The Life and Times of Bicycle Bob

The Life and Times of Bicycle Bob

dandyhorse magazine, October 19, 2016

Cars, cars everywhere
What a stink!
Packed together
Street by street
Usurping our space
Eliminating our feet
We had nothing to like
Then we rediscovered the bike
                                                         Bicycle Bob
Bicycle Bob on the shore of the St. Lawrence River, circa Easter 1981; courtesy Bob Silverman

Bicycle Bob on the shore of the St. Lawrence River, circa Easter 1981; courtesy Bob Silverman

Poetry, protests, street theatre, lobbying, civil disobedience, and having fun all went together for Montreal’s early cycling advocates in the 1970s and 80s. In those days Toronto and Montreal were laggards of equal standing in addressing the safety of bicycle commuters. Today, Montreal is one of North America’s best cycling cities while Toronto still prefers studies over action on bike lanes. (See the documentary Les bons, les méchants et la bicyclette). While it’s difficult to properly weigh the factors that resulted in Montreal’s current cycling superiority over Toronto, one thing is clear: Montreal had Bicycle Bob.

I first heard of Bicycle Bob in 1981 as a summer student at the Ontario Science Centre. A transportation exhibit mentioned Bob and the statement that the bicycle is the world’s most efficient transportation vehicle. This fact, and his name, stuck with me. Thirty-five years later, I spent an afternoon earlier this month with Bob — now more often known as Robert Silverman — in his art-bedecked loft in the picturesque town of Val-David, north of Montreal.

In the early 1970s Bob, who grew up in Montreal, was active in popular protests against the Vietnam War. When the war ended in 1975, he was ready to take on a new cause. This lead to a series of meetings with cycling activists in April and May of that year at his home (to the chagrin of his landlord). Le Monde à Bicyclette (or Citizens for Cycling), as the group came to be known, soon included Claire Morissette who was to become another leader of Montreal’s cycling movement.

The group’s first actions included the presentation of a bike to Mayor Jean Drapeau for his official duties (the Mayor didn’t show up at the event); a race that pitted transit, a car, and a bicycle against each other (the bike won easily); and a mass cycling parade (which drew 3,000 riders). “It was such a great feeling,” says Bob of the parade. The “velorution” was underway.

Bob had concluded, based on his research and meetings with U.S. advocates, “that there was a contradiction between the great wish for cycling and the absence of encouragement.”

Le Monde à Bicyclette focused on what Bob calls “cyclo-provocations” or “cyclo-frustrations” – particularly ones that affected cyclists across the city.

The prohibition of bicycles on the subway became one of the group’s priorities. The plan was to show the absurdity of the ban in light of items that were allowed. Cyclists, armed with long ladders, baby carriages, skiis, and a large (home-made) hippo, among other items, were organized to board subway trains. This cyclo-drama got wide media attention. It was the first salvo in a battle that lasted three years and included fighting charges against Morissette for bringing her bike on the subway. The transit authority eventually relented and the group had its first victory. “It was fun,” recounts Bob.

Another “provocation” was the fact that cyclists had no way to safely cross the St. Lawrence River from the south shore onto the island of Montreal given the fast-moving motor traffic on the connecting bridges. Fortunately, there was an easy solution.

Moses, or at least Bob dressed as Moses, was sent to part the waters of the river to deliver cyclists safely to the opposite side. The media loved the stunt, and cyclists “got a lot of sympathy” from the public. The group then set to work gathering the support of neighbouring municipalities and federal and provincial representatives. The province and city eventually acted — building a bridge for pedestrians and cyclists in 1990 – and later adding bike lanes to other bridges.

The group also staged die-ins where cyclists, smeared with ketchup, dramatized the peril on Montreal’s roads. At another event, bicycles were specially equipped to give them the dimensions of cars to demonstrate the car’s ludicrous space demands. “The cars got so mad,” Bob recalls with a laugh.

At its height the small group that started in 1975 would grow to 500 members although Bob says, “we were at our best when we had little resources and the least members.”

Bob believes Montreal was able to make up for its cycling disadvantages, such as its hills and cold winters, with its strong citizen cycling movement. Bob, who had strong connections with Toronto activists, suspects Toronto’s early cycling movement was hampered by being centred in the City Cycling Committee at City Hall. (The Cycling Committee was in place from 1975 to 2010.)

Today Bob lives very nearly adjacent to the 200 km-long P’tit Train du Nord bike trail which stretches gracefully through the Laurentian Mountains to the outskirts of Montreal. Sadly, he can no longer take advantage of the opportunity given the macular degeneration of his eyes. He’s also 82 now (born in 1933) although his passion for cycling hasn’t dimmed. Bob brings up a few improvements needed for cyclists in Val-David … then shrugs and stops himself, remembering his limitations. Nonetheless he later tells me that he’s helping on the campaign to maintain bike lanes over the winter on Montreal’s Jacques Cartier bridge.

Montreal, like Toronto is still overrun with cars, Bob acknowledges, but he doesn’t spend much time attacking motorists even while his distaste for automobiles is clear. Much of Bob’s advocacy was focused on convincing people of the absurdity of the status quo and the beauty of the alternatives.

“I liked every minute,” Bob reminisces about his cycling advocacy.

Cycling is “such a nice cause, who can attack it?”

(Note: A few days after this interview Bob suffered a stroke. The author spoke to Bob again by telephone on October 18, 2016. Bob is still in hospital but in good spirits and working on his recovery.)

Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer, writer, and co-founder of Bells on Bloor.