Last Friday, I moved into a new apartment in downtown Hamilton.
Most people reacted to this decision with a mix of shock, laughter, and questions about my sanity. When I told my mother I’d hired a company to lug a queen-sized bed, an oversized couch, a huge bookcase and a couple of chairs through our salty streets by bike, she erupted in laughter until she almost couldn’t breathe and started mumbling something about a rickshaw.
When I told Abram Bergen, the president and founder of The Hammer Active Alternative Transportation Co-op (THAAT), that most people couldn’t believe his company could pull off the move, he wasn’t surprised. But since Bergen started doing large-scale moves back in 2011, he’s been in the business of proving people wrong. Bergen and the six other members of the co-op run Hamilton's first large-scale bicycle moving company.
“A lot of our first year was just going out, talking to people and proving it could be done,” Bergen said. “Once people saw it, then they started to realize I can actually do it.”
And THAAT did do it — quickly and cheaply. I paid just under $150 for the move, door to door.
“Now, we’re trying to move from ‘one crazy guy can do all this stuff’ to ‘we collectively can do all this stuff,’” Bergen said. “As a society, we don’t need to use the automobile for everything in the city.”
A layoff and an opportunity
Cycling isn’t Bergen’s first love. In fact, he started out in long haul trucking for a big, multinational company and worked there for over six years. But trucking doesn’t do much for your health (or your waistline), so he picked up cycling to get back in shape.
His interest was piqued, and so he started researching all the possibilities as to what everyday things could be done on a bicycle.
'I’m hopeful that if we get a progressive mayor that hopefully we can actually have connected infrastructure.' - Abram Bergen, THAAT Co-op
And then he got laid off.
“I was downsized — and that was the perfect opportunity to go ahead and launch this thing,” he said.
Bergen registered the company in the same month he was laid off, and on April 28, 2011, he carried his first load: a little box of print materials from the McMaster student union. But the small loads didn’t last long.
“The whole idea was to move up to 500 pounds of goods, Bergen said. “We didn’t want to fill the space of bike messengers.”
Local bakery Cake and Loaf was one of the first companies to get on board, using THAAT to move goods to the Ottawa Street Market, do random deliveries and more recently, to deliver to the new Mustard Seed Co-op.
“We try to be as environmentally friendly as possible, and it was sustainable delivery,” said Josie Rudderham, one of the co-owners at Cake and Loaf. “They’re ambitious guys, for sure. They have this vision and they make it work.”
“Plus, they’re kind of Tetris masters. I was impressed by how much they can fit on a bike.”
Other local companies like Coffeecology and Urbanicity have since jumped on board, looking for ways to distribute their products while cutting down on emissions.
A sustainable cycling network
Lower costs and greater environmental sustainability are driving the business model, Bergen says. Now, he’s waiting for better local cycling infrastructure in Hamilton to make trips easier.
“We have a lot left to do. The cycling master plan looks good on paper, but the implementation is always patchwork. We put little lanes down that then are not connected to any infrastructure,” he said. “I’m hopeful that if we get a progressive mayor that hopefully we can actually have connected infrastructure. I’m heartened by the Canon bike lane going in. That’s going to hugely open up what kind of people will feel comfortable and safe to ride.”
In September, councillors voted to separate one lane from Sherman to Bay Street so bicycles can travel in both directions on the lower-city street. The decision came after a campaign from a community group called Yes We Cannon, and the three-year pilot project will likely cost taxpayers about $600,000 to implement.
“Right now it’s mostly guys like me — males between 25 and 45 tend to be the ones who feel safe in traffic. But to have a truly cycle friendly city you want children, women, the elderly, all out there riding,” he said.
“In terms of transportation, I managed to see things differently. I’m going to be an active writer of this narrative. It needs to be done, no one else is doing it — so I’m going to.”