The Van Bikes. ca blog is a lovely collection of stories about cycling advocacy and people that have supported advocacy, some for decades. Written by Colin Stein, you can take a look at the website at http://www.VanBikes.ca
The website has followed up on some pretty interesting advocates. Recently, Ken Ohrn, the co-editor of Price Tags Vancouver was featured with his story about living in Vancouver and becoming a cycling advocate. It’s a testament about will, being determined, giving back, and achievement. It’s so fun we’ve included the entire interview below.
A veteran of the Air Force, an engineer, and a former aerospace sector executive, Ken’s side hustle had typically been physical fitness. Not local politics. Life’s too short. So he didn’t really know what he was getting into when, in his sixth decade and no longer interested in knee-punishing, charley-horse-inducing long distance runs, he pulled his old bike out of the basement and dusted it off.
It started out innocuous enough.
“I discovered that a bike is a wonderful way to maintain fitness. You can get into cardio to as great or as little extent as you want.If you’re just going to go to the grocery store for a litre of milk, it’s leisurely and easy. If you want to do a long ride, you can push it, you can go up hills and so on. So you can peg your cardio wherever you want. A downtown resident today, at that time he lived nine kilometres outside the core — about 30 minutes, an ideal distance for breaking a sweat and getting the heart rate up.”
So one day he decided to go for it.
“I was thinking about going to the library downtown, and I thought, what the hell I’ll take my bike. It turned out to be easy, and fast — just as fast as taking my car, parking it, walking to the library, and so on. But I was really anxious about it. I didn’t really know all the unspoken and all the unwritten rules, and even the written rules about how to ride in a busy city. There were parts of it that were just horrifying — riding on Homer, narrow parked cars…it was just awful. But I made it. Give up? Not exactly. That’s what I like about engineers, they keep thinking about ways to get around the problem. Whereas I would have taken that as a signal that I didn’t belong there. I might have gone back to my artsy hovel and written slam poetry about the experience, or baked an angry-looking banana bread. “
But to generalize as broadly as I possibly can, most engineers (or fine, ALL engineers) are problem solvers. So Ken did what any good problem-solver does.
“I thought, somebody knows more about this than me. There’s always somebody who knows more. And I started looking around and, lo and behold, I found the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition, who had a course. So I signed up. And I nearly walked out in the first half hour. Because I thought what the instructor was saying was crazy and dangerous.
“You belong on the road. If you’re coming to an intersection and you need to make a turn, take the lane. Get in there, position yourself in the lane, signal, make your turn.”
I thought that’s nuts. That’s totally crazy. Even if you’re comfortable cycling on the road, you may also be familiar with the style of cycling he was used to. It’s a style that now, upon reflection, was a terribly strange thing for someone to get used to.”
If you’re an urban planner, you live for this kind of stuff (or you’re responsible for it, you smack your forehead).
“I was cycling as a kind of enhanced pedestrian.
If I came to an intersection and I needed to make a left turn, I would stop, get off my bike, cross in the crosswalk, wait for the light, cross — unless there was absolutely no traffic.”
Problem-solver that he was, Ken took the information the VACC instructor gave him, compared it to the evidence, and came to a conclusion. They’re all still alive, so it must be something.
“I’ll do it. I’ll spend a month or two months, and I’ll make these lessons a habit. I’ll do what they said, and I’ll see what happens. If I die, well you know, that’s the downside.
What happened was that by about the middle of the second month, cycling had changed — from being mostly good but a tremendous producer of anxiety, to something that was simple, easy and fun. Because what they taught worked. Really worked.
So that anxiety disappeared and it was replaced with informed watchfulness. I knew what to look for, and I knew how to behave, and I knew where the problems were likely to be, and I could manage it easily. Nothing to it. It was a huge change.If you’re a child of the ’70s, you may remember a commercial for an electric shaver with the tagline, “I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company!”
Well, Ken liked the bike education experience so much, he joined the Board of the VACC.
“It was a time of transition. At the time I joined, the VACC was a very small organization, and, with due respect to everybody, with really limited horizons. The organization was not business-like at all. If I had to characterize them charitably, I would say that it was a debating society. I was really upset in the first three or four Board meetings, because somebody would bring up a topic — the latest outrage from the paper about helmet laws — and away we’d go. And an hour and a half later we’d still be going around in circles. That didn’t make any sense at all.”
So what was Ken’s contribution? Planning. Decisions about the capital budget. Helping steer it towards being more business-like. And ultimately, passing along some of the structures, systems and knowledge that would help the organization grow beyond his own ability to help it, more of a good thing that it may sound like. Perhaps not exactly what Ken may have meant, but having worked at HUB as staff, and having seen how the Board operates about a decade past his time, it appears succession planning was an important part of his time with the organization.
“A new crop of people came on about two years before I left, and we set up a very good vision, a very good set of values, and a very good set of objectives of what we want to do.
We had a vision for a committee structure that was five or ten years into the future, and then we smoothed it down into something that worked for the current day.
And the whole organization’s effectiveness went boom, just leaped up into the sky.”
In addition to helping cultivate a new breed of directors for the VACC Board, Ken also had a hand in filling the Executive Director spot when it opened up in 2010. It was an important hiring process, one which helped further stabilize the organization. And one which helped retain an important member of the advocacy community.
Erin was the obvious choice. And it was a good one.
“Of course, leadership is where an organization’s effectiveness comes from. It doesn’t come from anywhere else, it all comes from the top down.
And they’ve got it. HUB’s got it in spades.”
Ken moved on from the Board, but stayed quite close. An avid photographer since childhood, his retirement life began to include an almost singular focus on capturing cycling lifestyle and culture in all its forms. (“Somebody riding with their kids. The middle-aged woman with her groceries. Two people riding together on upright bikes wearing ordinary clothes. Images which are mainstream and normalized. The image of cycling.”) For a funded but still cash-strapped charity, contributions like free and full rights to Ken’s photographs, I can personally attest to, were critical, because they helped tell the story of cycling.
And contributions like his point to another important aspect of the advocacy sector, which may be intuitive to those familiar with non-profits, but perhaps not to those who think those organizations just run themselves. That is the power of volunteers, and one demographic pocket so important to the ongoing training and development of that segment of the workforce. People who are newly retired generally have a lot of experience, a lot of skills — writing, business, finance, who knows what.
So recent retirees are very attractive to any advocacy organization. I tell people who are newly retired — if you’re looking for stuff to do, there are 12 million non-profits out there and they’d love to have you working.
Be careful, because you’ll find yourself with a full-time job.
Photography alone didn’t do quite enough to fill Ken’s dance card, so he began to poke around, make connections between policies and politics, and soon found himself neck-deep in click-bait, bike-bashing articles and op-eds in the online media, around the time of the 2011 municipal elections. “If you ever wonder who has the time and stomach to participate in the ‘comment wars’… “They don’t pay taxes. They should all have to buy insurance.” On and on and on. So I made up standard canned rebuttals, I just cut and pasted these things, saved a lot of time. But as the election drew nearer, and the conversation got hotter, I got a death threat. I was using a pseudonym. They scoured through bicycle advocacy, they found my photograph on the HUB website and the fact that I was interested in photographs. My screen name was Camera Ken. So there’s Ken, interested in photographs, on HUB, got my name out of the phone book, phoned me at home, and threatened to kill me. Wow indeed. I just laughed and hung up. I phoned the police. They were very supportive. What I said at the time, and it’s still true, is that nastiness will only make me redouble my efforts. It’s going to make me even stronger and more likely to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Ken ended up becoming quite politically aware, and of course his experience in 2011 was especially galvanizing. As it was for the entire cycling community, especially with the likes of the now NPA party openly waving an anti-bike flag, and hoping to catch some flies. He recalls mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton declaring her intention, if elected mayor with a majority NPA council, to place a moratorium on bike lanes and to “take out” those they deemed beyond fixing, whatever that would have meant at the time. Nobody heard the qualifications. “We’ll take them out.” That was the message for the base. Lo and behold, they got their asses handed to them in the election. They were wiped out from council. Likewise in 2014. They had a less strident anti-bike program, but the mayoral candidate promised to revisit those bike lanes.
They also didn’t do particularly well. Plenty of editorials came out after the election around the city saying, look you guys, this anti-bike thing is a total loser.
In 2015, former City of Vancouver councillor and NPA outlier Gordon Price offered Ken to co-edit his popular, Vancouver-focused urban issues blog, Price Tags.
As adept a writer as he is a photographer, Ken leapt at the chance, and has been posting regularly ever since.
“I maintain a focus on cycling, because in the public conversation, the wind blows from positive to negative, back and forth, and if you don’t have a constant stream of reinforcing messages, the negative ones can start to dominate.
Politicians decide where the money is spent. We run the risk of electing the wrong people for the wrong reason, and having big chunks of this undone.
That’s a risk, and it’s within the realm of possibility. If the NPA had gotten elected in 2011 we wouldn’t have anything. If you think your vote doesn’t matter, or you think politics is a bunch of bullshit and it doesn’t matter, think about this next time you’re on the seawall or on a bike lane somewhere. Think about it. People can take that away.”
That’s all a bit scary to consider, so let’s end on an up-note.
Like that summer Ken’s sister-in-law Robin visited from Philadelphia. As Ken puts it, Philly — seriously, can I call you Philly? — is a total car city. (“She lives out in some suburb, there’s not even sidewalks. You have to get in your car, and it’s all ringed and criss-crossed with freeways.”)
She asked Ken to take her on a bike ride, and it was one of those glorious, south coast days. And the pianos were out, and of course Robin happens to be a music teacher.
“So we got on our bikes, we went to the aquarium, we went to the seawall where the pianos were. I’ve got a great photograph of her playing at the trade and convention centre, right at the pier that goes out into the ocean. And there are people dancing.
We’re finally heading back home again, and we’re at the lights at Cambie and 10th. And she pulls up beside me, “Hey Ken” she says, “I figured out what this is. This is transportation!”
I said, “Yes Robin, this is transportation.”
Ken Ohrn image