WORDS & PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘We’ve been standing here for only three minutes,’ I exclaim to my TOQUE Partner Cai in amazement, ‘and over twenty cyclists have ridden past.’ I watch as another couple bikes cruise by – all safe from cars and trucks in a well-marked protected bike lane. ‘Now this,’ I emphasize, ‘is what I’d call a bike-friendly city.’ Just as I finish talking, the whirring noise of metal wheels on tracks grabs my attention.
I follow the sound and spot the ION gliding smoothly across King Street and toward
its next station at Waterloo Town Square. From there it will take passengers through scenic Waterloo Park and out towards the universities. ‘And look at that,’ I laugh aloud, ‘light rail public transit in the mix. It’s like we’re in some sort of public service announcement for future cities.’ Navigable cities. Green cities. Happy cities. And I’m all for it.
‘Well,’ Cai remarks, ‘what are we waiting for? Let’s join the action.’ And just like that, she hops expertly onto the bright orange e-scooter she’s just rented, presses the throttle, and joins the flow of riders heading up King toward some near or far destination or other. Workplace. Patio. Café. Whatever. Not wanting to be left behind, I swing a leg over my rented orange e-bike (because I have never learned to scoot), push down on the pedal with the lightest force, and propel forward – effortlessly – after Cai. Uptown Waterloo sure has come a long way since I grew up here – roaming these very same streets.
It’s mid-June on a Wednesday, and Cai and I have shot down ‘the seven’ from Guelph to spend a few wonderful hours Uptown. Our agenda for the day is wide open. Of course we’ve got a few stops we’d like to hit. Beertown for food and drinks. Old Goat Books for second-hand gems. The Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery for a quick peek in the gift shop. Ethel’s for a couple of pops up at the bar. Midnight Run café for americanos. Mostly, though, we’re here to give the new Region of Waterloo e-bike and e-scooter rental program a try. You’ve seen these sets of wheels around. Bright orange. Parked at virtual stations across Cambridge, Kitchener, and Waterloo since mid- April. And available for rent through a mobile app that’s quick to set up and load with money to pay your way.
We’d picked up our e-vehicles at Waterloo City Hall. Effortlessly. And now we’re part of this two-wheeled parade – and I’m enjoying every second of it. ‘I’ve got an idea,’ I shout to Cai over the wind in our ears, ‘follow me.’ I pull ahead, and in no time we’ve turned off King and onto Erb Street’s protected bike lane. Just before we pass the Dana Shortt Gourmet parking lot (perhaps the only time I’ll pass Dana’s place without stopping in for amazing prepared treats), I guide us onto the Waterloop, a paved multi-use trail emblazoned with painted centre line, and then onto the Spurline Trail – a well-marked, tree-lined rail trail that takes cyclists, scooter riders, walkers, joggers, and stroller pushers in and out of Uptown towards Kitchener.
Along the way I’m engaged and heartened by the plethora of wayfinding signs installed by the City of Waterloo that lets active trail users know where they are and how far away they are from various destinations across town (with arrows pointing out which direction to go). I read the nearest one: Erb Street – 0.1km; Bridgeport Road – 0.4km; Conestoga Mall – 5.0km. I’ve long argued that my current hometown, Guelph, should incorporate wayfinding systems just like this one in its downtown core. What a great way for a city to interact with its residents and visitors. Indeed, wayfinding systems are not only useful but also playful – generating curiosity and encouraging exploration and adventure. And it gets even better. On one of the signposts I note a metal plaque featuring an icon of a cassette tape together with a QR code. Intrigued, I pull off the trail, make my way closer, and discover that the code is for a ‘Trail Mix’ featuring local artists. On this particular mix: ‘Santa Barbara Pier’ by Sean Bertram and ‘Liquor’ by Paige Warner. I’m surprised that there are only two tracks on the mix until I realize that there are more mixes at different points along Waterloo’s intricate muti-use trail system – functioning as tasty aural treats along the way, encouraging folks to travel further to find more tunes. Talk about a city interacting with its citizens.
As Cai and I continue down the Spurline we pass many like-minded souls out for jogs, walks, and bike rides. A trio of young women walking strollers catches my attention for a photo. They’re keen to oblige my camera’s eye, and then keep moving. And we keep moving, too, until – just when I imagine we might cruise these e-vehicles forever – a loud pre-recorded voice emanates from both of our rides, announcing to us that we’re exiting the Uptown boundary and must turn back. At the same time, power to our e-rigs gradually shuts off. ‘I guess these things have GPS for geofencing,’ Cai remarks as her scooter slows to a crawl and then comes to a stop. ‘Looks like this is the end of the line,’ she adds with a laugh. ‘Headed in this direction, anyway.’
For the next few hours we use the Uptown fleet of e-bikes and e-scooters as our own personal means of transport – hopping from one to another as we skip across this favourite city core. Our first stop: Beertown for a late lunch. While I grab a ‘Beertown Big’ burger (two patties, smoked bacon, cheddar, lettuce, tomato, pickle, special sauce) and a ‘Farmhouse Limeade’ (Willbald gin, home brewed hibiscus tea, lime juice, simple syrup, splash of soda), Cai chooses the ‘New York Steak Frites’ (ten-ounce striploin, fries, chipotle aioli, chives) and a non-alc Erdinger.
After lunch we cruise down King, past such Uptown staples as King St Cycles, The Loop, S&V Uptown, Carry-On Comics and Books, the Princess Twin Cinemas (and Café and Sidewalk Beer Shop), Kinton Ramen, and more – before turning up Princess Street (converted into a charming pedestrian-only thoroughfare during these warmer months) past the Jane Bond and Loloan Lobby Bar, and towards
The Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery. If you haven’t been to this regional treasure, you’re missing out. Blessed with free admission, fantastically-curated exhibits, and an awesome gift shop, it’s the perfect site of repose along any route.
After the Gallery Cai and I make our way to Old Goat Books – located on King almost directly across the street from Ethel’s. Even if you’re not in the market for used books, this long- time Uptown establishment is worth a visit for its photogenic character alone. Overflowing with (seeming) teetering bookshelves straining to support the weight of thousands of used titles, Old Goat is a must-visit for fans of weighty reads, The Smiths, and like-minded ‘philosopher’ types. While Cai gets busy in the poetry section, I find delight shooting the place from all angles. And then it’s on to Ethel’s – another Uptown institution and the very definition of a ‘local’. I’ve been a patron for a while. In fact, Ethel’s is where I settled to watch Lennox Lewis beat Mike Tyson way back in 2002. I’ll tell you this much about the place: nothing’s changed. And that’s just awesome. Up at the bar, I put down a pint of Cowbell Cerveza, Cai enjoys something non-alcoholic, and we watch an inning of an afternoon Jays’ game on the small screen. It rarely gets more nostalgic than this.
For our last stop of our Uptown jaunt, Cai and I pop in at Midnight Run Café. As we both haven’t been here since the place was DVLB, we want to suss out its vibe. It’s still cool. Exposed brick walls. Lots of plants. Dark and moody. And americanos that are (still) on point. By this time the late afternoon is upon us and our home lives beckon. On our way back to Cai’s parked car, she tries out my e-bike. (I don’t dare do the same with her scooter.) The day’s been fun – and made so much more entertaining with these bright orange rides. Sure there are some hiccups with this regional rental program. Our e-vehicles yelled at us more than once for riding on the sidewalk (while we were firmly on the road), for instance. And my e-bike’s pedal may or may not have fallen off. And I’m not sure how much I would’ve enjoyed wearing a rental helmet had I not brought one of my own. But complaining about these slight issues isn’t the point of it all. Instead, it’s wonderful to see Uptown embrace forward thinking. Protected bike lanes. Multi- use trail systems. Trail mixes. And a fleet of rentable two-wheeled e-vehicles that will for sure bring a smile to the face of even the most cynical among us.
It’s true what sustainable transportation guru Robert Cevero once said: ‘Planning of the automobile city focuses on saving time. Planning for the accessible city, on the other hand, focuses on time well spent.’ Once Cai and I park our rides back near City Hall, each of us knows we’ll be back. To rent these e-rigs with friends, and family, and whoever else wants to enjoy one helluva day. And then again. In this navigable city. This green city.
This happy city.