By Jason Hanson, Saskatoon Cycles Operations Manager
We live in a complicated world.
7.9 billion of us stress-test the social and environmental limitations of the planet every day, bumping into one another as we scurry from one task to the next. We are expected to manage our own individual perspectives, interests, and needs at exactly the same time as the other humans in our community manage theirs, creating conditions that can lead to immense cooperation or brutal competition or something in between.
These cumulative actions and reactions have a profound impact on our collective health and well-being, and now with our vast numbers, the very Earth itself. The complexity of this civilization is difficult to comprehend, if not impossible, and so it can’t be too surprising that so many of us have trouble navigating all the daily challenges.
Here’s where I want to say, “I have solutions!”, but that isn’t the thrust of this piece. This piece is about how one family tries to figure out their place in a big world with billions of options and decisions in front of them.
When I asked Paul Suchan over email what inspired him and his family to go without a car for 95% of their travel, I expected to get a few sentences back, like “We like to stay in shape” or “We wanted to reduce our carbon footprint” or “We’re cheap”. These would all be predictable and valid reasons, of course, and they did form part of his response, but what I hadn’t counted on was the depth and breadth of his reply. For this first question, he provided a list of key motivations, each with observations and analysis that read more like a philosophical journal than a casual email exchange with a stranger. It was thought provoking, consistently reasonable, and challenging, and it was only question number one.
I quickly realized I would be going on a journey.
Paul and Naomi Suchan grew up in Saskatchewan, but it was after they moved to Montreal that their nascent leaning to car-free transportation really kicked in. According to Paul, the architecture and infrastructure design of the city was one of the biggest inspirations to establishing their full-time cycling habits. “There are beautiful, human-scaled neighbourhoods throughout Montreal that are simultaneously cozy and active, where you are surrounded on one side by amenities and all you need to live, and on the other side by amazing buildings that invite you to be outside.
When your neighbourhood and city uses car-only transportation, it is simply impossible to build these amazing neighbourhoods. So, we decided to try and use a mode of transportation that makes this sort of city and architecture possible.” They suggest that without “the opportunity to live in a different way” in Montreal, they would likely not have made the decisions they have.
When they moved back to Saskatoon four and a half years ago to ensure their kids could spend time with extended family, they based their home purchase primarily on location to amenities. “I’m a very lazy person. Or maybe a “go with the flow” person,” says Paul. “Proximity to our kids’ school, a grocery store, the university, downtown, a bank, etc. was the most important factor.” They had high hopes that Saskatoon’s cycling infrastructure under Mayor Charlie Clark’s leadership would have improved in their absence, but the family quickly realized that they weren’t in Montreal anymore.
The vibrant, interconnected neighbourhoods were fewer and the safety of the protected bike lanes almost non-existent. Paul feels “there is support from city hall, but overall this city lacks imagination. There are what, maybe 1/2 km of protected bike lanes, and over 3000km of roads – that means that there are safe bike lanes on 0.0003% of the roads in Saskatoon.”
Still, Paul also acknowledges the many other benefits of cycling, independent of urban design, that helped them make the decision to go car-free:
- physical and mental health. Paul says, “when working at a desk, improvement is made note by note or measure by measure, but while walking or biking outside I’ll often see the complete picture in an instant.”
- financial savings. Paul estimates that they’ve saved at least $200,000 over ten years not buying and maintaining two vehicles.
- connecting to their neighbours. The kids Evelyn and Isaac occasionally sing songs like “The North West Passage” from their bike trailer, much to the delight of people walking by.
- and the chance to burn less carbon. They don’t consider themselves “environmentalists,” but still see climate change as one of the most pressing issues of our time.
It’s a compelling list, and I find myself imagining a bustling little community where the traffic noise is singing or whistling, and the only exhaust is slightly heavier breathing.
It’s when Paul (apologetically) gets deeper that I really begin to appreciate how seriously he takes their life choices. Referencing the spirit of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, “if you do an action, then everyone else should also be able to do it,” he finds a certain, more fundamental purpose in cycling. He states, “By riding a bike I know I am not going to change anything about our world – but at least this is my way of being a moral person.”
I’m a sucker for introspection and living an examined life, so naturally I’m impressed by this, but even more so because his language is littered with humility, gratitude, and graciousness toward others. It’s a lazy tendency to dismiss people making moral choices as judgmental or “holier than thou”, but that’s not what I get from the Suchans.They’re doing what works for them, and their philosophical commitment invites others to meet them or not. They simply do not want to feel hypocritical. Also, Paul knows not everyone has the luxury to do what they do. “We are grateful that we are in a position to do this,” he says.
This ethical grounding helps me understand how all the obstacles and challenges I ask Paul about are taken in stride by the family: the weather, the hills, the exhaust his kids breathe in, the dearth and ambiguous nature of signage for cyclists, the perceived supremacy of the automobile as a status symbol and only “real” method of transportation, and the constant, potentially deadly interactions with people in vehicles (especially in school zones). These visceral deterrents are measured up and mixed in with the joys and benefits of using a bike for transportation. The result is an incredibly complicated calculation, including:
- Speed vs. health.
- Safety vs. community.
- Convenience vs. clean air.
It’s even more complex when we begin to question the assumptions behind each equation, and how they were defined to begin with.
Most of us want simple solutions to help us maneuver through the world. That’s why we tend to accept the established orthodoxy. Why fight against the current? Why question what’s normal? Why do anything different at all? Aren’t our lives crazy enough as they are without changing things? We convince ourselves that conformity equals easy.
The Suchans’ approach to their decision of how to transport oneself from place to place, this one decision among so many, is refreshing. Instead of going for what is “easy” or “simple”, it embraces the categorical imperative and asks (and I’m paraphrasing): what would the world look like if what you do became a universal law? You can cut through a lot of complicated questions if you ask yourself that one first. If the established orthodoxy were to create universal laws that objectively led to a dismal future, well, the question of what to do might still be complicated, but at least it might be morally clear. Then you can decide to do the best you can. I sense this is what the Suchans are after.
In the end, I was reminded that not everything is complex. When asked, “do you have a favourite cycling route in town”? Evelyn, the six year old, answers for the family, “Biking to the park!”