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Meet Peter Cheung, MassBike’s ‘Advocate of the Year’

Peter Cheung with a ghost bike memorial to Darryl Willis, who was killed in Harvard Square in August 2020.

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If you ride a bike in the Boston area, odds are pretty good you've run into Peter Cheung: he's often leading the pack for large group rides like the Ride for Black Lives and the Boston Bike Party, and he's also the person behind many of the region's ghost bike memorials to the victims of traffic violence.

Cheung, a videographer by trade, has been also busy this fall documenting Boston's many new protected bike lanes this fall with filmed-by-bike videos, like this one:

Earlier this month, at its virtual annual meeting, MassBike honored Cheung as its "Advocate of the Year."

"I’ve known Peter for years, and I also consider him a good friend," said Galen Mook, executive director of MassBike, in a phone conversation with StreetsblogMASS. "He’s a multifaceted gem of an advocate – his celebration at Bike Party, his advocacy of public meetings, and the purely emotional side of the Ghost Bike memorials – he’s brilliant at all of them."

StreetsblogMASS interviewed Peter Cheung a few days after his recognition at the MassBike annual meeting. The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:

StreetsblogMass: We're big fans of all the videos you've been posting of Boston's new bike lanes this fall. What’s your videography background?

In my day job, I’m a videographer. I've been doing video production for about 25 years; I worked for a full service ad agency about 22 years, doing a lot of concert videos and music videos. More recently I've been freelancing, so if anyone reading this needs video work, they should get in touch!

What’s your setup for filming while you’re on a bike?

I have a GoPro mounted on a gimbal, which I hold in my hand. I could mount in on my helmet, but then it only points where my head points, and I need to look around when I'm riding. If I hold it in my hand, the camera’s floating, I can get shots from a high angle, low angle, or looking around 360 degrees.  With a helmet cam you can’t do that.

I usually ride my commuter/touring city bike, and I have a frame bag right below me so I can ride and film: I just pull out my camera and stow it back in the bag when I'm done.

Then post-production, I do color correction and treatment to make the videos a lot more appealing. Everyone watches movies; people know what looks good. The trick is to have smooth flowing camera work and vibrant colors with good exposure. And then to have a good subject, which is the new protected bike lanes.

How did you get into bike advocacy?

Well, just as a little bit of background about me: I’m married with 2 kids, who are teenagers now, and I live in Jamaica Plain.

But I was born and raised in Aruba, my mom still lives there and I have other family there. Being from Aruba, and Asian, I speak five languages: Chinese, Spanish, English, Dutch (because Aruba is a Dutch colony), and Papiamento, which is a native language, like a Creole Spanish language spoken in the Caribbean.

I came to Boston University for college, then opened a recording studio called Downtown Recorders that was in the Cyclorama building in the South End. That’s where the Pixies recorded Doolittle. I wasn’t part of the production, they just came in and rented my place.

After 6 years I sold the studio - this was in ‘96 - I had old analog tapes and old tube mikes and B3 organs, all the old school stuff, but everything was turning digital. The tech was changing, so I got out of the business and went to work for a competitor, did more recording, but started getting more into video production. I worked as a grip, videographer, producer, doing ads, music videos, short films and everything. So that’s where I learned the craft.

Back then, I was into motorcycles. But around 2009, my motorcycle got stolen while I was living in the South End, and so I decided to pick up a bike instead. My kids were young, so I bought a road bike and discovered the Charles River loop and started riding more and more, and just got hooked on it. I realized quickly that the community was totally different. Motorcyclists were very driven by testosterone and having loud machines, but the bicyclists were a totally different tone, much more down to earth.

Aside from your videos, tell me about some of your other advocacy projects – your group ride leadership, and the ghost bike memorials.

Back in 2013 Boston Bike Party started. I wasn’t one of the founders, but I was there at the first ride, met John Ramos and Greg, and the three of us started this monthly ride and it grew so big that in the peak of summer we have 400 riders sometimes. We meet every second Friday at Copley Square at 7:30 and we roll out and ride all over the city, and I pull this trailer with a loud sound system.

I found my community as it grew. I was leading rides from day one, so from there I got more involved with Boston Cyclists Union, MassBike, LivableStreets. I’ve led fundraiser rides, the Day of Rememberance rides, Tour de Streets. I feel like I know every street and traffic light in the city, how long the green lights last, and all the dynamics of leading these big group rides.

I've handed off leadership for the Bike Party rides now – Laura Gray, who's the CommonWheels bike coop director, is the one who's doing them now. This summer, the Bike Party was on hiatus because of COVID, but then the George Floyd killing happened and I got involved in the Ride for Black Lives.

Back in 2015, there was a crash that killed Marcia Deihl in Cambridge. I got together with some advocates to do a Ghost Bike ceremony for her, and I’ve been doing ghost bikes around Boston ever since. Now we’re branching out to other parts of Massachusetts. I’ve lost count of how many ceremonies it’s been.

People ask me why I do the ghost bike thing because it’s hard work - right now I’m stripping another bike for a fatality that happened in Mattapan. I do it for the love of the biking community and the familyhood of being among other people riding bikes on the road - to make sure that people know when they ride that they’re not alone. The risk of a crash is something that’s in every cyclist’s mind, and when someone gets killed, I want to turn a tragic location into a place that’s peaceful and solemn, like we’re blessing the area. Sometimes the ghost bike ceremony is the only ceremony a person will have.

Of all the new bike lanes you've filmed, what’s your favorite new bike facility in the region from this year?

I live in JP, and it was finished last year, but my favorite new place is along the Arborway by Forest Hills where the Casey Overpass used to be. It used to be a dangerous and dark place, and now it’s got beautiful, bi-directional bike paths on both sides, connecting the Southwest Corridor and Franklin Park, plus Boston’s only bike roundabout. That’s a project I love dearly. For me, that’s world class bike facility.

For this year, I love the Healthy Streets bike lanes that have popped up around the Public Garden and Common.

Last question – why is bicycling important to you?

The community and the people I’ve met are part of it. John Adams, who owned Flat Top Johnnies was a good friend of mine, and we’ve had so many great parties there. And the exercise is part of it, too – I’m 55 and I try to take care of myself, and keeping fit is also a big part of my life.

It’s just the rush of riding that we all know, the freedom to just be able to open your front door and have adventure and fun right there. A lot of people travel to New Hampshire to go skiing, or they drive to the tennis court to play tennis; I open my door and boom, my sport and my therapy starts immediately. And it’s practically free.

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