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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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.


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Cycling in Windsor

I moved to Windsor three months ago, and I’m finally going to start writing about urban cycling in Windsor, the dying heart of Canada’s car industry, a.k.a. South Detroit. My research is about cycling, and urban bicycle travel, I strongly believe, is a way for humanity to actually get to a sustainable future.

South of Detroit, urban cycling, anyone will tell you, is shit in Windsor. Car culture and car industry (the system of automobility) run deeper here than elsewhere. For example, as far as I can see, a majority of  people ride on the sidewalk. Biking dangerously in the opposite direction of traffic is disturbingly common.

Yet, city cycling (defined as biking for work, school, groceries, social engagement, cricket, beers store runs, etc.) seems like it could explode in Windsor. The city government thinks so; it just announced it will throw 5 million dollars at cycling. Windsor is as flat as the 401, and really warm by Canadian standards.

Windsor is also down on its luck, especially since GM left.

Lucky for Windsor, cycling is a cheap date.