July 7th, 2011

Reclaim the footpath with "non-critical mass rides"

Here's a plan to tackle low rates of neighbourhood cycling in the many countries where it is legally problematic to ride on the footpath. I call it the non-critical mass ride.

Background: sports cyclists became the darlings of road engineers in the 1970s, because they would say what regular folk using bikes would never say. They said that bikes can be treated as traffic. Their grandmothers should have slapped their naughty bottoms, for making it illegal for them, their grandmothers, to ride to the shop for a bottle of milk, without having to hand-signal their intentions to speeding cars. An absolute fucking outrage, when you think back. But we can unravel this nonsense.

Background to my anger: next year, when my son turns 13, it will be illegal for him to ride to school NOT on the road amidst traffic. It will be illegal for him to use intersections NOT as a car would, even though cars ignore cyclists, especially kids. On a rainy night, returning from sports training, he will be out there hand-signaling diamond turns. My government wants him dead, or obese. Those are the choices. So I'm using the growing profile of my blog, to unleash civil unrest all over the world, with one wicked idea..

On the last Friday of every month, cyclists meet in flash-crowds to assert their right to ride on the road. And what will the prize be, if "critical mass" rides ever have an effect? Cyclists will win the right to come off worst in an accident. In strategic engagements one should never play a weak strategy. That is what critical mass rides do, and ultimately, why they are tolerated. They are tolerated, because they are weak.

Militarily, or game theoretically speaking, one should only ever employ dominant strategies. Bikes are slightly more powerful than pedestrians (only slightly), but enough that fighting to reclaim the footpath puts us in a dominant position. So here's what intelligent cyclists will do.

They will join their local critical mass rides (6.30pm, on the last Friday of every month, in most cities) and they will subvert them. They will ride at the front, and lead schisms onto the footpath. In Australia at least, this is technically legal, so long as riders can claim they are escorting at least one child, 12 years or under. My kids will love it! And I won't be putting them in danger either. These schisms will move slowly, on footpaths, and across pedestrian crossings.   

Leading a non-critical mass schism, has two aims. First, it is to demonstrate something one only has to visit Italy, or Frankfurt Airport, to see: that cyclists are not a threat to pedestrians. At worst they're a nuisance.

And that is the main aim, to show cyclists are a pest to pedestrians while ever we don't have the right infrastructure. Lead your schism everywhere people would naturally want to go on their bikes: past shops, through alfresco dining areas, through after-work drinks spots...anywhere that would benefit from bike access, but where bike access is a nuisance without proper bike paths. Don't waste your time pestering cars, that eventually will just kill you or your kids. Play a dominant strategy. In any kind of engagement, always play a dominant strategy. That is what winners do.

If we annoy them enough, they will have no choice but to build separate infrastructure for neighbourhood cycling, of the kind they enjoy in Holland and Denmark. In the meantime, we will at least be getting on par with places like Italy.

We're calling these schisms "non-critical mass rides", to underline the point that slow cyclists on footpaths are completely non-lethal. Let that be our one guiding principle. And may I be the one who is lynched for bringing this scurge on the Earth. All you have to do, is leverage social media however you can, to bring attention to this little post. If the idea has traction, the schisms/flash crowds will take care of themselves.

Now witness this movement's humble beginnings:

There are no big signs in the sky to direct pilots

The world is full of signs for automobiles, because there are just so many of the darn things. As cyclists we're lucking if we can find a map with which to identify a safe routes to ride—but um, it's not so safe cycling while reading a map, something I was doing a lot of throughout May and June while I was away. No crashes though! Hey hey!

If you find it a pity that cycle-space is kept hidden from view, spare a thought for a group with fewer numbers than even we cyclists: the pilots. There are certainly no signs in the sky, delineating what they know to be airspace. Below is what they see. You and I would look heavenward, and only see sky.


My aim with all this travel, meeting people, researching, blogging and writing, is not the usual bike activist gig, of harping on about my town not resembling Holland or Denmark (as much as I would like that). Rather, my particular shtick, is to get architects and planners to see cities through cyclists eyes, carved into cycle-space, then to think about ways cycle-space can be enhanced and expanded.

Unlike air-space though, cycle-space cannot be patrolled. It isn't official. Each individual will have their own way of determining where they will or won't ride. It depends on what interests them personally: promenading; safety; thrills; obeying or flouting the law. Your mental cycle-space map of the world will be different from mine. For an avid vehicular cyclists, all of the roads, and none of the bike paths, are cycle-space. For my son, the footpaths near home are his cycle-space. As someone who likes all kinds of cycling (sit up style, racing, mountain biking... and I've just procured a Brompton as well), I'm getting to the point where I'm seeing every inch of my city as some place I would ride, though in different ways. 

From left: How Google tries to simplify Cycle-Space; How the cycle-chic laugh at my Brompton; the only hat that can make a Brompton look cool.

If I have critical stance, it is to see cycle-space expand in all of our minds, and for cycle-space to be thought of in more varied ways,  reflecting the diversity of mature cycling societies. Big time pluralist, me.