Written by Elise Desjardins, Hamilton cycling advocate (July 2020)
Image credit: Elise selfie, June 2020.
I started cycling in Hamilton in 2016 and became a bike share member in 2017. At the time, I was working a few kilometres from my home and cycling seemed to be the healthiest, fastest, and most affordable way to get to and from work. Up until that point most of my cycling had been in my hometown as a child so I was experiencing Hamilton’s streets for the first time by bicycle. What started as a practical decision has slowly, but completely, shaped my lifestyle. In no time at all, cycling became a natural way for me to travel and my default choice. The freedom of mobility was new to me. I enjoyed new neighbourhoods by taking different routes to and from home. I loved how I could pass by a local business and decide to spontaneously stop and visit. I cherished the times I passed someone I knew cycling and could stop to say hello and chat. As I learned to cycle in our city, my connection to Hamilton and sense of belonging deepened. Now, I look forward everyday to cycling because I get to experience our city up close – it’s a special way to get to know any city intimately. I look forward to my cycling commute everyday and some of my best experiences and memories in Hamilton have been by bicycle.
During the pandemic, nearly all of my trips have been with bike share. Before the lockdown began in March, I had been using bike share regularly almost every day to commute. It’s much easier and convenient in the winter since I don’t have to trek my personal bike in and out of my apartment (or up the stairs) or worry about maintenance. Hamilton Bike Share helped me become a year-round cyclist. When I transitioned to studying and working from home, it surprised me how much I immediately missed my cycling commute. I had always looked forward to them but hadn’t realized how much they were a fundamental part of my life until they abruptly stopped. With fewer places that I needed to go or needed to be, not being able to cycle my regular trips made me feel disconnected from my community. Although the weather was warmer, and in a normal year I would have started using my own bike more, I felt drawn to continue using the bike share system. The bike share hub at the end of my street became a source of comfort and joy at a time when many things were uncertain and difficult. With so many services and destinations closed, the blue and white bicycles became one of my strongest connections to our city.
I adjusted my cycling and my bike share trips turned into daily recreational rides. My cycling trips are now slower and shorter (mainly in my neighbourhood) but they have anchored me. Despite all of the things that seem to change daily or that are uncertain, cycling has been one of the constants. By bike share, I’ve been able to slow down, notice my neighbourhood, and explore streets that I had never travelled. I’m enjoying the intentional act of getting to know my immediate surroundings more intimately by bicycle, similar to my first experiences back in 2016-17. The other noticeable change in my cycling because of the pandemic is the social aspect. The streets in my neighbourhood are quieter and I often don’t see a single car on my evening bike rides. The extra space has allowed me to cycle side by side with my boyfriend. We can now enjoy the social experience of cycling – something that isn’t possible when we have to ride single file on the road or in a bike lane. With the sound of traffic all but gone, we can talk and laugh as we cycle. It has reminded me of my time in Amsterdam a few years ago where I always saw people cycling in pairs or in groups. In Amsterdam they recognize that cycling is something to experience with others, and their city is designed to support social riding. Cycling side-by-side is one of the unexpected joys that I have found during the lockdown, and one that I hope I will not have to miss after the city “re-opens”. It would truly be wonderful if the social aspect of cycling was celebrated and accommodated because it helps to strengthen connections between people and our environment.
Being able to rely on the bike share system throughout the pandemic has reinforced its value to me and to our community. I am deeply thankful that bike share staff maintained the system for Hamiltonians to continue cycling. Hamilton Bike Share is needed now more than ever for people like me to be physically active and make essential trips. I might not be able to return to my longer commute trips for a while, but I’ve managed to hold on tight to my sense of belonging in Hamilton because of bike share. I didn’t know the immense benefits that I would gain from cycling when I bought a bicycle back in 2016, but the practical decision I made years ago to cycle has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Elise Desjardins is a Master of Public Health graduate student at McMaster University. Her research focuses on understanding how the built environment in Hamilton influences cycling and where cyclists travel. Elise helped to plan and coordinate Bike to Work Day in 2018 and 2019, and is also involved with Cycle Hamilton and the Bike Buddies initiative.