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BikingToronto, Interviewed

You may have noticed that BikingToronto is vastly different in 2010 than it was in 2009.  It’s more interactive, social and has, on average, 87% fewer references to Rob Ford.  Okay… just kidding.  Rob Ford is “good copy”, as they say. :)

Ben Elling of Third Rail Repository decided he wanted to interview me to figure out why I had made the changes and learn more about the evolution of the site as a source for great cycling information for anyone interested in bikes in Toronto.

Interview starts…. now!

(cross-posted from Third Rail Repository, an urban blog that believes that “cities serve as incubators of cool, whether through art, architecture, culture or music.  Through their demographic makeup cities also serve as indicators of social change”.)

Those of you who are avid TRR readers (I know you’re out there.  Hi Mom!), I’ve spent the past year flirting with bike commuting.  The more comfortable with biking I’ve gotten, the more I’ve gotten linked into sites that link me with other riders, provide me with tips and point me towards relevant news.

Of late one of my favourites has been BikingToronto.com.  I remember coming across the site quite a while ago, but looked it back up again following a recent relaunch.  I have been very impressed with the new site; it does a wonderful job of creating dialogue between bikers from relatively micro level issues such as the best way to clean your bike in the winter to macro issues like recent survey results on biking numbers in the city.

So far I’m digging it and encourage you to check it out, especially if you ride in the Toronto area.  I’ve dug it so much, in fact, that I asked BikingToronto founder Joe T. to sit down for a chat.

Third Rail Repository (TRR): Tell me a little about how BikingToronto came to be.

BikingToronto (BT): BikingToronto started as a personal blog in January 2006.  In 2005, the TTC ripped up the streetcar line I used to commute to work (the 506 Carlton-Gerrard), and with all the diversions, it was taking me twice as long to get to work.  Myself and a co-worker who lived nearby decided to give biking a try, since we lived near the Dundas East bikelanes, and we really liked it.

I started a blog on blogger.com to write about personal stories while biking… and started posting and organizing links to information, as I found it hard to find information about biking events and news about cycling infrastructure.  The city website (toronto.ca/cycling) is a great resource to start with, but there were a few websites and mailing lists than one would have to keep checking in order to stay up to date about what was going on.

I eventually moved the site over to the bikingtoronto.com domain and posted more and more “informational” things instead of personal blog posts.  I generally use the rule-of-thumb that if I need to organize types of biking information in order to find it (and use it) easier, others would be interested in it as well.

TRR: What prompted the recent revamp of the BikingToronto site?  What sort of changes have you made?

BT: I don’t know if anything “prompted” me… but the changes can be attributed to my need to make things better coupled with a strong do-it-yourself attitude.  Whether house renovations or a website, I’ll take things apart and figure out how to make them sturdier, prettier and/or more useful or practical.

The old set-up of the site was an extension of how the site began, which was the blog format.  As popular as the blog format is these days, it does have a number of limitations.  The first and most obvious limitation is that a blog is run by one person (or sometimes, a few people), so there is one “main” voice (the writer/blogger) and many “periphery” voices (readers/commenters).  This may be a fine set-up for something like a corporate blog, or a blog/website where the blogger/writer has control issues… but not for a website that is trying to inform and engage a group of people (namely, people interested in bikes in Toronto… not necessarily cyclists.).

The changes I’ve made have been done to make it more open and collaborative for anyone that chooses to participate.  Anyone can view anything on the site, and after a quick membership sign up, anyone can discuss anything on the site, as well as start discussion groups, create and publicize events, as well as interact with other members in numerous ways.

TRR: What do you hope the shift to a more “social” site will accomplish?

BT: This is something I thought a lot about before starting the process of changing the site.

A website with a goal of informing and engaging a group of people should provide the tools to properly interact with those people, and letting those people interact with one another.

Bicycles are seen as an alternate transportation option in Toronto, and if people interested in bikes in Toronto (this includes not just cyclists but cycling organizations and bikeshops too) interact more with one another, it will only help promote bikes as a valid and reasonable transportation choice.

TRR: Have you noticed an increase over the past few years in interest from cyclists who are trying to make the leap from leisure biking to commuting?

BT: Yes, but I don’t feel it is due to anything that the city or any organization has done.  A combination of higher gas prices (especially after Hurricane Katrina) and general environmental awareness is making people thing about bicycles as more than just recreational playthings.

TRR: I work for an organization that doesn’t do all that much for people who commute by bike.  Any tips for employers that might want to make their workplace more bike friendly?

BT: I’d suggest consulting the city’s webpage (toronto.ca/cycling) which has a lot of great info about this… but generally… I would survey employees as to what obstacles they feel are preventing them from commuting by bike and use those as problems that need solutions.  You may find that a lot of people are interested in cycling to work but don’t know about how to get started.  Having you “nudge” them in the right direction can do a lot to get them “rolling” on their own (pun somewhat intended).

TRR: I first came across BikingToronto because I was looking for an online cycling route map that wasn’t a cumbersome PDF, which lead me to your Toronto Bike Lane map.  Was the map a collaborative effort?  Any future plans for the bike map?

BT: Funnily enough… your reason for searching for the map was the very same reason I created the map in the first place.  We needed a user-friendly online map, so I took it upon myself to create the first online map of Toronto’s bikelanes.  I did not partner with anyone on the creation of the map, but am happy to report that my idea has been duplicated on other websites… which is flattering and encourages me to continue thinking of new ideas to help people find cycling information.

TRR: What has Toronto done right in terms of facilitating biking?

BT: Toronto has done loads right to encourage cycling.  The city *is* behind on their BikePlan implementation… but it is rare that a government project (at any level) is completed on time, so I don’t worry too much about that.

Toronto has done a few substantial things to ensure that everyone thinks about cycling more as a transportation option.  This doesn’t mean that every Torontonian will turn into a 5-day-per-week bike commuter… but it does mean more people will try cycling as something more than a purely recreational activity.

Namely, the “Rack It and Rocket” project (bus racks on TTC buses) is a huge one for helping people think about the bicycle as a transportation option.  What started as a pilot project on a few bus routes has turned into a systemic plan which will eventually see a bikerack on *every* bus in the TTC fleet.

Another things the city has done is paying a lot of attention to the issue of bike parking.  People need and want a secure place to park their bike (and have their bike still be there when they return).  They’ve gone beyond just offering post-and-ring installation when people request it (although they still do that) to studying and implementing (at Union Station) the concept of a BikeStation – a facility dedicated solely to the secure storage of bikes.  As well, they are promoting the “intermodal” option by installing extra post-and-rings and bikelockers at TTC stations.

TRR: What could Toronto do to improve biking in the city?

BT: It’s already been done, and it’s the decision to mimic Montreal’s success with the Bixi Public Bike System (bixi.ca).  Due to launch this summer, it will provide low-cost biking to everyone in the central city.  Tourists will use it.  Cyclists will use it (we don’t take our bikes everywhere, all the time, you know!).  Non-cyclists will use it.  Companies may even use it to get employees to offsite meetings.  Providing that the administration of the program goes well… the Public Bike System will see an influx of bikes on the streets… an influx which will help all Torontonians think about bikes a lot more.

This isn’t to say the city doesn’t have anything else it needs to do… but this one thing, if done properly, can be the proverbial snowball of a future avalanche of urban planning that considers all modes of transportation equally.

TRR: Future plans for BikingToronto?

Definitely!

In the short term, we’re using the winter to test out the new features and their interactivity to make sure they’re all working great (I’m happy to report that apart from a couple minor things, everything is working according to plan).  As well, we’ll be promoting the site a little more to get more people interacting on the site.

In the long term, there are even more features planned to make the site as useful as possible for anyone looking for any information about biking in Toronto.

Also, I’m hoping to enable any member to create their own blog on bikingtoronto in the near future… and have a revenue sharing system in place to share any money coming in from advertisers.

Thanks for the interview Ben!  It was good to get all that down in hardcopy (e-copy?).



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