If Bicycling is the Key, What Does it Unlock?
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.
I want to emphasize the active verb here, bicycling. I am not talking about the device, even though it is undisputable that you cannot engage in bicycling without a bicycle. But the physical device is not the key, it is the behavior that is the key. It is the shared decision to embrace this behavior that is the key to deeper changes. But let’s also admit that the transformations that bicycling is the key to unlocking often fall short and too often are co-opted into very narrow channels that ensure that bicycling does not lead to any real changes in the surrounding society.
In my city of San Francisco and increasingly in other U.S. cities, bicycling advocates have accepted political support from real estate developers who see higher profits in building housing for younger workers that reject car culture (relieving the developers of having to spend money on accommodating automobiles in expensive parking garages). Bicycle advocates in San Francisco, New York, Memphis Tennessee and other cities have turned a blind eye to the resulting displacement of working class communities and people of color that big real estate developments have caused as long as they also included new bicycle infrastructure. Unfortunately many of cycling’s most earnest and well-meaning advocates have tunnel vision, seeing only support for bicycling as the issue. This produces a weird “arms race” for funding and attention at the expense of other issues, and fails to recognize the way bicycling has become co-opted by wealthy interests to reinforce their own power and money.
In my opinion, bicycling is only an interesting activity worth promoting if it leads to bigger changes than merely getting more people on bicycles. After all, there are cities in the world such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam where nearly half the population use bicycles regularly for transportation, and these are hardly utopian cities that have escaped the darker realities facing people across the world. It’s great to have fewer cars and many more bicyclists, but not if the society they are bicycling around in is still one based on the same logic as the one that made cars seem so normal for so long. The problems we face are far greater than what kind of vehicle we use to move from place to place—even if the choice we make about vehicles is ONE important decision among dozens that we face as individuals.
Bicycling fails its potential as a key to unlocking crucial and urgent political and social change if it allows itself to be about merely bicycling. I don’t really care about derailleurs or brake pads or what color or brand your bicycle is, whether you like racing bikes, mountain bikes, or folding bikes. It is not interesting. These are the easy and acceptable obsessions of a consumer society. Your ability to act in the world is channeled into deciding how to spend money. Buy the good products, don’t buy the bad ones, and you are doing your part. This is wrong. By accepting the logic of a consumer society, in which your political agency is limited to shopping choices, you lose the ability to change how we live, to change what kind of world we make together everyday with our labor, our activity.
Bicycling, luckily, can be about a lot more than just buying the latest gear. And it can be about a lot more than just getting some stripes painted on a busy boulevard, or even new bike highways crisscrossing a country as some places are now planning. Because if we all got up across the planet tomorrow and bicycled instead of going in cars, while it would be a good step in the right direction, we would still be bicycling to jobs that are producing the world we live in now. We would still be going to banks, advertising agencies, and real estate offices, buying and selling people’s homes, manipulating currencies, promulgating propaganda for politicians and products; vast military budgets would go on being spent to control populations and territories and to make war; borders would still block the free movement of people while allowing toothpaste, tennis shoes, wheat, and wood to cross the earth, burning fossil fuels along the way.
We cannot shop our way to a sensible world. We have to make it, and we have to make it together. When we choose to move through cities on bicycles it’s clearly a better choice than using automobiles most of the time—for us as individuals, and for the larger society we live in. Bicycling is doing, it is an active production of movement and as such is a key part of redesigning life. But politically and philosophically we have to connect the activity of bicycling to the activity of reinventing life. If we learn to move around differently by bicycling we also have to learn how to use water differently, produce and distribute food differently, build and share safe and adequate housing for everyone on earth differently. We have to connect bicycling’s rebellious meaning to plans to make sure free communications and free transportation are inviolable human rights alongside food, water, and shelter.
Bicycling is the key to opening a much more complicated conversation about how different life could be. Riding our bikes is so simple and such a pleasure. That shared, familiar pleasure is a great place to start thinking critically about the choices we make about much more than merely how we get around. Bicycling, at its best, should challenge us to change not just how we get from point A to point B, but what we do at point A and what we do at point B. It should help us to ask why we do those things, who decides what is worth doing, how could we make those decisions together—that is, what is democracy now?—and who benefits from the choices we make? Bicycling can unlock much more interesting questions with much more interesting answers than we might think at first thought. Congratulations to the organizers who spent so much time and energy to bring us together. Let us honor their effort by using our enthusiasm for bicycling to unlock a social movement worthy of our time, one commensurate with the enormous challenges facing humanity and the planet. For a politics without easy answers!