Waterloo Region Record

Legacy of local cycling program lives on after pandemic closure


What does it mean for a child to learn how to ride a bicycle?

For some, it’s freedom and independence. For others, it’s a first taste of competence or access to a new social network. And sometimes, after years of embarrassment, it’s vindication.

Over the course of seven years, the team behind Cycling Into the Future trained 6,501 students across Waterloo Region in its cycling program, gave out 592 bicycles and 671 helmets, and taught 266 kids how to ride for the first time in their life.

“When you learn how to ride when you’re five, it’s exciting and it can be transformative. But when you’re older — when you’re10 or11— it means even more,” said program founder Philip Martin. “That’s the statistic that I’m the proudest of: for every single one of those kids (who learned for the first time), that’s a pretty incredible thing.”

The program was aimed at teaching kids across the region how to ride safely in their neighbourhoods. After building into a large not-forprofit with a board, executive director and contracted staff, the program ended in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Its absence has left a hole for kids across the region who would benefit from the education offered through the program, and the vast network of resources it provided.

Now, as Student Transportation Services of Waterloo Region attempts to reinvent the program with new municipal and community partners, its founder is reflecting on his postretirement project, reconciling the guilt that came with its closure with the pride that came from the thousands of kids it helped through the years.

“It probably took me a year to really come to terms with it. I went through the stages of grief, although I think I went through them backwards,” Martin said from his home in Kitchener.

“I think my initial response was that the doors were opening in my world and there was a whole bunch of things I could do. So I started with acceptance, and then I went backwards with regret and anger and all those stages of grief.”

Martin’s involvement with cycling instruction began during his time as an elementary teacher with an unlikely cycling connection to Terry Fox.

When a classroom commitment to complete the rest of Fox’s wouldbe run from Thunder Bay to the Pacific Ocean needed a boost, Martin

decided to let the kids bike the distance. But when the students were leaving school one day, he watched a near-collision on Weber Street as a student pulled out of the parking lot. The moment really stuck with him, and he realized there was a major gap in cycling education for young people.

When he retired in 2012, he started formulating ideas for his own program. In 2014, he launched the business, and offered the program in six schools. It doubled by the end of 2015, and in 2016, he pivoted to turn it into a not-for-profit.

The program grew. It was funded by registration costs, but other funding partnerships meant that anyone who couldn’t afford the training would be covered. It quickly became one of the most comprehensive cycling training programs in the country.

Training included a six-part program of classroom education, tuneup instruction, flat-tire repair, practice riding on the schoolyard, an on-road training session and a final assessment.

“Oftentimes, programs like this are geared toward well-to-do schools or because there might be a higher demand, but we wanted to make sure we could work in the neighbourhoods where there isn’t a lot of money flowing around,” he said.

Through a network of partners, bikes and bike helmets were given to students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford them.

It was the culmination of work from a lot of people who gave their time and energy to build something different, said Martin. They were working toward a goal of training every student in the region in Grade 5 and Grade 6, a total of about 7,000 students per year.

Then the pandemic hit, and like many operations that required inperson access, the program came to a grinding halt.

Unable to go into schools, Martin said they attempted different community options, but they just didn’t yield the same participation. The funding model started to break down, and the board faced a difficult decision on its future. “We realized that if we don’t do something, we are going to start going into debt, unless we have some major group bail us out,” said Martin.

It wasn’t unanimous, but the board eventually voted to cease operations in 2021.

Now, more than a year and a half has gone by since that decision. Martin still believes it was the best decision they could make at the time.

It’s been a lesson on the ways we measure success, and the importance of perspective. He considers the many gut-wrenching stories of collisions that didn’t happen because of the safety lessons, or the kids who never would have owned a bike if not for the program.

Part of his acceptance also comes from watching how the region’s student transportation service has been working to fill the gap.

It acquired a third-party consulting company to review the program and develop a business plan to replace it.

“We have not resurrected Cycling Into the Future yet, but we are working with municipal partners to create a case for a replacement cycling education system,” school travel planning supervisor Leslie Maxwell told the Waterloo Region District School Board at a meeting this week.

“We’re working on it. We’re not there yet.”

It’s uncertain what the eventual program will look like exactly, but Martin said he’s encouraged to see the energy picking up.

Through the years, funding partnerships with the Region of Waterloo and different municipalities existed, and he hopes they once again see the importance of this type of education.

“This is a societal good, and it’s something that we all benefit from,” he said. “Having intelligent, competent cyclists on the road who are trained to use the infrastructure — I think this deserves consideration at the public realm.”






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