Thursday 12 April 2018

Cathy Watts, Cycling Advocate

“I spent my working life getting one person who’d had a stroke to move,” Cathy Watts, Saskatoon Cycles, says. “Now I’m trying to get the whole city moving!”

As a physiotherapist working in the neurological and geriatric field and an avid cyclist since she was 8 years old, Cathy Watts has always advocated for health promotion and an active lifestyle: “I rode to university. I took my kids around town on my bike. My husband and I even go on cycling holidays.”

“I love Saskatoon,” Cathy says. “It’s the perfect city for fabulous bike lanes and we’ve already accomplished so much. But there’s so much more that can be done. I want to make Saskatoon a safe place for my grandchildren, who are already proficient cyclists, to ride their bikes.”

Cathy’s underlying optimism is a key ingredient in her success as a cycling advocate. Saskatoon Cycles’ progress in less than 10 years is phenomenal.

Saskatoon Cycles
In 2009, Sean Shaw initiated monthly cycling discussions. As the group grew, the organizers decided to formalize the arrangement and Saskatoon Cycles was incorporated in 2010. Cathy Watts has been chair or co-chair ever since.

Maintaining an advocacy organization is never an easy task. Cathy underlines the importance of establishing your purpose and direction through vision and mission statements. “Then you can see a path,” she says.

Another challenge is building your membership and maintaining a strong, stable board with both time and skills. The group’s fundraising efforts have paid off and they have recently hired a part-time operations manager who will focus on communications, fundraising, and event planning, and Cathy believes that will make a big difference.

Saskatoon Cycles’ principal focus is on advocacy; however, they also hold events as a way to draw in new members. Long before the City of Saskatoon was promoting the winter city concept, Saskatoon Cycles was drawing crowds to winter cycling events, including a moveable feast, speakers, and rides.

The organization also operates the Bike Valet, parking 6300 bikes at 8 festivals last summer. In addition to providing a service and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the Bike Valet builds community. Volunteers include new Canadians, people with mental health issues, and individuals who take holiday time in order to help out. “It’s become a small family unit,” Cathy says.

Four Steps to Successful Advocacy
Cathy believes successful advocacy has four key ingredients.

1. Encourage, Be Patient, Stay Positive. Cathy believes that the most effective approach to lobbying on a municipal level is to encourage, be patient, and remain positive. She recognizes that the downtown bike lanes aren’t perfect and the choice of 23rd Street, which passes through the bus terminal, was a compromise, but believes that if you do nothing but complain, you won’t get anything. “We have to support the City planners for what they’ve done with a very small budget.”

The approach has paid off as Saskatoon Cycles has also invested the time to develop strong relationships with local administrators and officials. In recent years, they’ve partnered with Saskatoon Police Service to hand out bicycle lights and to encourage people to register their bikes as a theft prevention measure. In addition, Cathy isn’t afraid to speak out strongly – but she does it in private, not in public.

2. Provide Expertise. One of the first major events organized by Saskatoon Cycles was a Cycling Summit. The organization pulled together 24 experienced cyclists and invited Kay Teschke of Vancouver to talk about the need for safe cycling infrastructure. The group spent a day designing safe routes to downtown Saskatoon from all parts of the city. A City Councillor and administrator attended the meeting and the maps were taken into consideration in preparing the City’s Active Transportation Plan. More recently, Saskatoon Cycles provided City Council with a review of the City’s cycling bylaw prepared by a pro bono lawyer and law student.

3. Establish a Plan. A recent workshop provided Cathy with a template for planning an effective advocacy campaign. The template recognizes that organizations have limited capacity and must use it efficiently to maximize impact, guiding them through the process of identifying their goal, capacity, and allies.

4. Work Together. Saskatoon Cycles was an active partner in Livable YXE prior to the last municipal election. The group engaged candidates in a discussion about the factors that ensure a positive quality of life for city residents, publishing the results of a survey that included questions about everything from housing and climate change to active transportation.

Active Transportation
Cathy and Saskatoon Cycles are key players in advocating for municipal policies that incorporate active transportation into all municipal decisions, addressing the underlying issues of poor road design and car-focussed transportation planning. Their efforts reduce the number of unnecessary deaths and injuries on our streets and promote a healthy lifestyle for all our citizens.