Points North: Too American for Words…

By James Fife

Sometimes even the smallest things teem with hidden significance. In sharing our experiences of adapting to the shift from San Diego to Victoria, I have found that some differences are obvious and immediate; some are more subtle, despite a surface similarity; and some, I've found, can lurk in pretty simple things that nonetheless encapsulate a whole area of how Canada and the U.S. differ. Take the example of bicycles.

A few months back, I first noticed the sudden proliferation of lime-green bicycles along side-streets off Douglas and Government. The number and uniform colour made it obvious they were deliberately placed there, so I looked closer to discover their source. I had seen ride-share bicycles in other cities, but their appearance in Victoria was an unexpected thrill. It was thrilling, because I appreciated its potential to inspire people to take up the many benefits (personal and social) to biking more in place of driving. Like my somewhat less altruistic devotion in support of the Songhees Nation food truck, I tend to lend support to ideas I like, even when it’s not something that benefits me directly (Marilyn and I have ready access to bikes already in Victoria). So, to do my small part to encourage the trend, I downloaded the app to my phone and opened an account. And to make it genuinely concrete, I made sure I hired a bicycle at least once before our visit ended. I learned two things from my trip on that lime-green bike: (1) I had forgotten how enjoyable bike riding is, and (2) I had also forgotten that when one only rides occasionally you experience every manner of chafe and muscle pain from even a short ride down Government Street and along Dallas Road.

So, despite saddle sores, I came away with a positive impression of the shared-bicycle scheme in Victoria. I know there are still some complaints about them. But on the whole, I felt my support was justified.

This contrasts in a telling way with the recent introduction in Home South of ride-share bikes (or what they call here ‘dockless bicycles’). Just as suddenly as in Victoria, one day I noticed in downtown San Diego a plethora of bicycles parked on the sidewalks. But it was not scattered knots of lime-green; from the myriad colours, it was clear that there must have been at least three or four different companies’ bikes being offered up for rent. Based on my experience with the Victoria system, I doubted how that would work, since you need a separate phone app and account for each company. That means you’d have to set up multiple accounts to match whatever bike happens to be near you, or pick one company at random and hope that when you need a bike, one of that brand is handy. Not at all convenient or efficient. 

But it wasn’t long before other chaotic aspects of the ride-sharing effort emerged. First, I started to notice a number of the rental bikes appearing in specific areas of downtown (funny that I saw the bikes parked far more often than ridden). The bikes seemed clustered in areas frequented by the San Diego homeless population. I wasn’t surprised so much that homeless people in the U.S. also have smart phones to download apps and rent the bicycles. But I don’t think they were the target market group: more likely trendy, urban millennials and tourists. Good idea to provide cheap transport for the homeless, but I doubt that was the business model. Soon the local news started reporting complaints of how masses of bicycles were being left not only in awkward and inconsiderate spots, but that they were piling up—one photo showed a half-dozen bikes piled into a pyramid on a street corner.

Then things took a darker turn. Because the companies would need to retrieve bikes clustered in market-thin locales, there were limits on the area one could ride the rented bikes. But then they started appearing in areas far from downtown: I saw three in my neighbourhood in La Mesa (a good 10 miles from downtown). I witnessed someone bring a rental bike onto the Trolley travelling to El Cajon. If that person left the bike there, it would almost be like someone leaving a Victoria bike in Sooke for pick up. Unworkable. Finally, in traditional American fashion, mindless violence reared its head. A number of the bicycles left in remote or apparently irritating locations were vandalized, some even being sawn in half. A couple were thrown off cliffs into the surf, one on a beach so inaccessible, a thoughtful kayaker had to come and drag it away.

Something as simple as a cycle-renting scheme now impresses me with yet another big difference I must learn between Home North and Home South. True to American form, the San Diego experience was one of starting up with no advance planning and allowing multiple, competing concerns to scramble chaotically to seize the market first, hoping to drive the others to the wall. As a result, there was no preparation of the public for the rules of use or by provision of infrastructure (e.g., additional bike racks or signage). Nor was account taken of the American tendency to spoil any good thing (like accessible, cheap transportation) by abusing it. It reminded me of nothing so much as the U.S. health care ‘system’: hand over a basically social benefit to a free-for-all marketing scramble aimed at individual gain. So with dockless bikes. What had at its heart a grain of promoting broader goals was quickly converted into a problem and a focus for new, anti-social outbursts. I think we are just lucky you can’t effectively shoot a bicycle.

I’m sure there are a number of kinks still to be worked out with those lime-green bicycles lining up along the pre-designated, bike-parking island on Pandora Street. I was personally concerned that the promised helmets were often missing (in San Diego, they don’t even attempt to supply such necessaries). And thoughtless types who leave a bike in mid-thoroughfare live in all countries. But my experience with the two programs convinces me that the Canadian effort had a very different quality to it than the American, and in ways that seem to me emblematic of broader traits of my two nations. It goes to show that even in small, unexpected turns, I will need time yet to adapt to and reconcile their different ways. 

Just as I try to bring the Victoria attitude of consideration back when I return South, I try to keep a calm perspective on public issues that occur up North by recalling how it could be worse. I mean, however much folks are teed off about how long the rebuilding of the Johnson Street Bridge took, at least no one, out of frustration, went out and sawed the old one in half. That would be just too American for words.

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