Bicycling as direct action

This post follows up on my previous post regarding the notion of positive direct action.  Let’s examine a simple, perfectly legal act such as bicycling on the streets of Edmonton.

The point is that, by cycling regularly, I’m taking direct action to achieve the goal … of challenging the hegemony of cars and thereby making cycling a bit safer and more accepted in our society.

Why I like bicycling. I like to get around town by bicycle, rather than drive a car.  Bicycles are a brilliant invention, a perfect example of what permaculturists call appropriate technology, allowing able-bodied humans to get around at speeds of 10-20 mph with great energy efficiency.  In fact, if the calories burned were converted into fuel terms, a bicycle would have mileage of somewhere around 1500 miles per gallon, over 500 times that of a typical car!  Depending on traffic, distance and availability of bike routes, I can usually get from point A to point B in the city in  less than triple the time a car trip would take.  Without having to worry about parking.  Or having to fill up the tank, or paying insurance. I can usually take side streets and avoid heavy traffic; I don’t find myself sitting immobile in traffic jams. I’m not a purist, I do use our car sometimes: if it’s a long distance, if there’s a heavy snow, if I’m getting over an illness, if there’s no easy bus route, if I’m hauling a big item,  if I’m going with a family member who I can’t talk into cycling, etc.  Here in Edmonton, there are whole months in winter when cycling doesn’t seem worth the hassle: ice and road grit can quickly wear out the whole drive train.  I can usually get around by bus then.  But the more I cycle, the more money I save, the more exercise I get, the less fossil fuel I consume, the less greenhouse gases and pollutants I emit, the less I add to road traffic, the better I’m living in accord with the Quaker testimonies and my own sense of how I want to live.

What’s wrong with cars? Urban design to accommodate cars has brought a raft of problems upon our society. In addition to the obvious fossil fuel consumption, air pollution and greenhouse gas emission issues, there’s the isolating, anti-communitarian aspect of the car-based lifestyle, and the costly infrastructure needed to support it. We step from our suburban garages and driveways into our insulated transportation bubbles, drive to work, drive to the store, all with minimal interaction with neighbours and passersby, except to honk and swear at other drivers who get in our way. Richard Register’s book Eco-Cities points out that, were it not for cars, we could have high-density, socially vibrant cities with very little paved area. Neighbourhoods could be connected by paths just wide enough for trams, bikes and emergency vehicles. No eight-lane expressways, no ringroads, no vast parking lots, no suburban sprawl. Large areas within the city could be depaved, for gardens, for meadows and woods in which biodiversity could flourish. Cities could be self-sufficient in food production. Less land outside the cities would be needed for agriculture, or human living space, so it could return to wilderness.

Why riding a bike is a political action. So, I have a vision of transforming my city, Edmonton, from a concrete wasteland into a substantially depaved eco-city. A central element of that vision is that bicycles will be a widely adopted form of urban transportation, for all ages, with well supported infrastructure that makes this safe and convenient. This is a political vision, as it concerns how our society is organized, primarily at the municipal level, but with regional and global ramifications. And though the ultimate goal is the eco-city described above, the incremental goal is to make cycling somewhat more prevalent, somewhat safer, somewhat more convenient, somewhat more socially accepted, while concomitantly making car transportation a little less dominant.

It may seem odd to speak of making cycling more socially accepted, given that it is already completely legal. But anyone who has tried urban cycling will recognize that the prevailing attitudes in society are far from accepting towards bikes. There are the car drivers who honk or yell obscenities at me because I happen to be in front of them, or gun past me in the right lane with scant inches of clearance, who turn left into my path as I enter intersections, who swerve round to pass me as I pull up to 4-way stops, who pull out of parking spaces without bothering to look, who throw their car door open in front of me, who honk at me from behind at traffic lights, expecting me to get out of their way so they can make a right turn on red. I encounter such drivers two or three times a week; but I’ll give motorists as a class the benefit of the doubt and assume these dangerous drivers are a small minority, or maybe they’re normally safe drivers who are having a bad day. (And, yes, there are reckless, inconsiderate cyclists as well, and I’d like to believe that they too are a small minority.) But then there’s the policeman who stopped me to warn me not to ride in the centre of my lane (as I’m legally permitted to do). I had been riding further to the right, but then an overwide truck roared past me, nearly pushing me into a ditch, so I moved left to claim my lane. The cop was only interested in the fact I was slowing down some cars. Or there’s the business owner who tells me she has no room for a bike rack in the store’s parking lot – though there are spots for twenty cars. Or there are writers of letters-to-the-editor to papers who insist (contrary to traffic law) that roads are for cars, end of story, and cyclists are simply a public menace. Or there are the voters who got up in arms in the last municipal election because the city had put in a few bike lanes – who angrily claimed, apparently with straight faces, that the city is under the thumb of a sinister, all-powerful biking lobby! Or there are well-meaning friends who express doubts about my wisdom in choosing to cycle, in light of the risk. In sum, our society is, de facto, far from accepting the bicycle as a form of transportation.

One thing I’ve noticed is that there are areas within the city with regular heavy bike traffic (such as the area round the University, or 124th St.), where drivers are almost always courteous to me as a cyclist; and there are other areas, in more industrial or commercial parts of town, where bikes are fewer, and I can almost count on an unpleasant interaction with a neglectful or aggressive driver. The lesson in this is that the more bikes there are on the road, the more we exercise our right to be there, the more drivers see cyclists as legitimate road-users and get used to the idea of sharing the road with us, and the safer it becomes for us cyclists. (I hesitate to use the word “right” in the previous sentence: it’s a concept that comes from a legalistic kind of discourse that can be disempowering.  What I mean is simply that cycling is a totally sensible means of getting about the city with no serious downside for anybody; we have the ability to use this technology, so let’s do so!)       

Back to direct action. Yes, there is some risk of injury or death, somewhat higher cycling than driving a car (but probably not as bad in Edmonton as in cities with a seriously aggressive car culture, like London, New York or Los Angeles). It’s not fair, but I accept that risk. The point is that, by cycling regularly, I’m taking direct action to achieve the goal stated above, of challenging the hegemony of cars and thereby making cycling a bit safer and more accepted in our society. The safer it is, the more people will try cycling, and so a virtuous cycle is established, bringing us closer to the eco-city ideal.

Regarding the issue of risk, I’ve been a regular cyclist most of my adult life, but I’ve actually been hit by cars only twice, and only once was I injured (a broken clavicle), both times by oncoming drivers who negligently turned left into me at intersections. Both accidents happened a long time ago. Perhaps as a result, I try to ride very predictably, giving clear signals, obeying all traffic laws, always alert and ready to respond defensively if a car does something dumb. So it seems that the real risk I face is not so much the serious injury, it’s just the honking, verbal abuse, and intimidating behaviour I occasionally get from drivers who don’t really want to hit me, they just want (it seems) to put me in my place. It’s tiresome to put up with, but I accept that risk too.

One last point: is it hypocritical for an anarchist to follow traffic laws, or to complain when other people break them? Well, there are laws that are used by elites to control the rest of society and protect their privileged position. On the other hand, there are protocols and social conventions that allow us to interact cooperatively with each other; they may have the status of law, but they are largely or entirely self-enforced. For example, we have complex sets of rules governing how the participants in a conversation take turns, how we indicate that we want to speak, or are willing to yield to somebody else. These rules don’t have to be imposed by the state as laws, people just learn them and find them useful and abide by them. It seems to me that traffic law is more like this sort of convention: it is useful for everyone on the road to be able to rely on certain expectations of how other agents (in whatever sort of vehicle) will behave – or rather, it would be dreadfully dangerous if there were no such norms. A stateless society would, I imagine, adopt a code similar to current traffic law (perhaps different in some particularities) by mutual agreement. However, in our current society, I would not sic a cop on somebody for violating traffic law, or otherwise invoke the power of the state on my own behalf.

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