Archives for posts with tag: bike

Myriam Amsterdam 2

I love using my bike as a mode of urban transportation.

So I was obviously thrilled to spend five months in Amsterdam, the world’s number one bike city — breezily coasting my way from point A to B, wind in my hair, legs going and heart rate flowing, blissfully taking in all that pretty pretty that makes up Amsterdam’s canal filled, cozy urban landscape.

Once the initial thrill of taking in all the  elements of an advanced bicycle-society subsided, I began to miss walking as a mode of transport. “Then you should have just walked places, instead of biking to them,” I hear you say, but it’s really not that simple. The bicycle has an allure, a magnetism that sucks you in, gets you hooked and makes sure that you need it. My life in Amsterdam was bike-based, and I understood how to engage with the city exclusively via this mode of transport. I could not fathom that something 10 minutes by bike could be a 30 minute walk, and never was able to plan for that.

Indeed, the bike’s force of attraction is so strong that it pulls you onto its saddle, and renders you a mindless pawn in the chaotic ballet that is bicycle traffic in Amsterdam. By this I mean biking everywhere always can put you into something of a mind zonk, comparable to the mindless automaton we inevitably become after too much highway driving.

Biking everywhere in Amsterdam, I began to miss that fine-grained understanding of a city you can only get by walking. I know Amsterdam as a series of blurs punctuated by more intimate knowledge of specific destinations, without any of that random familiarity acquired from a slow shuffle through a city.

And that’s why I’m happy, in a way, to be back in Toronto — a true walking city. With the dominance of automobile infrastructure, unreliable public transit, and a lack of amenities for bicycles, walking emerges as the most palatable alternative to the car. So I am back in Toronto, happily absorbing the city at a snail’s pace.

Of course, I would instantly trade it all for a Toronto with advanced bike infrastructure and a culture that supports it. This is not a criticism of Amsterdam’s bike infrastructure. Perhaps it’s a coming to terms with returning home to a city that offers almost nothing for commuter-cyclists — a positive outlook for this idealistic urban geographer.

Today, two bridges stretch spectacularly across the Halifax-Dartmouth Narrows: the MacDonald Bridge, which terminates just outside my house in Halifax on North St, and the Mackay bridge, which ends farther north, on the northern shore of the peninsula.

Both bridges are quite spectacular in their design, however, the Mackay bridge figures much less prominently in the public image of the city than the MacDonald bridge, despite having almost exactly the same design.

I speculate that the Mackay bridge does not have a personality because it is a highway bridge. Reflecting the spirit and goals of urban planning at the time of its construction in the 1970s, the bridge forbids pedestrian and bicycle traffic, understandably, as it deposits itself into a not-human-friendly series of highway exits on the Dartmouth side. The Mackay bridge is a symbol of car culture, a suspended four-lane highway that shuts people out of experiencing it.

The MacDonald Bridge has a pedestrian walkway, and a bicycle path (though the entrance to the bicycle path is extremely non-sensical, and almost insulting for bike users), but is open to Halifax and Dartmouth as a bridge that, though is breathtaking in its architectural splendour, is very accessible for exploration and experience. It was built in 1955, and reflects a time when cities were thought of in people-terms, before the car dominated as the standard unit of planning. It is a human bridge, and, despite its non-sensibly desinged exit on the Halifax side, is otherwise inviting and enriching.

A diagram of the illogical bike-way entrance onto the MacDonald bridge — I suppose it’s better than having no-bikes-at-all on the bridge — illustration by Sarah Evans

The history of the North End where these bridges currently span is fascinating indeed. I have just finished read Paul A. Erickson’s excellent book Historic North End Halifax, and learnt that two bridges preceded the MacDonald bridge, but were destroyed by fierce winds and high tides. According to a Mi’kma legend, after a white settler caused the accidental drowning death of a young native woman in the narrows, a young Mi’kmaw man declared:

Three times a bridge o’er these waves shall  rise,

Built by the pale face, so strong and wise

Three times shall fall like a dying breath

In storm, in silence and last in death.

Tw0 bridges have already been destroyed — but the MacDonald bridge remains standing. Eventually, at some point in history, the MacDonald bridge will cease to exist for one reason or another.

The Mi’kmaw story above reminds us that, despite out best efforts at permanence, the cities we inhabit are inherently temporary in their ever evolving form.