By Jeff Mapes
If you spend much time pedaling the streets of any city in North America, you’re probably pretty passionate about it. You know what it’s like to be part of a small and all-too-often embattled minority – and you probably also believe the world would be a better place if a lot more people got out of their cars and joined you on bikes.
These simple feelings have given rise to an increasingly sophisticated bike advocacy movement that has grown across the US and Canada over the last four decades. Cycling, once seen as only suitable for children and oddly attired athletes, is now becoming a mainstream form of transportation in cities from San Francisco to New York, from Montreal to Vancouver, BC.
This hasn’t been easy and the movement is still a long way from reaching its full potential. That’s partly because organizing cyclists – who are often contrary and individualistic by nature – is a bit like herding cats. No single organization is the cycling equivalent of the National Rifle Association. No one figure is as towering as Martin Luther King was to the civil rights movement.
Instead, the modern bike movement is more akin to a thousand flowers blooming – sometimes in the unlikeliest of settings.
Take Deb Hubsmith, who just over a decade ago was lugging materials on sustainable transportation around to local schools in suburban Marin County, CA on a solar-powered electrical bike. In the space of a few years, Hubsmith – who headed the Marin County Bicycle Coalition – formed a lobbying alliance with powerful Minnesota congressman Rep. Jim Oberstar, who had fallen in love with cycling himself. She helped push through hundreds of millions of dollars for new biking programs, including the creation of a national program to encourage children to once again walk and bike to school.
Or consider Randy Neufeld, who built the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation into one of the most powerful local bike groups in the country by essentially embedding his staff within the City of Chicago’s transportation department. Now they are writing bike plans for the city. And Neufeld has moved on to head the SRAM Cycling Fund, which was set up by the bicycle equipment manufacturer, and is handing out $10 million in grants to bike advocacy groups.
Too mainstream for you? Well, there is Chris Carlsson, who nurtured San Francisco’s Critical Mass and has seen it grow into a worldwide phenomenon. Or you can talk about the “underground” mutant bike builders or the loose-knit bike fun group Shift – in my hometown of Portland, OR – who are turning bikes into performance art and helping create a new kind of urban cool about cycling.
Canada has taken tips from the States, where the main thrust of the cycling advocacy movement in North America began.
There’s Robert “Bicycle Bob” Silverman whose madman antics in Montreal, QC in the 1970s sparked a revolution of bike advocacy in Canada. Silverman and a team of guerrilla protesters became famous for rallying against the “auto-cracy.” They painted bike lanes in the middle of the night. They staged a “die-in” where hundreds lay, coated in fake blood, at the corner of St. Catherine and University streets beside mangled bicycles to raise awareness about the need to make roads safer and more accessible.
These demonstrations were also headed by Claire Morissette who, together with Silverman, formed Le Monde à Bicyclette in 1976, arguably the flagship cycling organization in Canada. Dubbed the “Joan of Arc” of bicycling, Morissette became famous for other publicity-raising stunts, such as bringing skis, ladders and cardboard elephants onto the subway system in Montreal, which were allowed, at a time when bicycles were prohibited. The City of Montreal recognized her work in 2007 by posthumously naming the De Maisonneuve bike path the Piste Cyclable Claire-Morissette.
These flowers didn’t bloom by themselves. The seeds were planted in many places in North America, all the way back to the founding of the League of American Wheelman in 1880 in Newport, RI. Before hardly anyone had a car – let alone thought of having an automotive lobby – the league started lobbying for paved roads to replace the rutted, muddy dirt roads that connected cities.
But enough about ancient history. If you want to understand the modern bike movement in North America, you could well start in the Golden Temple, a Chinese restaurant in Washington, DC in 1977. A group of young bike activists who had started to meet decided they needed a wise head to help guide them. They sought out Tedson Meyers, a local attorney and former DC city councilor.