Nicholas Scott, Ph.D.

mobilities, environments, social movements, cities


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Summer Cycling from Canada to Finland

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Pavement marker in Oulu (image, author, 2015).

My summer research took me to Oulu, a place I’ve been dying to visit. Oulu is a small city in northern Finland, land of the midnight sun.

Oulu is strange, to say the least, and not just because my circadian rhythms were bugging out. Oulu has Copenhagen levels of mass cycling, except year round. I interviewed cycling experts in the city, and followed a few people around biking, as they sought nature in the city. I looked for reindeer, but found none, because they don’t exist there.

Oulu, to an extent unseen in most of the universe, uses biking as a basis for city planning. Old ladies bike in Oulu, little kids do it independently from an early age to get to school, and bike/ped pathways are a starting point, rather than an afterthought, in urban development. People in Oulu don’t describe themselves as ‘cyclists,’ bikes are boring like blenders.

Basically, some crazy Finnish man in the 1970s hoodwinked the city into building many bike pathways (shared with pedestrians), as the fastest way to travel in, and between, each neighbourhood. He’s a little revered by the cycling planners I talked to.

An older lady whips around a corner in Oulu

An older lady whips around a corner in Oulu (image, author, 2015).

Today, Oulu’s cycling infrastructure is a lot like Ottawa’s, using dedicated infrastructure, decades old, along with ideas about urban nature.

Toronto and Vancouver have similar bikeways, always torn between providing safe space for beginners, along winding natural corridors, and commuters, who co-opt these bike routes for cold, instrumental efficiency.

Eventually, I reached Tallinn, Estonia, and presented an academic paper and small amateur film about this kind of cycling/infrastructure, at the international Nordic Geographers Meeting. I created the film on an Ipad focusing on GoPro footage I took in Ottawa and Toronto (I’m planning to edit it further, and post it on Vimeo, if anyone has any ideas on how to do that). In each of these cities, I asked an experienced cyclist, living in the urban core, to ‘bike to nature’ as I shadowed them while video recording and bantering with them about cycling into the urban wild.

Oulu may have insane circadian rhythms. Without doubt, it unfairly promotes itself as a reindeer city. And bikes in Oulu, boring little blenders, propel an urban population far and wide.


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Cycling in Santiago

Last week, while attending an international conference in Santiago about mobility and inequality (http://www.santiagosemueve.com/), I got a chance to bike around the sprawling Chilean capital. The whole experience was deeply inspiring, I can’t wait to return.

Granted, there’s a ton of smog, extreme inequality and roaming dogs that like to chase bikes (and taxis) for reasons that remain a mystery to me.

And yet, a grassroots cycling invasion is transforming Santiago into a new, and arguably better, city. Cycling isn’t always advancing democracy or equality (for example, new lanes and leadership are concentrated in gentrifying communes, especially Providencia). But community leaders (e.g. Lake Sagaris) and DIY cycling movements (e.g. http://bicipaseospatrimoniales.cl/) are help making cycling more accessible, legitimate and safe. And the car, in contrast, with private toll roads to gated communities, is being used effectively by rich elites in Santiago to exclude and ignore poor people and their neighborhoods, and further fracture a city still scarred by Pinochet’s military dictatorship.

And putting street politics and history aside for a moment, the empanadas are delicious…

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Wayfinding your Way

Are you lost? Do you feel out of place?

I was, and did, last weekend, while biking to a park through North and West Vancouver (wealthy burbs overlooking the city of Vancouver proper, which sits pretty across the harbour/petroleum highway to Asia). For one, holy smokes, lifestyles of the rich and the famous! Mega mansions, millionaire migrants, luxury cars and homes that cost more than Nova Scotia.

More importantly, there was a lot of complex infrastructure. I only wanted to bike for an hour (left my spandex suit at home, and by home I mean the 1980s). Then, suddenly, the many bike signs and signals in these suburbs starting (slowly) making sense, for my escape…

Wayfinding tools help you merge in traffic, merge out, bypass traffic sewers, find your own space in the street, get from point A to B via C, and even D. If plentiful and well designed, they can invite you (biking) further and further into strange, unfamiliar environments…

Separate signs, signals + sharrows also help cyclists feel like they belong in the street, the ‘public right of way,’ so to speak. Lets keep mapping and making routes for the cycling masses. Might make the tar sands highway from Alberta though the biodiverse BC coast to Asian markets seem pretty slow.

 

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Sounds in Stanley Park

…a big boat’s horn booms through Burrard Inlet: a big, sudden background swell, you feel it inside your body. A low flying seaplane hums overhead, part of all kinds of engine noise in this city wilderness park. Cars and motorcycles and trucks spurt up loudly, and often, from behind my bench overlooking the Pacific. An obnoxious speedboat (powerboat?) performs pirouettes in English Bay, the noise hog. Eavesdrop: “…then it comes down to… if we need to re-evaluate the production cycle…” in a French-Caribbean female voice.

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Big balloons, carried by a man in a nice suit with a purposeful walk, air sacks flapping together: they sound like a parachute undulated by thirty little kids. Oh, I see, there’s a wedding about to happen. Purposeful chatter from behind, by Stanley’s Tea Room (why is there a restaurant in the park?) coming from the pop-up wedding architects, can’t make it out, but it sounds more linear than chit-chat or shooting-the-shit. A violin enters the scene, quiet yet unmistakable and seductive, out of place, making all the other sounds seem chaotic or awkward. A harp joins in, shaped like a giant tear drop. A British tourist voice enters earshot, faraway, but like the violin, crisp in its surroundings, clear diction and projection, or is it the breeze? No. Three British voices enter the periphery of this tiny seashore clearing, and shoot through it like darts, other people notice. The Brits debate whether to descend the stairs onto the seawall and join the late summer throng cycling their way around Stanley Park. Check that: they’re actually debating whether to cycle contraflow (the seawall bike path is oneway), against the traffic stream like sockeye salmon (and there they go and swim). The seawall is a busy invisible place below, from which children’s cries and laughter (difficult to discriminate) billow.

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Hammer on spikes! right on top of my ears. A wedding tent? Then, with a lot less hostility, R&B music floods up onto Stanley Park, right between the four or five trees on this western cliff. A party-boat passes by three hundred metres away, pulsing with dancing bodies, and then vanishes into thin air. Eavesdrop: “..this ground is fucked [spike-hammering man].” A smoother, finer motor noise reveals a helicopter’s not a seaplane. Pitter patter: lots of private vessels slap and rebound off the ocean, faraway, like little energizer drummer boys, now and again making their presence felt in a small sonic opening.

Purrrrrrrrrrclickclickclickclickclickclickclick a tourist walks her bicycle by, she’s heading away from the ocean, just as the wedding chatter rises in a slow crescendo. More guests arrive. Eavesdrop: “…look at that! A policeman on a horse, I need to take a picture and show Rose…” Crows cawwww (where have they been?), two other birds, further away, sing over the harbour, commuting as the crow flies, as a couple, down the shore. Eavesdrop, shit, at me: “Do you mind taking picture? I can’t take a selfie.” [No. I guess not.]photo 1

The crows are louder now, imposing themselves it seems, mimicking the human guests. And those earlier hammer on spikes weren’t wedding tents at all! Overdressed guests grunt behind me, hurling horseshoes, thudding down, tink, kids laugh. Bicycle bells. An open and wild soundscape gives way to a wedding’s. The violin and harp start up again (‘falling in love…with…you’).


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I moved to Vancouver BC from Windsor ON

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I’m still living out of a suitcase, but I’m really stoked to be living in Vancouver (in Chinatown) and working at Simon Fraser University (up in Burnaby).

My journey to work is a 15km bike ride uphill. My commute in Windsor was challenging, too: 5km west along Wyandotte Street in Windsor, where I mingled daily with tractor trailers hauling thousands of Chrysler minivans to Michigan, and was struck hard by a car this past March, a week before my interview at SFU!

In my imagination, Vancouver was a cycling Valhalla, a west coast oddity where utility cyclists don’t get milkshakes thrown at them by motorists, and enlightened Mayor Gregor Robertson was bringing sustainable and physically active mobilities to the Canadian masses. The reality is a lot different. While Vancouver is making giant strides towards becoming Canada’s Copenhagen, everyday cycling is still marginalized – and deeply political.

I think I’m in the right place.

 

 

 


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Wreckless Vehicular Violence: An Ode to Beautiful Objects

“Look at that taco. Somebody’s gonna pay for that,” said the calmly incensed bike mechanic, before I uttered a word.

Tacos, it turns out, is what bicycle wheels look like after they collide with considerable velocity into things, like the jeep that hit me on Wednesday at speed, when a young, reckless driver jettisoned from a Harvey’s parking lot, with a mouthful of burger bits shooting in all directions like the famous fireworks at Windsor-Detroit’s International Freedom Festival. Or at least like those liberated burger bits probably did.

Mine wasn’t the only sad looking taco this Windsor bike mechanic laid eyes on in recent weeks.

The jeep driver, for an apology, said again and again he was wreckless. Since he was 16, he hadn’t wrecked any car. However, motorists (like cyclists) are always wreckless until they’re not, and it doesn’t mean much about the quality of their driving, just like if a good baseball player gets stuck in a longer and longer drought, the drought doesn’t magically increase the probability he’ll hit a home run next time he’s at bat. All I was left with was the wreckage.

My bicycle was important to me. It was a living artifact, or an actor, or something dynamic and multifarious that was constantly insinuating itself in fantastic situations. Now it’s a scrap heap, a sunk ship, an archival thing. A catalogue of previous relationships that used to be meaningful.

This whole thing confirms for me that you can’t separate emotions from objects. I’ll remember my bike as an Ottawa-born iconoclast. My next bike’s going to come from Detroit.