by Theresa Peluso

“A bicycle’s performance, in both biological and mechanical terms, is extraordinarily efficient. In terms of the amount of energy a person must expend to travel a given distance, investigators have calculated it to be the most efficient self-powered means of transportation.” (Wikipedia: Bicycle Performance)

Although the first prototype of the modern bicycle wasn’t invented until 1863 (by a French metalworker, who added rotary cranks and pedals to the front-wheel hub of Baron Karl von Drais’s original 1817 design), the bicycle has since gone on to change the world. It became a symbol of female emancipation in the late 1800s because it gave women newfound mobility, enabling one woman, Annie Londonderry, in 1895, to even bicycle around the world. The invention of the automobile in the early 1900s diminished the enthusiasm of adults in America for cycling as a means of transportation, although it remained popular with children. In Europe, however, adults continued to use the bicycle for racing, commuting and “cyclotouring”, and do so to this day. In the late 1960s the bicycle regained popularity in the U.S., following an increased awareness of its value in providing exercise and energy-efficient transportation. Sales of adult bikes in the U.S. doubled between 1960 and 1970, and doubled again in the first half of the 1970s.

I was interested to see how this renewed interest in cycling is influencing our community, so I contacted Jeff Mills to find out. If you’ve lived in Mississippi Mills for any length of time, you’ll have heard of Jeff. Although Jeff is well known as Coordinator, Community Development, for the Mills Community Support Corporation, he is equally well-known for his enthusiasm for cycling. Not wanting to keep a good thing to himself, Jeff has succeeded in motivating increasing numbers of residents to take to their bikes, and has made Mississippi Mills a bicycling destination for out-of-town aficionados. Jeff happily took me up on my invitation to interview him about his passion for cycling, and our exchange is printed below.

Q. Why are you so enthusiastic about cycling? When did you start, and why?

A. I cycled like most kids in Canada when I was young, then at 14 bought my first motorcycle. Subtle peer pressure and the lure of power take boys away from self-propulsion and lead them to motorized pursuits. There were times that I went back to cycling for a while, when 10-speeds and mountain bikes were popular in their early days; however, it was in the year 2000 that I truly rediscovered cycling. It was a difficult time in my life when my business partner and I shut down a wonderful business; we both lost money and were very stressed. We loved our little travel business and its quick demise was sudden, and caused by factors outside our control. We were in mourning, didn’t have jobs and had time on our hands. I contacted another good friend who mountain-biked most days up the 9th line around Mount Pakenham in Cedar Hill. I asked him if he’d take me for a ride at my pace. I found that the physical exercise was exhilarating and had a great effect on my mental well-being. When I rode, I found that jumbled thoughts got sorted. Not only did I feel better physically, my stress levels decreased, I became more mindful, and my general mental health improved.

Also, it put me in touch with nature. You notice so much on your bike – how the landscape changes with the seasons; and also, all the different kinds of birds and their calls and where they hide out. Cycling became more and more a part of my day; a generally quiet time of reflection, a time of creativity. My best ideas present themselves while I ride. I highly recommend cycling to anyone working in creative pursuits.

Q. How has Mississippi Mills changed since you first started to increase the profile of bicycling in our community by proposing to designate the month of June as Bicycle Month?

A. June 2014 is our sixth year of Mississippi Mills Bicycle Month. This month-long advocacy event is not a means in itself, but a means to a more bicycle-friendly, healthy, active community.

So much has happened since the first year we organized Bicycle Month. The Town of Mississippi Mills has been very supportive, awarding us municipal grants each year, and town staff have been very helpful. We now run a wide variety of bicycle-themed events, from rides throughout Mississippi Mills to sold-out concerts in the Old Town Hall, bird-watching bike tours, bicycle rodeos for kids, anything and everything bicycle. By using encouragement and friendly competition, the reach of Bicycle Month goes beyond our boundaries to include all of Lanark and Renfrew Counties through the Silver Chain Challenge. This friendly challenge pits community against community and county against county to see which is the most bicycled community.

Our philosophy is all about encouraging people to get on their bikes and be more active, and it’s working! It is gradual but definite. Bicycle Month is working, more families are riding, and we’ve become a destination for cyclists from out of town. Although only a little over 12,000 in population, Mississippi Mills is seen as a leader in this realm. We haven’t actually measured the change in bicycle use in our town over the last five years, but more and more people can be seen cycling – it’s become a more normalized activity. We now have a bicycle shop in town, which is evidence that there are more people on bikes.

The town sees the trend, and has stepped up with a commitment to create an Active Transportation Plan that includes a Complete Streets policy. (“Complete Streets” is a transportation policy and design approach that requires streets to be planned, designed, operated, and maintained to enable safe, convenient and comfortable travel and access for users of all ages and abilities, regardless of their mode of transportation.) In addition, our town has just issued an RFP – request for proposals for a Transportation Plan that includes a multi-modal Active Transportation Plan.

On May 29 and 30 Mississippi Mills will host the first Eastern Ontario Active Transportation Summit at the Old Town Hall. Partners include the Town of Mississippi Mills, the Health Unit, the Healthy Communities Partnership, Renfrew County Physical Activities Partnership, and Mississippi Mills Bicycle Month. Our aim is to bring together all citizens interested in good planning, health, and economic development, to discuss how to make our communities pedestrian- and bike-friendly. We are also in touch with Ottawa – they have thousands of cyclists – to explore ways to encourage a more bicycle-friendly community. Basically, we need to plan for roads as a shared resource. They are a means to get PEOPLE where they need to go, however they choose to travel.

Q. What is your vision of cycling as it pertains to Mississippi Mills; that is, where would you like our community to be 10 years from now? In 20 years? How could we make this vision happen?

A. Communities that are well planned and that are bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly tend to be healthier, more active, and have a greater quality of life. Homes that are close to bike lanes and trails are worth considerably more than ones that are not. To ensure the health of our children, we have to create towns that encourage physical activity. I’m not only talking about the built environment of our town parks and school yards. All public spaces, including our roads, must take into account all users, of all ages and abilities. As already mentioned, our town is working on an Active Transportation Plan with a Complete Streets Policy. This is a major step forward from car-based planning to people-based planning. We have to get over our fixation on the car, parking for cars, and only real estate on the road for cars. Years ago someone applauded the efforts of Bicycle Month by saying “anything that makes my town more like Europe is okay by me.” What people crave are spaces designed on a human scale. A large percentage of people say they would cycle and walk if they felt safer. It is time to make our towns work more for people; cars have been first for too long.

Ten years from now I’d like to see Mississippi Mills recognized as the first small town in Canada to reach gold level status as a Bicycle Friendly Community, a program of Share the Road. Remember a time when we all rode our bikes to school? Wouldn’t it be great if this became a priority? The counties of Lanark and Renfrew are in negotiation with Canadian Pacific to create a rail trail from Smiths Falls to Mattawa. I hope that sections can be opened within five years. As one of the closest communities to Ottawa, the economic potential for this trail has great implications for Mississippi Mills. Our whole region stands to benefit. We’ll play host to thousands of visitors a year. Other examples in Ontario and Quebec show that if you build it they will come.

People will visit, and people will want to move here. The days of chasing smokestacks (factories) have come to an end. The creative economy will carry us forward and a bicycle-friendly, healthy, active community blends perfectly together. We will enjoy an unparalleled quality of life and a sustainable community. Twenty years from now, who knows?

Q. How would increasing the number of cyclists affect Mississippi Mills’ natural environment? Would it reduce car use (and carbon emissions)? Would it further enhance the perception of our community as a place to enjoy nature — and would this encourage appreciation and protection of woodlands, wetlands, and farmlands, and discourage fragmentation of our natural areas? Would it get people off their ATVs?

A. Yes to all of the above. I’m not sure about ATVs. Many farmers find them to be efficient tools for their work, so I’m certainly not opposed to them. I’ve even borrowed my neighbours’ ATV when bringing in my own firewood. I don’t know anyone who uses an ATV for recreation, so I can’t speculate what it would take to get someone to trade in their ATV for a bicycle. That said, people want a healthy fulfilled life. Safe roads and accessible non-motorized trails are a good start to community and personal health.

Q. We all know how our winters are long, cold, and snowy. Also, many of us live out in the country, or have to commute long distances to get to work and school. How can we keep cycling regularly under these conditions?

A. Some people do cycle year-round. I try to bike as often as possible, but when the weather is really terrible, I bike indoors. I put my bike on a trainer stand, so it ends up being like a stationary bike, and I pedal away. If you cycle at night, make sure your bike has really good lights. If you have to commute long distances, you can drive part-way, park your car, and then cycle the rest of the way. Sometimes if I have a meeting in Smiths Falls or late at night, I have to take my car. If you live in town, think about using your bike instead of your car to do your errands, if possible. The important thing is to try to incorporate cycling into your daily routine, and make it something you’re comfortable with. You’ll soon find that its therapeutic value is second to none. It makes you live in the present, in contact with nature, because you’re constantly watching the road ahead of you and aware of your surroundings. You end your ride with a clear mind, and insights and creative solutions to those nagging problems we often have. There’s no such thing as a bad bike ride!

Q. If we’re not already cycling, how can we get started?

A. Keep in mind that cycling is accessible on whatever level you want. It’s accessible to people of all ages and abilities. The Public Health department is encouraging children to cycle to and from school. and to make it part of their daily physical activity. If you’re an adult with free time during the day, you can join the Rimm Rovers. These people, mostly retirees, meet at different coffee shops for a ride. They start their cycling routine as soon as weather permits, and continue until around Thanksgiving. You can contact John Peters (almontecarver@gmail.com) for more information. Or, like I did, you can ask a friend who cycles if you can accompany them to give you moral support and encouragement. Don’t forget to enquire about the upcoming Bicycle Month this June (less than two months away!)! We have a huge variety of events, with different access points, for all ages, interests, and abilities. Check the Town of Mississippi Mills website exploremississippimills.ca, or our facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/mmbicyclemonthpage, for more information. Get your bike to Almonte Bicycle Works for a spring tune-up (they are already getting busy), then get out and enjoy the pleasure of two wheels.

Well, I think Jeff Mills has convinced us that, if we haven’t already done so, we need to make cycling a regular part of our lives. How can we not take advantage of all the health, social and environmental benefits it offers? Don’t delay! Get on that bike now!