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When Bicycling Was Cool

Ricardo Jerez and I bicycling on a path towards his home in Santiago, the Andes looming in the distance.

Ricardo Jerez and I bicycling on a path towards his home in Santiago, the Andes looming in the distance.

It still is, isn’t it?

It is in some places, less so in others. In Latin America, from Chile and Brazil to Colombia, Panama, Peru, Ecuador, and Mexico, it is going strong. But I had an insight during the two weeks I recently spent in Chile at the Forum Mundial de Bicicleta 5 (#FMB5). Amidst presentations on all matters bicycle-related, from street designs and accessibility, to the important feminist impulse that is pushing many women to use the bicycle as a literal vehicle of personal emancipation (echoing their 19th century ancestors), to countless presentations on urban planning and livable cities, it suddenly dawned on me that we’re living through a very specific period of history. From about 1990-2020 we are transitioning from the twentieth-century commitment to automobiles to a multi-modal approach to urban transportation that foregrounds bicycling and walking, supplemented by public transit.

To be sure there are still strong political and economic forces putting up major resistance to this transition, especially given the central role of the automobile and oil industries in most industrialized economies. But literally millions of citizens across the world are “voting” on this directly by getting on bicycles and changing their daily behavior. This didn’t erupt from a policy decision on-high by some bureaucrat, but rather an urgent need by people in cities everywhere to address the ridiculous irrationality of endless traffic congestion, horrible air pollution, catastrophic collisions, neighborhoods devastated by being engineered to accommodate maximum space for high speed car use and no-speed car parking, perpetual indebtedness to pay for car costs, and so on. As social solidarity has been torn apart in societies everywhere by the horrible consequences of neoliberal capitalism and austerity, a new kind of solidarity around the embrace of the bicycle has helped many to find a remarkably joyful connection to their sister and brother cyclists.

Practical bicycling... the kind that doesn't really show up in the "bicycling culture" which tends to be a middle- and upper-middle class phenomenon in most places.

Practical bicycling… the kind that doesn’t really show up in the “bicycling culture” which tends to be a middle- and upper-middle class phenomenon in most places.

Santiago has some very decent bike lanes already, and some weirdly obsolescent ones... this one on Rosas was my favorite.

Santiago has some very decent bike lanes already, and some weirdly obsolescent ones… this one on Rosas was my favorite.

The sloping granite blocks between sidewalk and street are designated a bike-only space! Never saw anything like that before.

The sloping granite blocks between sidewalk and street are designated a bike-only space! Never saw anything like that before.

An early bike lane in Santiago runs along the center median of the Alameda, but it is full of obstacles and strange twists and turns... more of an add-on that wasn't really designed for bicycle traffic.

An early bike lane in Santiago runs along the center median of the Alameda, but it is full of obstacles and strange twists and turns… more of an add-on that wasn’t really designed for bicycle traffic.

This “bike culture solidarity” is largely a middle- and upper-middle-class phenomenon. Poor people have been bicycling through the whole of the 20th century without making a political or cultural issue of it. Once the bike culture started to catch on during the past generation, it took root among the parts of the population who were perhaps most separated from the kind of everyday solidarity that has always been the hallmark of poorer communities. In places like Mexico, it is still not uncommon to hear people dismiss so-called “backward” small towns as “Pueblos Bicicleteros,” to denote their lack of modernity. But in a delicious turnabout, those towns can now claim to have leapfrogged the stupidity of 20th century modernism to embrace a fully modern 21st century sensibility rooted in a shared and ecologically grounded consciousness, and at ease with self-propelled mobility as a sensible first choice in lieu of oil-and-auto dependency.

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If Bicycling is the Key, What Does it Unlock?

April 3, 2016, giving this talk in Santiago, Chile at the 5th Forum Mundial de Bicicleta

April 3, 2016, giving this talk in Santiago, Chile at the 5th Forum Mundial de Bicicleta

We have come together in our shared enthusiasm for bicycling. At one time or another in our lives, each of us came to identify bicycling as the key to social change. Or we concluded it was the key to unraveling the dangerous traffic nightmare plaguing most of the world’s cities, or to reclaiming a more convivial public space from the domination of private cars. Or we connected bicycling to a refusal to participate in oil wars; or a refusal to accept the mountain of debt associated with car and oil dependency; or a refusal of the massive pollution by fossil fuels that is wreaking havoc with the world’s climate.

On a simple level, most of us learned to bicycle when we were children, and quickly discovered that bicycling unlocked nearby streets and neighborhoods, and eventually entire cities that we could reach by riding our bikes. Personal mobility, a freedom to move independently through space, is an intoxicating pleasure and is a right of all humans, or should be.

This freedom of mobility has been thoroughly colonized by the marketing engineers of the automobile industry for more than 100 years. Bicycling lost the argument in the early 20th century, an argument that bicycling itself had started with demands for good roads covered in asphalt in the late 19th century. As cars came to dominate personal transportation, displacing walking, bicycling, and streetcars and having streets widened and reorganized to accommodate faster speeds and more parking, bicycling was redefined as a child’s first vehicle on their way to a mature embrace of the car in adulthood. Most people across the planet have been convinced to accept this, or at least they were until about a generation ago.

Starting in 1992 in San Francisco, Critical Mass emerged as a monthly “organized coincidence” in which first dozens, then hundreds, and eventually thousands of bicyclists took to the streets to “ride home together.” While cars clogging our streets in endless daily traffic jams is treated as inevitable and natural, part of the unavoidable “weather” of city life, dense masses of bicyclists are anomalous, some kind of strange unnatural aberration, an unexpected emergence of rebellious creativity. Though we always said “we aren’t blocking traffic, we ARE traffic!” most participants, bystanders, and motorists understood that this was something more than mere traffic. I like to say it was a Defiant Celebration. We discovered that by bicycling together in a celebratory mass seizure of the roads we were cracking open the closed public space of city streets, reclaiming it from the decades-long enclosure of our thoroughfares by the forces of “motordom” and their successful marginalization of other transit options. We also opened a self-governed space free of commerce, where coming together in conversation and shared activity was a natural experience not requiring permission, licenses, or the purchase of products.

Since that auspicious turn a generation ago, bicycling has returned to the world’s cities in a way no one could have predicted. Picking up enthusiasm from a wide swath of the population, literally hundreds of thousands of people are bicycling every day now instead of driving in cars. This is an amazing outcome of a slowly snowballing collective decision to change life that started small in one place, then spread to other places, and eventually led to millions of people in hundreds of the world’s cities changing their everyday behavior.

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Si el ciclismo es la clave, ¿qué nos revela?

April 3, 2016, giving this talk in Santiago, Chile at the 5th Forum Mundial de Bicicleta

April 3, 2016, giving this talk in Santiago, Chile at the 5th Forum Mundial de Bicicleta

Nos hemos reunido en nuestro entusiasmo compartido para el ciclismo. En uno u otro momento de nuestras vidas, cada uno de nosotros llegó a identificar el ciclismo como la clave para el cambio social. O llegamos a la conclusión de que era la clave para desenmarañar la pesadilla de tráfico peligroso que atormenta a la mayoría de las ciudades del mundo, o para recuperar un espacio público más agradable de la dominación de los automóviles privados. O conectamos al ciclismo a nuestro rechazo de participar en las guerras del petróleo o la montaña de deuda asociada con la dependencia al automóvil y el petróleo; o un rechazo a la contaminación masiva por combustibles fósiles que está causando estragos en el clima del mundo.

En un primer nivel, la mayoría de nosotros aprendió a montar bicicleta cuando éramos niños, y pronto descubrió que el andar en bicicleta duba acceso cercanas calles y barrios, y finalmente ciudades enteras que podíamos alcanzar al andar en nuestras bicis. La movilidad personal: la libertad de moverse de forma independiente a través del espacio es un placer embriagante y es un derecho de todos los seres humanos, o debería serlo.

Esta libertad de la movilidad ha sido completamente colonizada por los ingenieros de la mercado tecnia de la industria automotriz durante más de cien años. La bicicleta perdió el argumento a principios del siglo veinte, un argumento que el ciclismo en sí había comenzado en el siglo 19 con demandas de buenos caminos cubiertos de asfalto. En la medida que los automóviles llegaron a dominar el transporte personal, desplazando la movilidad a pie, en bicicleta y en los tranvías, y con la ampliación y reorganización de las calles para acomodar velocidades más rápidas y más aparcamiento, el ciclismo fue redefinido como el primer vehículo de un niño en su camino a un maduro abrazo del coche en la edad adulta. La mayoría de la gente en todo el planeta estaba convencido de esto, o al menos lo estaban hasta hace una generación.

A partir de 1992 en San Francisco, la masa crítica surgió como una mensual “coincidencia organizada” en que primero decenas, luego centenares y finalmente miles de ciclistas salieron a las calles para “andar juntos de regreso a casa.” Mientras que se ve como inevitable y natural que los automóviles atasquen a diario a nuestras calles en interminables nudos de tráfico, como parte inextricable del “clima” de la ciudad, a las masas densas de ciclistas se les define como anómalas, algún tipo de extraña aberración antinatural o una inesperada aparición de creatividad rebelde. Aunque siempre decimos: “No estamos bloqueando el tráfico, ¡SOMOS TRÁFICO!”, la mayoría de los participantes, los transeúntes y los automovilistas entendieron que esto era algo más que mero tráfico. Me gusta decir que fue una Celebración Desafiante. Descubrimos que por andar en bicicleta juntos en una toma festiva de las calles estábamos abriendo grietas en el espacio público cerrado de las calles de la ciudad, reclamando nuestras arterias de las décadas de encierro a causa de la dominación del motor y su éxito en marginar otras opciones de transporte. También hemos abierto un  espacio autónomo, libre de comercio, donde reunirse en conversación y actividad común es una experiencia natural que no requiere de permisos, licencias, o la compra de productos.

With Andreas Rohl (left) and Rodrigo Diaz (right)

With Andreas Rohl (left) and Rodrigo Diaz (right), with moderator Sergio Corrales (far right)

Desde ese auspicioso giro hace una generación, el ciclismo ha regresado a las ciudades del mundo en una manera que nadie podría haber predicho. Acogió el entusiasmo de una amplia franja de la población; existen literalmente cientos de miles de personas andando cada día en bicicleta en vez de conduciendo autos. Este es un increíble resultado de una decisión colectiva para cambiar la vida que lentamente hizo cúmulo en un lugar pequeño, luego se extendió a otros lugares, y eventualmente condujo a millones de personas en cientos de ciudades del mundo a cambiar su comportamiento cotidiano.

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