Monday 4 July 2011

Cycling as a revolutionary activity

A couple of weekends ago we cycled over to the anarchist festival in nearby Appelscha. It was a very peaceful event, alcohol and drug free, with friendly people who had gathered from all around Europe and further afield to share tasty vegan food, indulge in lots of interesting discussion and look through books and leaflets on an abundance of stalls.

A sign in the tea shop read "First a cup of tea, then the revolution". I thought this summed it up quite well. While there were very passionately held beliefs amongst the group, there was little, if any, enthusiasm for violent rebellion.

Don't get the wrong idea. I like this.
Anyway, there were other aspects which amused me. One group of people from Scheveningen are organising a DIY Bike Festival in August. It's very much an imported "bike culture" event. For instance, they're going to have a "critical mass". This is quite a strange thing to see in an established bike culture.

The term "critical mass" as applied to cycling originated from "Return of the Scorcher", a film made by Ted White in 1992 where one of the interviewees reflected on how a "critical mass" of cyclists seen in China were able to force their way through motorized traffic. It was an appreciation of this, and a desire to have a real cycling culture, which resulted in the term being used to describe the events which now take place in many cities around the world where cycling is under pressure. I wish the organisers all luck and success with their event, but can't help but feel that to bring this back to the Netherlands is to misunderstand what it is in the first place.

"Step 1. Remove the wheel from the
bicycle" - not if you ride the type
of bike
 that most people in an
established bike culture ride.
It was also possible to pick up a nicely made leaflet called "a rough guide to bicycle maintenance" which apparently dates back to "the 2003 portland zine symposium" (all lower case letters are theirs, not mine). The first step in the instructions for how to fix a flat is to "remove the wheel from the bicycle". This is again out of place. Where there is an established bike culture where bikes commonly have hub gears, hub brakes, chaincases and other practical things, it is more time consuming to remove a wheel and most people will first patch the tube without removing the wheel. It's the wrong lesson in this context.

Tradional Dutch style pumps by the door of
the cafe in Appelscha. Forgotten sign of a
real cycling culture.
Just inside the door of the cafe was a collection of traditional Dutch style bicycles pumps. If you had a flat tyre, you were actually in the right place here.

The presence of these pumps, and the collection of bikes behind the cafe, are sure signs of a real, thriving bicycle culture. However, it's a bike culture that the Dutch often don't even realise is special.

I like events for "cyclists". I like riding unusual bikes. I also like to see people doing what the people in Scheveningen are doing, in organising their event. I wish them the best of luck with it. However, what I really celebrate, and what makes cycling in the Netherlands extraordinarily special, is that normal people on bikes, in their millions, go about their everyday business by bikes.

We saw another example the same day on the bike path home from Appelscha. This chap was moving an implausibly large object by bike. It is not unusual to see this sort of thing going on. People simply use the tools they have to hand, and those tools are often bicycles:

On the way home we saw this man with an implausible large object on his bike. You don't need a special "cycling culture" for people to do this, when there are proper cycle-paths which make true mass cycling possible, this is just normal.
There is a danger here for the Netherlands. Many of the things which make this country special are not appreciated by the locals so much as they are by those of us who moved here in order to be a part of it.

If the Netherlands takes its cue for what a cycling culture should be from countries with less cycling, then it is likely that what will actually happen is that cycling will become more marginalized, just as it is in those other countries. In fact, just as it is to a greater or lesser extent in every country but this one.

In this country, cyclists are not an out-group. Cycling is not a revolutionary activity in the Netherlands. Nor does it need to be made into one.

If you want to achieve a real cycling culture in a country other than the Netherlands, there is no other country which provides a better example. Sadly, China is no longer the inspiration that it was when it inspired the film-maker in 1992.


Paul Martin said...

Good post, David. I hope the flow of knowledge, inspiration & attitudes is from The Netherlands to the rest of the world...

...sometimes, you don't know what you've got until you lose it.

Slow Factory said...

And a related truth is that people of all political stripes in the NL ride bikes without thinking it represents their ideology (however I would be curious to know if the Socialists, GroenLinks and D66 supporters ride more in general than those for other parties.)

inconvenient_truth said...

Interesting area for debate there, David. In a country like ours here in Germany, cycling is certainly part of what defines our varied political hues - conservatives tend to cycle less, and celebrate fat cars more. Greens, certainly here in Bremen, nearly all cycle on an everyday basis. SPD members and voters are perhaps much more varied. This suggests that cycling is not yet quite as "mainstream" as in the Netherlands.

But I think there is an interesting question about politics and cycling in countries like the UK where to cycle, you really have to be something of an outsider. This might just be a minority hobby for many (the touring/sporty cyclist), but for anyone with a political perspective this often means challenging the status quo regarding transport policy - and therefore mainstream political thinking.

Yet strangely I find, certainly in the UK, that this doesn't work the other way round. Very few of my old anarchist/left-wing friends from the 1970s who are still around and politically active actually cycle - and often feel highly defensive when I encounter them now.

But to return to the OP, I suspect "cycling as a revolutionary activity" sums up one option for change in countries like the UK - Critical Mass style revolutionary actions, rather than trying to work with the status quo like the CTC and Sustrans.

And here I must put in a word for our friends at Auto*Mat in Prague, who organise one of the finest and largest monthly Critical Masses in Europe. I'm currently editing a short video following a visit there with Beauty and the Bike. They're a great inspiration in a city that is worse than the UK for car-centric transport policies. All power to them!

Slow Factory said...

Regarding words from Richard...

Imagine if all those people cycling to work in the top cycling cities were going to jobs which "saved the planet" or otherwise promoted sustainable living!

Would be nice, but they are not. Many are going to work in huge multi-national banks, junk food factories, car parts distributors, military weapons consultancies, industrial agriculture hormone suppliers...

Cycling for transport is great, but where they are heading does not - in a sense - really matter. Cycling doesn't make everyone into angels.


Praha Cyklo Jizda numero unooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!

Clark in Vancouver said...

I find here in Vancouver that commuter cyclists don't consider themselves to be doing anything "political" or "revolutionary", just getting to work in a way that makes sense for them. (At least they don't talk that way.) They get accused of it though by some of those that drive a car to work.
It reminds me of the punk days in the '80s, the non-punks would have theories that the punks were doing it as a political statement but the punks themselves said that they were just dressing up for fun to have a good time because they could.

Within Vancouver cycling is now a mundane normal thing, yet another choice we have to get around. Out in the suburbs though it's still considered a bit odd. Fortunately the suburbs don't get to vote for Vancouver's mayor unlike Toronto where the suburbs get to vote for Toronto's mayor causing a big disconnect there.

kfg said...

GIF - Careful; you are walking a path trod by Ward Churchill in somewhat less "politic" language, and we all know what that leads to.

Clark - " . . .they were just dressing up for fun to have a good time because they could."

To the conservative that is a political statement.

Slow Factory said...

kfg, I don't see what you are getting at in relation to Churchill - I am just stating the reality of the "commuter". I am also not saying that these people think that their cycling makes up for their other activities, or indeed that they think about their bikes as anything other than vacuum cleaners, to paraphrase Mikael Colville-Andersen.

kfg said...

"I am just stating the reality of the "commuter"."

Yes, that's what Churchill did.

Hobbes vs Boyle said...

Okay, I'm a clueless German living in the US/Canada, so please enlighten me: what's the proper Dutch way of fixing a flat? If you know where the hole is, I can see how you just pull out the tube at that spot and patch it. But in most cases it's not possible to locate the hole without taking out the whole tube (at least that's my experience).