As part of Peterborough GreenUP's first annual Shifting Gears challenge in April 2004, "Paddling Puppeteers" Glen Caradus and Donald Fraser are interviewed by CHEX News Watch in 2004 to encourage the community to move towards more sustainable modes of transportation. (Photo: GreenUP)

As part of Peterborough GreenUP’s first annual Shifting Gears challenge in April 2004, “Paddling Puppeteers” Glen Caradus and Donald Fraser are interviewed by CHEX News Watch in 2004 to encourage the community to move towards more sustainable modes of transportation. (Photo: GreenUP)

By Ashley Burnie, GreenUP Program Coordinator

For two decades, the Shifting Gears month-long May Challenge has championed sustainable transportation in the Peterborough region, encouraging residents to choose walking, biking, public transit, or telecommuting over solo car rides. As we mark the 20th anniversary of Shifting Gears in 2024, we reflect on the campaign’s journey and its remarkable achievements.

The Beginnings: A National Movement

A promotional flyer for the 2009 Shifting Gears May Challenge. Shifting Gears has been supporting active and efficient transportation for 20 years this May. (Photo: GreenUP)

A promotional flyer for the 2009 Shifting Gears May Challenge. Shifting Gears has been supporting active and efficient transportation for 20 years this May. (Photo: GreenUP)

The roots of Shifting Gears trace back to the early 1990s when sustainable transportation challenges began to emerge across Canadian cities. The first notable challenge was organized in 1991 by cyclists in the Ottawa-Hull region, drawing participation from major corporations like Bell and Environment Canada. That same year, a similar initiative took place in Calgary, spearheaded by the Energy Resources Conservation Board during “Environmental Week”, where departments competed to track the most sustainable trips. By 1995, “Calgary’s Challenge” as it became known, had grown to include 25 workplaces, primarily from the oil and gas sector.

These early efforts kicked off a national movement. In 2001, a federal grant from the Sustainable Action Fund enabled the campaign to expand nationwide. By 2004, over 61,000 people were participating in the commuter challenge, with notable communities like Winnipeg, Central Okanagan, Nanaimo, and Whitehorse joining in.

Shifting Gears Comes to Peterborough

Shimano staff members assist morning commuters to tune-up their bikes during the first annual Shifting Gears May Challenge in April 2004. Shimano was a supporting sponsor. (Photo: GreenUP)

Shimano staff members assist morning commuters to tune-up their bikes during the first annual Shifting Gears May Challenge in April 2004. Shimano was a supporting sponsor. (Photo: GreenUP)

Inspired by the national momentum, Jackie Donaldson, then Program Coordinator at GreenUP, saw potential for a similar initiative in Peterborough. With funding from the Laidlaw Foundation and support from an organizing committee, the first Shifting Gears Challenge launched in April 2004. Back then, workplace champions manually tallied trips, sharing results by hand delivery or fax. “Peterborough is a friendly town, but it can also be a bit competitive,” recalls Jackie, who is currently the Hub Coordinator of Green Economy Peterborough. The program was about shifting people’s perspective on daily transportation, hence the name “Shifting Gears,” and it aimed to garner friendly competition between workplaces.

Early program features included morning bike check-ups for commuters, organized with help from Shimano and volunteers. Sue Sauve, one of the early organizers and Peterborough’s first Transportation Demand Management (TDM) Planner, recalls moving the April challenge later into the season, “It snowed for one of our first bike check-ups and the next year we relented and picked May for Shifting Gears. In the first few years, we had bike check-ups timed for the morning commute and we often had 6-8 bicycles lined up at a time.” The enthusiasm for sustainable commuting was palpable in the community.

Evolving and Growing

Participants enjoying nice weather in April 2004, the first year of the Shifting Gears challenge, at one of the campaign’s regular bike pop-ups. Another event during the month featured snow, prompting GreenUP to move the annual challenge to May. (Photo: GreenUP)

Participants enjoying nice weather in April 2004, the first year of the Shifting Gears challenge, at one of the campaign’s regular bike pop-ups. Another event during the month featured snow, prompting GreenUP to move the annual challenge to May. (Photo: GreenUP)

Initially, Shifting Gears mirrored other workplace challenges nationwide, encouraging organizations to compete in tracking active and sustainable trips. Early participants included Siemens, Peterborough Regional Health Centre, Fleming College, Trent University, and the Ministry of Natural Resources.

Memorable events, including lunch-time puppet shows by local performers Glen Caradus and Donald Fraser as “the Paddling Puppeteers,” creatively promoted active transportation while addressing broader environmental issues. “It was goofy and slightly adult, but lots of fun,” Jackie remembers. “We were talking about bigger issues than just transportation. At that time in Peterborough we were having about 20 summer days of terrible air quality from coal power plants. The puppet show was part of a larger speaker series that informed people about environmental issues and how they intersect with health.”

Indeed, through the late 2000’s and early 2010’s these conversations began to create new and exciting allies and opportunities in the world of active and sustainable travel. Downtown retailers, local tourism and other organizations began to pay attention and support active and sustainable transportation.

Shifting Gears’ impact grew through partnerships, notably with B!KE: The Peterborough Community Bike Shop, founded in 2007. Together, they began to offer workshops to empower new bike commuters, fostering a community of well-prepared cyclists.

The Peterborough Bicycle Advisory Committee (P-BAC) was also founded in the early 2010s, with a mission to foster a culture of cycling in Peterborough City and County through education, advocacy and events. P-BAC would go on to host a number of Peterborough Cycling Summit Events; where professionals, community members and interested stakeholders could learn and discuss issues that matter.

Looking Ahead

Peterborough’s Wild Rock Outfitters were the winners of the Shifting Gears challenge in May 2008. The business continues to be dedicated a Shifting Gears participant and active travel advocate in the community. (Photo: GreenUP)

Peterborough’s Wild Rock Outfitters were the winners of the Shifting Gears challenge in May 2008. The business continues to be dedicated a Shifting Gears participant and active travel advocate in the community. (Photo: GreenUP)

With a host of allies, and ever-changing perspectives on what a healthy city looks like, Peterborough now finds itself in the present day. In our growing community, Shifting Gears continues to engage new active and sustainable commuters, like Anne Pasek, who has been participating in the month-long challenge since 2021.

When asked about her motivation for joining the May challenge, Anne reflected that “I signed up because I am a strong proponent of active transportation, both because I study and teach about climate change (and to solve that one, we’re really going to need to decarbonize transportation) and because I’m a lifelong cyclist, and I know that there’s power, and safety, in numbers.”

Shifting Gears newcomer Lorelei Wilkinson, explains her enthusiasm for the challenge including “Wins all around – helping the environment, increasing fitness while getting from A to B, and being a part of a longstanding community initiative…I was happy to log my first week, knowing that I pushed to do my best within the realities and challenges of the week.”

Lorelei recognizes that it has been a team effort: “I’d like to shout out each and every person who has championed cycling in Peterborough. Your efforts have brought us better trails, awareness on cycling safety and this fun program! I hope we can continue to help build these frameworks for this and future generations.”

As Shifting Gears celebrates 20 years, it stands as a testament to the power of community-driven initiatives to promote sustainable transportation. The campaign’s success is a collective achievement, thanks to the efforts of dedicated organizers, participants, and advocates. With ongoing support and enthusiasm, Peterborough is poised to continue leading the way in creating a healthier, more sustainable future for all.

Join Shifting Gears in celebrating our 20th season at Nicholls Oval Friday March 31st from 6:30- 9:30 PM for a free bike-in movie and workplace awards celebration. For more information and to register click here.