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The Movers | Jared Kolb, Executive Director of Cycle Toronto

July 20, 2016  |  By Blair Smith

Jared Kolb shares how he balances the hard yet rewarding work of leading Cycle Toronto, why watching House of Cards helps him work with City Hall, and that time he cycled across Canada.

Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Jared Kolb the Executive Director of Cycle Toronto. I’ve been with this not-for-profit organization since 2010. I do many things. I’m Cycle Toronto’s spokesperson, lead advocate and head of operations.

Since I took over, we’ve grown from $150,000 to over $340,000 in revenue, now have four full-time staff, six part-time staff, and hundreds of very active volunteers. This makes me pretty proud.

What is Cycle Toronto’s mission?

52% of Torontonians have ridden a bicycle in the past year, which is a great number that we’re committed to keep growing. At the highest level we’re really about helping more people experience the joy of cycling in Toronto.

Cycle Toronto is a member-supported, not-for-profit organization that aims to create a friendly, healthy, and safe cycling city for all to enjoy. Our work is fundamentally about transforming city streets through advocacy campaigns, as well as specific programs like the Bike Valet service, Bike Month in the GTHA and different cycling education workshops.

Cycle Toronto Bike Valet

What are some recent projects that you’re most proud of?

One that’s top of mind is the successful Bloor Loves Bikes! campaign to build a pilot project of bike lanes on Bloor Street. There’s been a generation of advocacy work around cycling on Bloor Street. We grabbed on a few years ago and elevated it as a formal campaign. Our goal is to deliver a positive, community-driven campaign that clearly demonstrates how support from local residents, businesses and partners can transform a section of Bloor Street and increase its vibrance. City of Toronto council voted 38-3 in favour of the pilot project. The bike lanes will be installed before September 2016.

Another on is our Bike Valet bike parking service. It’s a secure, monitored valet parking for bicycles at different events around Toronto. We were inspired by the same service that Transportation Alternatives has been running since the 1990’s in New York City. This is important for two reasons. First, it provides a valuable service to city cyclists. Second, it’s a social enterprise that generates revenue for Cycle Toronto. It’s an key part of our financial mix. And it’s growing quickly, which is exciting. We recently signed the Toronto Argonauts football club which will see the Bike Valet at all of their home games. Entering the professional sports space in Toronto is a good sign of things to come.

What was a business challenge you recently had to overcome and what did you learn from it?

With the Bloor Loves Bikes! campaign, we learned that when you push the status quo, the status quo pushes back. Challenging the norm to create safe streets is hard work, but it’s very rewarding work. There were a lot of people involved to make the campaign happen. Sometimes City Hall can be a bit like an episode of House of Cards.

Our success has brought more people to us wanting to do different things. We’re now actively focusing on fewer things and doing them really well. This is an important ongoing challenge for a not-for-profit that has limited resources.

Sometimes getting a bike lane built in Toronto is like a back alley fight. It’s a difficult task. This isn’t just about cyclists. We’re all united by creating a more people-friendly Toronto, not just a bike-friendly one. – Jared Kolb, Cycle Toronto

What are the main city cycling priorities Cycle Toronto wants to push forward to make Toronto a more bike-friendly city?

On the heels of Bloor Loves Bikes!, we’ve launched our Danforth Loves Bikes! campaign and are planning a Yonge Loves Bikes! Campaign. The goal is to build a strong, vibrant voice of support by bringing BIA’s, local councillors, businesses and members of the community together and creating incremental change. 

These projects create more vibrant communities, kickstart local business, and improve the pedestrian experience. We’re all united in creating a more people-friendly Toronto, not just a bike-friendly one.

There’s been a lot of recent cycling news in Toronto. Do you think this is a tipping point where cycling will become integrated into daily city life?

2016 has been unbelievably exciting for city cycling in Toronto. There’s the Bloor Loves Bikes! Pilot project commitment, announcement of the City of Toronto Cycling Network 10-Year Plan, and Bike Share Toronto expansion.

The challenge with cycling in Toronto is it’s uneven. We have a vibrant cycling community in the downtown core that’s growing. Recent counts have shown that with road users on College Street, there is close to 50/50 split between bicycles and cars. Cycling is booming downtown. People don’t think about themselves as cyclists. They’re just people riding bicycles. It’s not an identity thing. It’s a normal part of life. Maybe this is the ‘victory condition’ when cycling becomes really boring.

However, if you’re riding a bicycle in suburban Toronto it’s more of a recreational activity. For Toronto to harness the true potential of cycling in the suburbs, we need more cycling infrastructure like protected bike lanes and boulevard trails. 73% of Torontonians want to ride more often, but safety is holding them back. The true tipping point will be when we make cycling accessible to more people in the entire Greater Toronto Area.

An exciting milestone that helps is redoing the Toronto Cyclists Handbook in 2016. It’s free and is now available in 13 of Toronto’s most-spoken languages, including English, Portugese, Simplified Chinese, Tamil, Hindi, and more. We’ve printed 100,000 copies, many of which are available in community centres and libraries across the city. This popular publication extends the benefits of city cycling and gives important information to Torontonians in their home language. This helps expand the influence of Cycle Toronto beyond downtown.

Toronto Cyclists Handbook 2016

Other than cloning yourself, how do see Cycle Toronto’s influence growing in the next 5 years?

(Laugh) You’re not far off. We need to build more internal staff capacity. This will help Cycle Toronto meet the demand to do more campaigns that extend the benefits of cycling to more Torontonians. However, we have to keep delivering outstanding programs. Do more with Bike Month in June. Bring the Bike Valet to more events. Hold more workshops to get people back on their bicycles again.

Cycle Toronto is really effective because of our 3,000-strong membership base and a significant contacts list. All of these people are deeply committed to our mission. They work on our behalf to help move things forward. We’ve got some strong neighbourhood groups in our Ward Advocacy Program. It’s one thing for me to talk to the city councillors; but it’s much stronger when local residents come together with a louder voice.

Only 2% of Torontonians ride a bicycle on a daily basis. How will you know that Toronto’s truly become a bike-friendly city?

One of the challenges is keeping the space that we already have. And another one is pushing for new cycling infrastructure. I spend a lot of time defending our current space. There is a recent council motion to explore bicycle licensing which would be another hurdle to increasing cycling numbers. Then the Richmond Street cycletrack–a backbone route for the Minimum Grid in the downtown core, was only recently opened–now has a major portion of it closed for construction until the end of November.

What’s another brand/organization/person you’ve got your eye on doing exciting things for city cycling?

There’s so many. (Long pause and thought.) So many heros and mentors. Jacquelyn Hayward Gulati who manages cycling infrastructure and programs at the City of Toronto. She has a fire for city cycling that’s great to see. There are also bike-friendly city councillors like Joe Cressy, Mike Layton and Mary-Margaret McMahon.

Nancy Smith-Lee from the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation. Patrick Brown, a critical injury lawyer who founded Bike Law to help cyclists involved in a crash. CultureLink is doing Bike to School and Bike Host programs with newcomers to Toronto.

I look up to Janet Sadik-Khan and Paul Steely White at Transportation Alternatives in New York City.

Tell us your favourite cycling city or city cycling experience (or craziest!)

I really got into what I do after cycling across Canada in 2007 with my good friend Adrian. Earlier in the year at a dinner party I met a new friend named Janice who was talking about how she and her sister cycled across Canada. “You did what!”, I said. “That’s a thing? That’s awesome!” And the seed was planted. I talked to my good friend Adrian and we decided to do it. We didn’t own bicycles. But still somehow thought this would be something fun to do.

Soon after I went for a 40km bike ride on a borrowed bicycle because it seemed like a good idea to prepare. This was the longest I’d ever cycled at once. Afterwards, my knees were just aching and I had to take the bicycle in for a tune up. At the shop, the lady asked “Where did you get this bicycle?” and quickly said “You can’t ride that.” I told her that I borrowed it from a friend who was 5’4” (and I’m 6’2”). “Oh no, this bike is way too small for you. You can’t ride it.” That was really the start of the adventure.

We left Vancouver in early July and arrived in St John’s in late September. We knocked on doors and camped in backyards. We met a lot of amazing people across the country. It changed my life. I had no idea it would do that. I clearly saw the state of cycling infrastructure from coast-to-coast.

In Northern Ontario we were almost struck and killed. We both had to jump from our bicycles into the ditch to avoid getting hit by a truck. You quickly see how fragile life can be on a bicycle. There’s so much we need do to create a safe cycling environment. It became a passion of mine.

Finish this thought: “Cycling is…”

Cycling is a joy; an absolute pleasure.

Finally, it’s time to nerd out a bit. What do you ride?

A Cannondale T-800 touring bicycle from 2007. This was the one I rode across Canada so there’s a special connection It’s so versatile. A great commuter bike. It handles all that Toronto roads can throw at it. It’s comfortable for all distances. I’ve probably put 50,000 kms on it.

Download a free PDF copy of the Toronto Cyclists Handbook. Find out where the Bike Valet will pop-up next. Or learn about the current city cycling campaigns in Toronto on their website.

(Feature image courtesy of Toronto Star. Other images courtesy of Cycle Toronto)

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