Tracking the Path of Cycling Resistance
From traffic safety to climate and urban-planning justice, cycling activism has, since its inception, been associated with different but mutually compatible social struggles.
FOTO: Defselector / Wikimedia Commons
In late October, powerful lobbyists, heads of corporations, and statesmen, such as Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, headed to northern Europe to take part in the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Their private planes overcrowded Glasgow International Airport to such an extent that pilots had to park them at Glasgow Prestwick Airport, which is an 18-minute flight away. According to the BBC, 182 private jets flew to Glasgow during COP26 – which is in stark contrast to the goals of this climate conference. Indeed, the transport of passengers by private planes emits 5 to 6 times more greenhouse gases than traveling by commercial flights. At the same time, a group of cyclists from the Extinction Rebellion and Eco Action Families initiatives set off on a 750 km trip from Brighton to Glasgow to point out the unusual absence of any strong agenda to reduce gas emissions by transitioning to sustainable mobility. This group is just one of many organizations fighting to expand cycling infrastructure and supporting sustainable transport, and they headed to Glasgow as protesters rather than being invited as participants. In fact, the gathering itself was dominated by lobbyists and CEOs of automobile companies, who came to Scotland to promote their electric cars as a solution to all climate-related problems. In the end, a single sentence on active movement and accelerated transition to vehicles with 100% zero greenhouse gas emissions was added to the official declaration of the conference at the last minute, thanks to the intervention of Matthew Baldwin, European Union Coordinator for Road Safety and Sustainable Urban Mobility.
The situation we witnessed in Glasgow, in the midst of the second year of the global pandemic and another warmest year since temperatures are measured, can serve as an illustration of the precarious position of bicycles (as well as other sustainable modes of transport such as walking and public transport) in plans aimed at combating climate change. However, cycling activism is not limited to climate goals – from the first appearance of the bicycle in the mid-nineteenth century until today, cycling activist organizations have fought to achieve several different and yet compatible goals. In this text, we will first cover the history of cycling activism – from feminist and anti-racist activism, where the bicycle served as a means to help political organizing, through the 1970s Dutch campaigns aimed at preventing deaths of children in traffic and to today's climate activism. By tracking the history of cycling activism, we will see how the automotive industry has co-opted activist movements from their very beginnings. Finally, we will explain why it is important for cycling activist organizations to resist this at a time when the green transition is becoming a serious business that has sparked the interest of the fossil fuel industry.
Early Forms of Cycling Organizing
Shortly after the invention of the "safety bicycle" (a two-wheeled bicycle with wheels of the same size and chain drive, virtually unaltered to this day), the first bicycle boom followed in the 1880s. Although bicycles were initially ridden primarily by well-to-do men, and in segregated societies these were mostly white men, the cost of production dropped significantly over the years. At the end of the 19th century, women also had access to bicycles, and many of them gained independence through this type of mobility. In segregated societies such as the United States, the invention of the bicycle represented for the Black community an alternative to public transportation which constantly exposed them to institutionalized discrimination. During this period, several different currents of cycling activism began to develop in the West. White men, often organized into cycling clubs such as the League of American Wheelmen (which banned black cyclists from membership in 1894), in the late 19th and early 20th centuries focused their energy and influence primarily on improving road infrastructure. In the U.S., they did so through the Good Roads Movement, a widespread campaign that advocated for the improvement of roads and replacement of cobblestone with concrete and asphalt. What is interesting is that their actions preceded the widespread use of cars, meaning that many city streets and roads, later turned into roads for motor vehicles, were originally adapted thanks to the pressure of cyclists. Somewhat symptomatically, as early as the 1910s, car manufacturers joined the campaign, and many hobby cyclists soon became motorists instead. We see something similar today at conferences like COP26 as carmakers and their political allies put their electric vehicle industry at the forefront, despite having spent the last 50 years fighting regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from their products.
On the other hand, the bicycle gained an important role in feminist activism, not as a goal, but as a means of fighting for political and civil rights. The bicycle has greatly facilitated political organizing in the struggle for voting rights. Bicycle is prominently mentioned by abolitionist and suffragette Susan B. Anthony in her texts, where she associated bicycles with freedom and self-confidence. At the same time, the American Black community was fighting for the right to participate in the cycling sport, spearheaded by Marshall Walter "Major" Taylor, world champion in men's cycling, and Katherine T. "Kittie" Knox, who fought against racial discrimination in the League of American Wheelmen. It is this contrast between the cycling activism of the privileged, white men on the one hand, and women, racial minorities, and other, less-powerful members of society on the other, that would remain present in various types of cycling activism to this day.
During the 1920s, there was a significant increase in automobile traffic, especially in North America. The number of car collision fatalities was growing exponentially, and the victims were regularly children, women, and the elderly. Although the number of cyclists, and especially cycling activists, had dropped significantly by that point, many cyclists joined the campaigns against vehicular violence (vehicular violence is a term that describes collisions and other types of motor vehicle incidents that cause injuries and fatalities. Contemporary activists advocate for the use of terms such as "collision" and "vehicular violence" instead of neutral words such as "accidents"). They fought to limit the movement of cars, reduce speed and preserve the streets as a public space. Unfortunately, their movement was very quickly instrumentalized by the automotive industry, which shifted the responsibility for traffic safety to the weakest traffic participants. Pedestrians, cyclists, and public transport users became second-class citizens, and the streets became roads for fast-moving motor vehicles. Although the U.S. campaign against car violence suffered a defeat and that country dedicates its cities to movement of private cars even today, a similar conflict unfolded in the Netherlands in the 1970s, but with a rather different outcome.
Post-war Activist Successes
After World War II, devastated European countries began to transform their cities by following the American model, preparing to build massive urban roads and highways. By the 1960s they had not yet developed an automotive culture like the Americans, and they still had robust public transportation systems and streets that were comfortable for walking and cycling. Nevertheless, European cities were preparing Corbusian projects of transformation into modernist cities subordinate to speed and efficiency. The results were half-baked. Some cities had gone further than others in realizing that mission – in Yugoslavia, both Zagreb and Belgrade were planning highways that would pass through the city center. While the Belgrade highway was eventually built, and transit motor traffic has been suffocating the city for decades, in the case of Zagreb, fortunately, the delevelling of the city highway (separation of all crossings with exits and interchanges) was not completed, and a bypass outside the center was built instead. A similar process, but with much greater aspirations, took place in the Netherlands and led to significant change not only in that country but throughout Europe, and today, 50 years later, urban planners and activists still learn from this country’s activist history, as well as its traffic solutions.
Before World War II, more Dutch citizens rode bicycles than drove cars. Despite this tradition, due to the post-war urban transformation, more and more space was being allocated to cars, which completely congested the streets of Amsterdam already by the 1960s. City planners hired Americans to consult with them. American planners had already transformed their cities by demolishing (mostly Black) neighborhoods to build highways and parking lots, along with building suburbs for the white middle class. The solution to the traffic problems proposed to the Dutch by the American traffic expert David A. Jokinen seemed logical - if there wasn’t enough space in the city for cars, the city should be demolished and wider roads should be built. Fortunately, the American urban planning policies did not take root in the Netherlands. As the number of cars grew, so did the number of people killed in traffic. Similarly to the U.S. in the 1920s, a huge number of fatalities were children. At the same time as Jokinen's plan was to be realized, a significant number of Dutch citizens organized through the Stop de Kindermoord (Stop the Murders of Children) campaign. Although the goal of the campaign was not directly related to bicycles, several different but related goals came together at a crucial moment.
The Dutch public was already skeptical of American plans (no European country had been fully motorized and suburbanized its cities like the US), and the campaign for the lives of children was launched at a turning point in history. Social activism was widespread in the 1970s Netherlands – the oil crisis in 1973 briefly put ambitious automotive plans on hold, while, simultaneously, a group of progressive Dutch urban planners and traffic engineers devised a traffic plan which was for the first time based on cycling safety. The bicycle became crucial because its presence enabled traffic calming measures while maintaining efficiency. The presence of bicycles, as opposed to cars, does not endanger pedestrian safety, and the overall approach to the city developed in the Netherlands in the 1970s has placed people and their experience at the center of urban planning policy. Although we consider the Netherlands to be a cycling paradise today, it is important to remember that this has not always been the case. Many activists have learned two things from the Stop de Kindermoord campaign. First, it is important to fight for the weakest in society, not only because it is morally correct, but also because it can bring you more support from those who are otherwise not interested in the issue. Second, traffic safety primarily depends on the constructed environment, not on law enforcement and repression by the police.
Paradoxes of the Cycling Present
From the 1970s to the present day, many cities have institutionally emulated Dutch success. Spain's Seville transformed its streets at high speed in the 2000s, building more than 100 kilometers of bike paths, while these days we read about radical changes in Paris, which has become, under the leadership of the Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo, world champion in transforming the city into a place intended for people, not cars. But change rarely comes from above - in many cities, behind every realized bike path lies the effort of dozens of activists and years of lobbying the city authorities through public meetings and hearings, but also conflicts with opponents of any change. Opponents' arguments are the same almost everywhere – from Zagreb to Brooklyn, the most important city issue is usually parking. The construction of cycling infrastructure, which requires certain compromises and conversion of existing space, is regularly at the bottom of the list of priorities. Bike paths can take the space from roadways, sidewalks or parking spaces, and this regularly causes conflicts between drivers and cyclists. Many politicians, as well as their voters, believe that parking space and driving speed are so important that we should not change our cities, even at the cost of losing children’s and other people’s lives. For many otherwise progressive politicians and citizens, even the issue of climate change becomes irrelevant when compared to the right to free parking. It is here that we can see the results of lobbying and propaganda by the car companies, which successfully sold the story of electric cars as a solution to all traffic problems to millions of people – despite the fact that the electrification of cars does not solve the epidemic of traffic fatalities, and their production causes significant greenhouse gas emissions. The extraction of lithium, a key element in battery production, is causing environmental devastation and, in some countries, state violence against citizens – as we recently saw during the protests against the company Rio Tinto and with the draft bill on expropriations in Serbia.
On the other hand, the transformation of space, the construction of bike paths and bike-share systems unfortunately perpetuates social inequalities and often accompany gentrification in many cities. As a result of gentrification processes, infrastructure that should save lives and improve the quality of life in poor neighborhoods reaches these neighborhoods only once the poorer residents have already moved out, and the richer ones moved in. These are all problems that today's cycling activist organizations have to face, with varying success. The range of activities of different bicycle organizations around the world varies. In New York, Transportation Alternatives (TransAlt) fights not only for cycling infrastructure but also for better public transport and pedestrian experience. Their scope of action holistically includes urban planning, traffic, environmental, security, and social justice goals. Climate activist organizations such as Extinction Rebellion use bicycles as a means of fighting for their environmental policies, while the Croatian organization Sindikat biciklista currently primarily focuses on the fight for improvements of cycling infrastructure.
In addition to traffic safety, climate activism, and urban-planning goals, cycling activism is often associated with other social struggles. Some organizations, such as Zagreb's Biciklopopravljaona, are actively involved in supporting refugees through bicycle donations and education. During last year's Black Lives Matter protests, protesters used bicycles as a means of defense, not only against aggressive police officers but also against radicalized drivers who are, unfortunately, increasingly attacking the protests with their vehicles. It is precisely the connection of cycling activism with other types of resistance to social injustices since the time of Susan B. Anthony that is crucial at a moment when we are threatened by yet another instance of co-option of the fight against climate change by the car lobby. In recent years, countries have allocated huge funds to subsidize the automotive industry, helping it accelerate the transition to electric cars, despite the fact that it is mathematically impossible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by replacing every internal combustion car with an electric car while maintaining unsustainable suburban development patterns. But the automotive industry is basing its latest transformation on the idea that we can stop climate change without making any sacrifices or adjustments besides replacing gasoline with electricity (often originating from power plants that use fossil fuels!). Given the unstoppable growth in the number of cars, especially heavy SUVs that require even more energy to move, it seems that car companies are successful in selling their environmental promises to the public. Despite the current greenwashing propaganda, electric car manufacturers are primarily interested in maintaining the status quo and increasing their profits. That is why it is important that activists who sincerely believe in the need to radically reduce emissions, but also in the value of every life on the streets of our cities, continue their fight for fairer cities and safe and sustainable movement.