transit (LRT) running through its city centre.  The same held true in Prague where the system of public transit was so extensive that maps of it were difficult to understand!  The same tracks and overhead wires were also present in Munich and Lucerne.  And, we arrived in Paris to the following news:  because a pollution alert had been issued on the Friday, all public transit was declared free for the entire weekend.  Imagine that happening in a North American city, where pollution alerts are also a common thing.  If public transit had been declared free in my own city of Hamilton, I doubt it would make the slightest difference to our car-addicted culture.

And the phenomenon of public transit was not exclusive to the larger cities visited, it was everywhere to be found in the smaller centres of Dresden, Regensburg and Innsbruck.  LRT sharing the roads with cars, which seemed to move no more slowly than they do in Hamilton in spite of a conspicuous lack of one-way streets, right alongside racks full of publicly shared bicycles.

It made me feel that Europe is getting it right, far more so than we are in North America, where transit if too often perceived as something only the lower classes take, or something only begrudgingly used in large metropolises where car travel is something economically prohibitive or simply impossible as a function of congestion.

What is it about North American culture that is so hostile to public transit?  Is it a frontier mentality that constantly dictates that nature, right down to the very roadscape, is something to be conquered and tamed for individual convenience, ecological consequences be damned?  Is our sense of entitlement so ingrained that we won't even get out of our cars and onto shared busses or, heaven forbid, bicycles when to do so is so blatantly in our self-interest economically, environmentally and for the sake of one's individual health?  Perhaps it isn't so mysterious why rates of obesity are lower in France than Canada and the United States in spite of the former's stereotypically rich diet; in between baguettes and cheese, the French are running to and between the metro and trams.

In fairness to Hamilton, we seem to be progressing on the cycling front as evidenced by the recently rolled-out Social Bicycles (SoBi) sharing program.  But will we avail ourselves of the historic opportunity being presented to get the other half of the equation, higher order transit?  The European example shows that it can work in every type of city, large or small.

The trip to Europe was life-changing experience culturally and educationally.  But it has also increased my resolve to make a difference in the promotion of transit, bikes and busses right here at home.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

My piece in Raise the Hammer

My bit that appeared in Raise the Hammer, an "alternative" on-line publication here in Hamilton, February 25th, 2014.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My recent trip to City Council

I recently attended a meeting of the Strategy and Policy Committee of Hamilton City Council to make a delegation on the 2015 budget.  My specific interest was the enhancement of transit infrastructure in the city.  Here is what I said:

Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to address Council about the budget for 2015. I will state up front that I am here in defence and promotion of public transit and will try to keep my comments relevant to budgetary issues. But I am passionate about public transit, although not a regular user. I prefer the bicycle. Yes, even in this weather, but I have a relatively short commute.
At the outset, let me clarify a few things. I live in Ward 13, known to us locals as Dundas, and have for 17 years. I am employed. Gainfully. I am a secondary school teacher, which I believe even qualifies me as a professional. I have children. Two, in fact. I apologize to those who might be confused by the fact I don’t fit the profile of the average “bus nut”.
I firmly believe that the state of public transit is a barometer for how we are as a city. There are many who feel as I do, that we need a viable system of public transit as we aim to reach our mission as the best city in Canada to raise a child, promote innovation, engage citizens and provide diverse economic activities. Our system, as it stands, is reasonable. Yes, reasonable is the best adjective I can conjure to describe the Hamilton Street Railway. Indeed, there is room - nay an imperative for improvement to public transit in our city. We are fortunate to have a blueprint for transit in the form of the 10 year plan. Whether it’s enhanced rapid transit corridors, new busses, or working with Metrolinx and the province towards Light Rail Transit, the time to invest is now.
Esteemed councillors, transit matters. It matters not only for those who have no choice but to take the bus, as a function of economic reality, but also in the creation of a vibrant and sustainable city. Because we are falling behind in Hamilton. Car travel is still seen as the default option for getting to work and getting around the city. This in a world where finite resources are a reality and climate change constantly looms.
I see this every day as I make my daily 4 kilometer bicycle commute westbound up Governor’s Road in Dundas. In the opposite direction is a mass of traffic, most of which is comprised of single occupant vehicles. Up close, I taste first hand the fumes of a city crying out for better transit. Because there are alternatives.
And make no mistake, Council, there is a need for transit even in Dundas. If our Councillor would take up the challenge and ride transit to City Hall for even a week, she would see that the morning busses are packed. Packed with people heading to jobs in the core. Packed with students heading out of Dundas towards programs of choice in high schools across the city. Packed with people making a difference in choosing a mode of transport other than the private vehicle.
But transit remains an essential, even life or death reality for many people right across the region, and not just to a few urbanites in the lower city. We have an aging population that needs to access medical appointments. We have those students who school boards on increasingly limited budgets are insisting take public transit if they want equitable access to programs of choice, such as French immersion. We have people with disabilities for whom DARTS isn’t always the most available or even the best alternative.
And, yet, public transit in Hamilton, in particular, suffers from a stigma. At what point did using public transit become déclassé? It is a way of getting around in not only larger cities like Toronto and Vancouver, where gridlock is ever present, but cities similar in size to Hamilton. As an example, we are light years behind Ottawa, where light rail transit has been present for a decade and is being expanded as we speak. Why is there the perception that transit is for poorer, lower class people in the lower, urban part of the city?
And at what point did public transit become unsafe for young people? Why do parents go so far as to forbid their adolescent children from traveling to parts of our great city using public transit? This is completely foreign to my own experience growing up in Stoney Creek, where the King 1 and, later, the Beeline, became my lifelines to the public golf course at the other end of the city, the athletic facilities where I trained at McMaster University and even the now-extinct downtown movie theatres.
This is a backward vision for a city that fashions itself as ambitious. A failure to invest in transit infrastructure is the opposite of a city that is the best place in Canada to raise a child, promote innovation, engage citizens and provide diverse economic activities. Friends, please embrace the 10 year plan, starting with the 2015 budget year! Enthusiastically seize every opportunity that the province and Metrolinx provide for modernizing public transit in Hamilton. Be the agents of progress that commuters in this city so desperately need and richly deserve.
Members of Council, thank you for the opportunity of hijacking the budget process - for five minutes at least.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Councillor Arlene Vanderbeek, you have failed Dundas

Dear Councillor Arlene Vanderbeek:

In your first test as Councillor for Ward 13, you failed.  You failed the people of Dundas.  Miserably.

In spite of some spirited lip service to the importance of public transit to the long-term interests of Hamilton, which includes Dundas, in voting to suspend the King Street bus lane, you have set back the cause by a decade or more.

We, as a city, are already lagging behind similar-sized communities in our transit infrastructure.  Ridership is increasing at exponential rates in centres such as Mississauga, Kitchener-Waterloo and St. Catharines.  And the progress that Ottawa has made - and continues to make - on light rail transit makes us look like an embarrassment by comparison.

You and your Council colleagues failed to recognize that the bus lane is a harbinger for larger transit issues, not least of which is light rail transit.   We are on trial in Hamilton, Councillor Vanderbeek.  There are people and entities watching and gauging a perception of the city's receptiveness to a viable transit system.  These are entities like the Province and Metrolinx, who have the resources to make Hamilton a livable city via enhanced public transit.  In the pursuit of parochial interests, you and your colleagues have failed the city as a whole.

And, make no mistake about it, you have failed Dundas.  Have you asked the people you purport to represent about why transit may not be a priority for them?  You needn't bother, because clearly you haven't, but I will tell you any way.  It is because the levels of service are presently inadequate, as they are in other "peripheral" parts of the city.  

What is going to make public transit work in Dundas?  The answer is simple; it needs to be viable city-wide and, critically, in the core.  Do you think people are taking transit just to get around Dundas?  Guess again - people have jobs, appointments, family and friends across the region.  It's an adage that was heard frequently throughout the 2014 municipal campaign - what's good for Hamilton is good for Dundas.    Good transit attracts ridership.  Ridership promotes expansion.  By crippling transit in the core, you have jeopardized the future of decent transit in your own ward.

Transit, more than ever, is becoming a quality of life issue.  We all breathe the same air.  In a city where air quality is a constant concern, viable public transit is the best option we have to curtail the amount of emissions coming out of the only option people have in the absence of decent transit - the private car.  We talk a good game about making our communities more livable and walkable.  But do we put our money where our mouths are?

You have not heard the last from me, or the growing numbers of those who are committed to the betterment of the whole city in part owing to our insistence on a transit system that is worthy of us.

Dundas deserves better.

Rich Gelder

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

So long and thanks for all the caffeine

-Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.  And they're always glad you came.

As I write, I am fighting back the tears.  No, really.  This is a sad day, marking a great loss short only of that of a loved one or a dear pet.  My local coffee shop is closing. 

But it is (present tense while it remains open for one final day, the last day of 2014) more than a coffee shop.  It's a community hub attracting all walks of life from Dundas and environs - and the environs can be far as it is a choice destination for cyclists in particular, riding in from all parts of southern Ontario.

Open in the heart, yet off the beaten path, of Dundas for a little less than five years, Café Domestique (or is that Café Cyclo Sportif Domestique?  No one is really quite sure) has become a home away from home - a place to hide out for those few precious moments after work before having to pick the kids up from the school bus, an end destination for the long road cycling rides the shop partially inspired me to take up, a brisk walk for the dog and I.  Although only a part of my own life for a fraction of the time I have lived in the Valley Town, I cannot imagine life in Dundas without it.  But now we have to.

Born of a combination of two of the great loves my life, coffee and cycling, Domestique opened in March of 2010 on side street, Miller's Lane, with little fanfare filling in a niche that was desperately crying out for coffee in a big way.  It is the creation of Krys Hines, perhaps the biggest fresh air in local business in Dundas in the past twenty-five years or more.  In the days before Domestique, Starbucks (which stands like a metaphorical and literal block against it on the corner of King Street and Miller's Lane), and Detours the only options for coffee in Dundas were, well, the two Tim Horton's franchises.  Domestique ushered in a golden age of caffeine consumption whose legacy will survive it for certain.  The only issue is the welcoming and extent of bicycle parking at these newbie establishments.

The cafe, in addition to producing some really great coffee products and selling awesome roasted beans (the only beans that have touched my stove top percolator for the past half decade), is a local mecca and museum for cycling.  There are photos, posters and even actual bicycles hanging from the walls.  There is even an actual framed yellow jersey belonging to one Steve Bauer who held it for nine days in the 1990 Tour de France.  The cafe has sold an assortment of cycling paraphernalia over the years, including bar tape, wall mounts and a vast array of customized Café Domestique cycling apparel, boasting jerseys, bib shorts, wools socks and caps.  With the race-themed Domestique t-shirts, I have closets full of the stuff.

My first encounter with what would become Domestique was a curious snoop around the entrance of a former breakfast nook whose name I can't even remember.  I knew something special was going in there, as evidenced the back issues of L'Équipe , the French language sports daily that, although is the go-to publication for the Tour de France and other cycling news, isn't exactly something whose circulation rivals that of the Dundas Star News locally.   A few months later, there is a good quality coffee shop locally, albeit with limited hours.  Hallelujah!  In the months that followed, the front porch was renovated and a cozy patio built in the back.  Within a year, there was also a liquor license obtained and Domestique became home to Ste. Ambroise and the five-dollar pint.  Along the way, a full breakfast and lunch menu, featuring some of the high quality local food items (including McGuire's Cheese).

But, as with any establishment, Domestique is more than just the coffee, the beer and the soup and sandwiches (Croque Monsieur, anyone?).  It's the people who worked there and those who frequent it.  Domestique has boasted a series of characters behind the bar over the years - usually younger people.  And the punters come from all walks of life, including local business people and professionals, young families (my own has consumed its share of juice boxes over the years), writers and poets, and the cyclists.  Those cyclists who arrive en masse from places like Milton, Cambellville, Guelph, Niagara.  They descend on the café usually mid-morning on weekends during good weather and often in bad.  These MAMILs (middle aged men in lycra - no disrespect intended, I count myself as a proud member of the ranks) will line up out the front and back door and take up the large table on the patio out back.  Indeed, many a southern Ontario cycling trip has been planned these past five years with Domestique as the mid point of an out and back ride.

Countless memories have been garnered over these past years.  Nothing life-changing, but the sorts of things that make living in community like Dundas something to be very thankful for.  There were the dart nights, the gourmet dinners, the impromptu disco nights with laser lights and music played off of YouTube on the 52 inch monitor (I don't think Krys ever did get real cable).  Many a leg of not only the Tour de France, but just about every other major cycling event from across the globe was streamed on that screen.  And, not to mention the eclectic choice of music programmed by the young, hip serving staff.   All of it punctuated with Krys' wry sense of humour and editorial input.  In one instance in the first year of operation, a small number of us were nestled in the café watching a now-famous stage of the 2010 Tour de France where Alberto Contador (since stripped of his yellow jersey that year), famously passed then-leader, Andy Shcleck, when the latter's chain self-destructed and fell off of his drive train.  This led Krys, a former professional bike mechanic, to make some choice remarks about Schleck's choice of SRAM components.  Indeed, something only bike geeks may appreciate, but part of the charm of not only Krys but the café itself.  All of this has contributed to a fantastic sense of community that is going to be sorely missed. 

My own memories also include celebratory pints following successful provincial high school track and field championships with fellow coaches - away from the athletes of course...no...wait.  Never mind.  It is also the place where I met some really cool people, including author Lawrence Hill (Boook of Negroes) and Danielle Berman, the brave young woman who this past summer rode solo across Canada to raise awareness of mental health and suicide.  Also, watching my two young sons grow with frequent visits to what they call "the coffee store".  What began as stroller rides to Domestique have become quick stops amidst their protests against a delayed arrival at the adjacent Dundas Public Library, for dad's coveted "Early Surly" - a concoction of a drink whose composition I still don't remember and which, unlike the rest of the thriving coffee culture in Dundas, may not survive Domestique's closing.  RIP.  Usually, however, the boys can be bought off with a juice box.

Indeed, I hold myself partially responsible for Domestique's pending closure, now a mere 24 hours away as I write.  If not only for loving the place too much, for a brief encounter I had with Krys' wife Beatrice in the summer of 2014 as she came into the shop with the family's two children.  I had just finished another one of my long, yet very pedestrian, rides around the concession roads of West Flamborough before careening down the Sydenham Hill, now known as Clara's Climb in honour of multiple Olympic medallist, Clara Hughes and was enjoying a pint and the surroundings that have become everyone's favourite coffee shop/pub/hangout in Dundas.  I commented to here that "Krys is never allowed to leave us and close this place, it is just too awesome!"   Clearly, I jinxed it.

The closing of Café Domestique has hit many of us regulars hard.  Really hard.  A propos the café closing New Year's Eve 2015, I find it one of those exceptions to those Auld Lang Syne lyrics "should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind..."  My neighbourhood hangout of the past five years is not something I ever want to forget nor think I will be able to.  It's as if Cheers itself is closing and Norm and Cliff are completely lost.

Thanks, Krys and staff, for five wonderful years.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Neslon Mandela, 1918-2013

Yesterday afternoon, one of humanity's bright lights was extinguished.  Former anti-apartheid activist, former political prisoner, former President of South Africa and lifetime human rights icon, Nelson Mandela, passed away at the age of 95.

For many of you, the name Nelson Mandela is something from the history books; he had retired from the South African presidency before most students in this school were even born.  For teachers and other adults in this building, it is a name we grew up with; from his time in Robben Island prison in the 60s, 70s and 80s and the international calls for his release, to that historic release in 1990 and right up until his remarkable ascendency to the presidency of the country that had endured decades of apartheid, the unjust political system that rendered non-whites second class citizens.

From a very young age, when he founded the African National Congress' Youth League to fight against apartheid and racial injustice, Mandela committed himself to making South Africa a place racial equality and, in so doing, made the world a better place.  But that isn't why I believe he is a hero.

For his efforts to bring about profound social change in the name of racial justice in South Africa, he was charged with, tried for and convicted of treason in 1962 at the age of 44.  He then spent 27 years in a small prison cell, where harsh conditions took a toll on his health.  He never once wavered in his commitment to bring about change in South Africa.  But that isn't why I believe he is a hero.

After decades of universal calls for release, Nelson Mandela was finally freed at the age of 69.  A growing crescendo of international condemnation of apartheid eventually led to its legal dismantling in 1994.  Shortly thereafter, Mandela became South Africa's first true democratically elected president, an office he held until 1997.  But that isn't why Nelson Mandela is a hero.

Why then is Nelson Mandela a hero?  Why does he matter to us as Canadians and, indeed as citizens of the world?  In my view, Mandela is a hero because of two words he introduced to our vocabulary:  "truth" and "reconciliation".  No, he didn't invent the words himself, but he brought them to the forefront of a political discussion that is too often fraught with vengeance, payback, violence and division.  Mandela had every reason to seek reprisal against the regime that had oppressed millions of blacks and other non-whites in South Africa for decades.  He had every reason and right to seek compensation and to settle scores with those who imprisoned him for 27 years.  Mandela chose another route.  Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the immediate post-apartheid era, Mandela brought people together.  Forgiveness, and not punishment, was the order of the day, for there were many unspeakable acts to atone for on both sides of the historical South African divide - acts caused ultimately by the evil of apartheid.  Nelson Mandela is a hero because, in shaping the bright future of his nation, he set an example for the world.

I remember a very powerful symbol of this national reconciliation, which came out of a seemingly small act.  At the 1995 Rugby World Cup - the first major international sporting event hosted by South Africa in the post-apartheid era, Mandela brought his country together by simply appearing in the pre-game ceremonies of the final match in the South Africa springboks national rugby jersey.  Rugby and the springbok logo had been seen as an icon of white South Africa - indeed rugby was to white South Africa what hockey is to this country.  Many believed the springbok identity was something that ought to have been abolished in the post-apartheid era.  Not so, said Mandela, who enthusiastically embraced the game and symbol of white South Africa in that very simple act.  The nation became one, that day.  And, by the way, South Africa won the game and the World Cup that year.

Today, the world is mourning the loss of a great man.  Although none of us can hope to match his contributions to all of humanity, let the life of Nelson Mandela serve as an example of how to live our lives and make our own communities kinder places that embrace diversity and equality, regardless of race, religion, colour, creed, age or sexual orientation.  Let Nelson Mandela's spirit of truth and reconciliation be paramount with all of our challenges and conflicts.

The national anthem of South Africa is a song called Nkosi Sikele Africa, which translates as God bless us, Africa.  It wasn't just for Africa that Nelson Mandela was a blessing, but for all of humanity.  Rest in peace, Madiba.