From Victims to Citizens
As the mosquitos of the modern city, cyclists are used to being swatted at, cursed at, complained about or, worse, just ignored by other citizens and authorities alike. So, it is natural that people riding bicycles feel aggrieved, outraged and self-righteous.
Being part of such an easily identifiable social group has its advantages—it’s easy to find others with similar interests, we have no shortage of conversation starters (from the latest gear to the latest close call) and simplified fundraising (you just ask your friends). But there is also a danger: cyclists often fall into the same traps that many marginalized groups do, seeing themselves as victims, outside of society and powerless. Armed with the gospel of urban salvation—the holy bicycle–we risk becoming caricatures: wild-eyed prophets preaching doom and disaster, spitting in the eye of the establishment, wearing outlandish clothing, and looking down our noses at “normal” people.
You know the type. And know how many of them turn cynical and defeatist, sitting in cafés and bars bemoaning society’s ignorance and corruption. Or, they lead a march or a Critical Mass Ride, congratulating themselves on a night’s work well done. Then go off to the café or bar and join the cynics scoffing at the world. Vote? That’s only for sell-outs! Work with bureaucrats and politicians? They are all corrupt, why bother?! And you know how businessmen are—arrogant and addicted to their black Mercedes!
Yet some of the world’s greatest change has come about because some “victims” refused to be victimized. There are those who have transcended their marginalized status. They leveraged inspiring vision. They worked with great endurance and commitment over many years. They organized smartly including allying with unlikely partners. And, they believed in their hearts that they could change the world.
Mahatma Gandhi is just one example. He gave up his lawyer’s suit and his relatively privileged position, put on a homespun dhoti and led India to freedom. He used powerful symbolism to motivate thousands to join him. Picking just one outrage of British rule—an onerous tax on a necessity of life, salt—he led a march to the sea that was violently resisted by the British. Yet, in the face of violent repression, he preached non-violence, perplexing the British by undermining the paradigm of power through force. He looked beyond his fellow “victims” to embrace all Indians, of all religions and all castes, including those that benefited from the colonialism.
Gandhi used the power of a simple idea to unite Indians of all backgrounds, the idea that all Indians, and all humans, had the right to self-determination. Even the British had to eventually agree with him because they believed the same of themselves.
If we look at the places where the bicycle has become integrated into the urban fabric—places like Copenhagen, Amsterdam and now New York City, Toulouse, Freiburg, Portland—what happened to transform a pastime of a few into a celebrated and broadly supported strategy for urban revitalization?
I believe it is because people in these cities focused on how promoting the bicycle also promotes values that all people hold dear. Family, health, safety, tranquility. A city dominated by the automobile threatens all of these. A car-oriented city is dangerous, noisy, dirty and difficult to get around. Traffic causes disease, stress and isolates us from our neighbors. The bicycle offers a simple strategy to provide affordable, healthy, convenient and enjoyable mobility for people of all ages and walks of life. A bicycle-friendly city is a happy city. This notion is as appealing as Gandhi’s vision because it advances the dignity of every person. In his India, British colonial rule was a glaring affront to this truth. In our cities, car dominance is an affront to our common conception of a good life. The thousands that join us at every Ciclovia are proof of the power of this simple message.
Everyone loves their children and wants them to have good lives, safe from harm, healthy and with the freedom to enjoy their community. A city built around the bicycle can deliver this vision. We lovers of the bicycle must reach beyond our small circle of cycling friends. We need to share how the bicycle is a smart strategy to achieve better places for everyone to live. We must link arms with our fellow citizens working on social betterment and, yes, make alliances even with the establishment. A healthier, happier city is also a richer, more tranquil place, something that all citizens, including businesspeople and politicians, want to achieve.
Every city in the world faces the same incredible challenges–climate change, fossil fuel depletion, social inequity and isolation as well as economic crisis. There are few viable technologies that address all of these with such grace and spirit as does the bicycle. So, let’s get out of our cafés and bars and participate in the great work of transforming our cities into beautiful, friendly and joyful places!