Not long after the pandemic arrived, David Shelnutt, also known as “The Biking Lawyer“, an attorney, cycling advocate and anti-racism activist connected two seemingly unrelated groups: Those needing support and assistance getting things from place to place in Toronto, and regular cyclists wanting to find a way to help others. The result was The Bike Brigade. This organization connects non-profits and individuals with an Internet-connected army of volunteer cyclists willing to help do anything from deliver essentials to those in need, deliver food to homeless shelters, or even marshal anti-racism protests.
A few times a week, volunteers receive an email letting them know what’s coming up and where they might be able to help. On Sunday, I received this email:
Ever since the food bank I volunteer at minimized their volunteer needs back in March, I’ve been looking for ways to actively help others. This was a perfect opportunity. There’s a bit of backstory to this one as well.
FoodShare is an organization dedicated to helping people get access to healthy food across our city. They distribute “Good Food Boxes” to those in need and sell them to those who want to buy them as well. Their Executive Director, Paul Taylor, had gone to a protest after the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a woman of colour killed during a police encounter. After that he said:
And so I find myself outside my building on one of the hottest days of the year, in cycling kit and ready to go, trailer hooked up to my bike.
Sage took this photo and then flees inside. While 32°C makes me tremendously happy, she was threatening to melt and so off she went.
The ride with a trailer, even empty, is a bit slower and takes a bit of thought. I no longer am riding an agile bike that can quickly filter through traffic, I’m almost ten feet long and wider besides. The extra weight is noticeable as it the wind resistance. Even so, I manage to keep a steady 20 km/hr most of the way. One thing I particularly like about having a trailer is that I feel even safer on the road. I may not be as agile but I’m more visible. It also looks very much like a trailer a child would ride in and nobody wants to hit one of those so I’m given lots of space.
The ride downtown is surprising for me. I haven’t been to the west end of Toronto in months and I haven’t been on a bike there in a couple of years. Since then things have changed. New bike lanes have cropped up on Bloor Street in Yorkville where there used to be none, University Avenue has them as well. In fact, most of my ride is on some form of infrastructure. It makes me extremely happy.
As I ride through Yorkville, one of the most wealthy areas of town, I see people happily having dinner and drinks on patios. If you didn’t know better – that there was nobody allowed to eat indoors – you might think things are back to normal post-pandemic life. We’re still not there, though. On the other hand, things have noticeably improved. Today our new case count in Ontario was 112 – down from the hundreds a day we were seeing in April. We now have two hospitals in the city whose ICUs are completely empty of COVID-19 patients. We’re doing well but we’re not out of the woods. To paraphrase what our Premier said yesterday, we have to be careful because we need only look south of the border to see what happens when you’re not.
I pull up to the Biking Lawyer’s office and there are 5-6 other cyclists there. Outside volunteers are carrying out boxes of produce. Some are emptying the boxes into panniers, others are putting them on racks strapped down with bungee cords. I have signed up to bring five boxes with me and am disappointed when the first box comes out. I can’t even get it through the opening in the top of the trailer. But not to worry – it turns out that inside the box are plastic bags full of produce. I take the bags out and stack them inside, and five fit perfectly.
And off I go. I’ve got a text message from the dispatcher with the names and phone numbers of five people whom I’m going to see. Before I left I made a GPS route for my watch to guide me to all of their homes.
It is after the worst of rush hour so traffic has become even lighter after I start off. I’m a little nervous. I’ve not done deliveries before. Will I do it right? Will people be nice to me or irritated if I get something wrong. The answers, though, are not important. I’ve got a job ahead of me and I am going to get it done.
The bike feels even more heavy and cumbersome now with five large boxes’ worth of carrots, potatoes, bananas, onions, and greens in them. It takes longer to get up to speed and, perhaps more importantly, it takes longer to slow down also. I’m conscious of this as I interact with traffic. While I’m normally one of the faster riders in traffic, today with an extra 60-70 pounds of weight, I’m one of the slowest. It feels nice to take the city at a leisurely pace. There’s time to enjoy the weather, to look around and to people watch.
The route takes me on a mix of residential streets and busy ones. When I stop I put on a mask and ring the bell for my dropoff. Usually we don’t get closer than 10 feet, exchange a wave and I go back out to my bike to call the next person to let them know I’m on the way. But with each stop I drop off over ten pounds of fresh food. For the person or family receiving it that little effort makes a big difference.
The more I deliver the lighter my load becomes and soon I’m all done. Between all of the volunteers, we’ve delivered 125 boxes of food to people in just a few hours. The effort required on my part was minimal. It was far less strenuous even than a normal bike ride I might do for fitness.
All told it takes me just under two hours from the time I leave our apartment to the time I get back. As I pull in to my driveway I drink the last of my water. I’m hot and sweaty but also feel satisfied. I didn’t just have a bike ride today, I did a bit of work besides.
Yet again I’m reminded the power of just doing something. Whether it be donating even a small amount or volunteering a little time and effort, these little things make a huge difference. Many major changes are made not by superheroes but by people like you and me taking a little bit of our otherwise-free time to go do some good in the world. It may not sound like much or even seem like much but if one in ten people gave just an hour a month that would be 780 million hours of work. For comparison, the Empire State Building, long one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, was built with seven million hours of work. That’s right – with just one in ten people in the world giving an hour a month we could build over 100 Empire State Buildings a month (forgetting about skill for a minute…) Since we’ve already got one of those, and that’s surely enough, what should we do with that huge potential?