Meet Ontario’s first-ever ‘bicycle mayor’

Despite her name, Shelley Carr is passionate about cycling. TVO.org speaks with the newly appointed bicycle mayor of London about promoting bike-friendly infrastructure in a car-dominated city
By Mary Baxter - Published on Sep 11, 2019
a woman and a bike
Shelley Carr at the Big Bike Giveaway, an annual event at which donated bicycles are distributed to Londoners free of charge. (Mary Baxter)

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LONDON — Three years ago, Shelley Carr started biking to school every morning. She’d also ride to the grocery store, to appointments: basically, wherever she could. A car accident had shattered a number of bones in her foot, and she found that the regular exercise helped in her recovery. “I’ve been riding ever since,” says the 49-year-old Fanshawe College business student.

Carr became an advocate for active transportation, running a Twitter account dedicated to the cause and joining local groups such as London Cycle Link, a not-for-profit focused on cycling issues. Earlier this year, she tweeted a link to a program run by BYCS, an Amsterdam-based organization that appoints voluntary “bicycle mayors” across the world, hoping to promote cycling-friendly policy changes. But then a friend nominated her for the London position, and, after filming an application video, obtaining 10 endorsements from the local cycling community, and completing an interview with BYCS representatives, this month Carr was officially named to a two-year term. There are more than 40 such mayors around the world, but she’s the first in Ontario and only the second in Canada (the other is in Victoria).

Her mandate is ambitious. She hopes to engage local youth in the movement using BYCS’s junior mayor program. She’ll consult with organizations and businesses on how to best promote cycling. Most substantively, she’ll lobby local governments to pass cycling-friendly policy. “One of the mantras of the BYCS program is that we are aiming for 50 per cent of all city trips to be by bike by 2030,” she says.

TVO.org caught up with Carr at the Big Bike Giveaway (an annual event at which donated bikes are distributed to Londoners free of charge) to talk about her goals, which Ontario city has the best cycling infrastructure, and what she tells people who want to ditch their cars.

How did it feel to be named London’s bicycle mayor?

I was hoping that someone else would be nominated. When I found out that my friend had nominated me, I was really annoyed. I debated whether I wanted to do the work and if I was the right person.

It was really hard for me. I’m not good at blowing my own horn. I’m more “just get the work done.” But I was like, okay, do you really think this is going to help our city? And my nominator and other local cycling advocates said, ‘Yes, and we think you’re the perfect person for it.’ And I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it. I’ll do it.’

What does a bicycle mayor do?

A bicycle mayor is meant to drive change in a city to increase cycling. A big component of that is pushing for proper infrastructure to make sure that people can do it safely. The second part of that is to make sure that when people get their bikes, that their bikes are safe from theft — so that there is a system in place to ensure that bikes are not stolen as often as they are now.

The only way that you can coordinate all the cycling organizations in your city is if you have a coordinated force to bring cohesion to them all. Otherwise you’re all working in opposite directions.

How will the role affect your existing advocacy work?

I have to actually be independent of all organizations. It’s a requirement of the BYCS program — I cannot be a part of any funded organizations [including government]. Everything I do is volunteer. Everything I spend money on is either money that I’ve written grants for or I’ve spent myself. I have to be free from those encumbrances so that I can do the work that I can do. And it means that I can actually reach into places that other people can’t because I don’t have those rules about how that money needs to be spent.

What are your first steps in London?

We’re starting to work on putting pressure on the city to create safe cycling lockups in the city. We’re asking for bike lockers to be installed at 15 parking lots in the downtown area.

We also are going to London Police Services Board on September 26 to ask them to adopt Project 529, which is a central registry service.

The idea is that the cyclists will register their bike; the police will check the registry. It’s a North American system [that four Ontario cities, including St. Thomas, Guelph, Peterborough, and Ottawa participate in]. Victoria adopted it, and their theft rate dropped by 32 per cent.

We have 785 bikes stolen a year in London, approximately. I figure probably another third of that is never, ever, reported.

What is the number-one challenge Ontario communities face in terms of cycling infrastructure?

The biggest challenge is the perception that creating bike lanes for cyclists is taking away from drivers. It’s really hard to get it through people’s heads that not all trips need to be taken by car.

When we can get people out of cars and riding bikes more often, they’re more connected to their communities, they’re healthier, their loneliness factor drops because they get to know their community. That’s a big issue in cities right now, loneliness and isolation.

I think that if people actually thought about the fact that if there’s more people riding in their community, and they know that cyclists are in a protected bike lane, then it’s easier for them to drive, right? It’s as simple as that. That’s why we have sidewalks — so we don’t have pedestrians walking on the road, and when you know that the pedestrians are over there, you don’t need to worry about them. The same works for bike lanes.

Is there an Ontario community that you feel is doing the best when it comes to infrastructure?

Probably Ottawa. Ottawa has their routes along the river. They have routes along the canal. They have done active-transportation design changes on their streets, so it’s safer for cars and safer for pedestrians and safer for cyclists. They still have deaths because not all of the city is done. It’s very piecemeal — just like every other city.

But if you say Canada-wide, well, I was in Montreal for a week this summer, and I took my bike; I was out until two in the morning with my bicycle looking for crêpes and beer. It was the safest city I’d ever been in my life. I would never go in Toronto on my bicycle at 2 a.m.

They have protected bike lanes and shut down entire streets — they’re totally closed to cars. So there’s a whole different sense of community on those streets that you don’t see in London.

What do you tell someone who wants to switch to commuting by bike?

Reach out to the cycling community and ask them what the safe routes are for them to travel.

Sometimes it involves using the bus as well. A lot of facilities don’t have showers or change rooms, so that’s an issue. I had one lady that contacted me to ask how to work biking into her commuting routine, and I said, “How do you get there now?”

“I take the bus,” she replies.

“How about you put your bike on the bus, take the bus to your work, then you’re not sweaty,” I told her. “Then afterwards, you can bike home.”

That is a start because that means that she actually has that opportunity to ride and to enjoy the outdoors.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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