Critical Mass Shenanigans

I had cause to correspond with the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain recently. I was asking if they would support Bike Hour. From memory, they gave it a shout out. What I remember most distinctly though, was their rather terse advice that they were solely concerned with advocating for safe bicycle infrastructure, and would not be distracted by any shenanigans. I like their style, baby. It leads me to question the core objectives of other bike advocacy groups, who presume to speak on behalf of us all when asked for an opinion by government or planners.

There was a time, and I remember it, when local authorities would fulfil their obligation to consult with bike users, by picking up the phone to the president of the nearest bike racing club. “So you’re fine with no infrastructure? Really? None whatsoever?” “Yeah mate, we hate the shit, we want the right to be ran over and come back as cows.”

But have we really progressed since those days? Australia’s key voice on all issues bikish has hundreds of tents pitched here in Launceston tonight, ready for the start of their great tasmanian escapade, that sets off tomorrow. If The Bicycle Network existed to promote safe cycling infrastructure, you would have to say this is a huge undertaking for little gain.

In my opinion, we need bike advocacy groups with far less time for shenanigans. Don’t get me wrong, bicycle tour operation is fine: I’m questioning the ethics of bicycle tour operators drifting into advocacy, and impacting bicycle infrastructure. The ride tomorrow from Launceston to Scottsdale will take in some of the most perilous cycling roads in the world, with no shoulders, blind corners, and locals in the habit of driving to the very limit of traction. But with support trucks front and rear, participants in the Great Shenanigans will not even notice—they’re paying $1500 for 9 days to be safely escorted. Nor are they likely to notice the disused rail line running parallel to their road route. For the price of another lost seat in federal parliament, that disused rail line could be sealed to provide a safe cycling route from Northern Midlands, almost to the East coast of Tasmania, giving people in many small towns on the way an alternative to vehicular transport.

Why has the The Bicycle Network not leveraged its position to weigh in on this issue? Are they worried safe touring routes would be bad for business, charging to escort people in groups on dangerous roads? I doubt anyone could be so cyclical. Perhaps they’re just ignorant of infrastructural opportunities in the areas where they operate tours? That’s a shame, given they are now the umbrella organisation for Tasmania’s state-wide advocacy group. I actually think this is just an oversight, traceable to their origins as an interest group representing cyclists who are happy enough with things as they are—who are secretly hoping to come back as cows.

About Steven

I'm on a mission to put cycling on the agendas of architects, urban designers and fellow academics, who see the potential for bicycles to change cities and buildings. My PhD is in architectural history and my interdisciplinary research spans art theory, philosophy and cultural studies. I teach architectural history and theory and design studio at The University of Tasmania, Australia, and formerly worked as an architect designing large public housing projects in Singapore. My favourite bikes are a titanium racing bike I use for racing, a Velorbis retro commuter for riding to cafes and work, a single speed ultra light Brompton that I take with me when I travel on planes, a 29er hard tail mountain bike that I get lost on in remote places, an old track bike that scares me, a 1984 Colnago Super with all original campagnolo components that is plugged into a virtual realm that I train in, and a Dutch-made Bakfiets, that could easily replace half of the bikes I just mentioned.
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15 Responses to Critical Mass Shenanigans

  1. tOM Trottier says:

    I think there’s room both for people encouraging cycling and those encouraging cycling infrastructure. Make use of the overlaps! Why not sign up petitioners for the railline path? USE the confluence of cyclists! Use the event! Geeze, love one another – right now!

    • Steven says:

      Darn, you got me. I just have sour grapes that I don’t have the time to go on the ride too!
      There is a serious edge though: the bicycle network have jostled for dominance among advocacy groups in Australia, and have the biggest voice on bike infrastructure. This is problematic given how many of their grass roots supporters would prefer lower speed limits to barrier protected cycle tracks. Not that I don’t love those lane holding, sandal wearing, bar-end shifter nerds (I’m one myself!) — it’s just they should never have been allowed to think their opinions on bike infrastructure counted more than the opinions of people who don’t ride, but would do if they could do it protected from from cars.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in the post. I do think this is a matter worthy of further debate. Before I comment further I will own up to being a board member of the Bicycle Transport Alliance Western Australia a small but very passionate bicycle lobbying group in WA which does not organise events and the Fremantle BUG.

    The Bicycle Network affiliate here in Western Australia is Bicycling Western Australia which was the Cyclo Sportif organisation and which has now morph into Bicycling Western Australia and hence “lobbying” on behalf of cyclists. While I think they do a fantastic job organising the Cyclo Sportif events, I am not so sure that translates into quality lobbying on behalf of cyclists, yet their influence is growing because of their membership base and some would say including myself their very “gentle approach” to lobbying on behalf of cyclists, lobbying at times which has made me wonder if they really no what cyclists who ride regularly,e.g., commuters go through.

    So for me I can see where you are coming from. Personally I would like to see quality strong lobby groups acting on behalf of cyclists of all types and strong quality groups focusing on events and the like, e.g., Cyclo Sportif , mountain biking and such but somehow lobbying is not sexy and does not attract the numbers so it makes it harder to lobby effectively without the mass of numbers the likes of Bicycle Western Australia attract.

    • Steven says:

      thanks for not taking offence! I was actually thinking of deleting this post, purely for the sake of a peaceful life, but saw that (somehow) a lot of people had already read it. Guess I’ll just have to stick by my words.
      Of course it’s fine for interest groups to speak up in protection of their own interests. Us racers want approval to control traffic on certain roads to have our races. Mountain bikers want access to reserves. But when it comes to bike transport policy, we need to be very clear that we are not representing the interests of recreational cyclists, or hipsters, or people with a peculiar perception that riding on the road among cars is safe enough if you’re assertive and trained. We need professionals with a clear objective to raise the bike modal share to something credible, like 10%. I can’t think of a better example to follow than that which was set by the City of Sydney.

  3. trailgumby says:

    Unfortunately, when lobbying, the numbers you represent directly drive the influence you have.

    As a founding member of Trail Care, which is working with NPWS, NSW State Government, and local Councils to improve trail access for mountain bikers in Sydney’s north, we have been fortunate to be able to leverage off the (well founded) perception that we represent many times the number of trail users than we actually have on our membership books, being just a couple of years old. That won’t continue long term unless we grow our member numbers appropriately.

    My view is: if running rides, offering public liability insurance to cover third party risk while cycling, and providing other services in order to attract members to your books is necessary to help fund your core mission of bicycle commuting advocacy and and grow the weight you carry with regulators, then so be it.

    The risk of course is that running these services causes the organisation to lose focus and the tail starts wagging the dog. As we have seen in the case of BNSW, the dog then rapidly loses weight as the members vote with their feet and leave.

    I really like the look of where Omar Khalifa is taking Go! Alliance. He has some really interesting observations to make about the impact of generational change on how advocacy has traditionally been conducted, and the opportunities the combination of the web and new advocacy models provide.

    See here: http://www.bicycles.net.au/2013/02/go-alliance-omar-khalifa/

  4. Roberto says:

    Cynical/cyclical??? Double negatives …

    ” I doubt anyone could not be so cyclical.”

    In this and other posts it is clear that it is the current non cyclists that have to be engaged/considered when looking at bicycle infrastructure. People who currently ride have come to terms to some extent with the current state of our roads etc., To elevate cycling as an alternative reality will require avoiding “shenanigans”.

  5. If I may add to my earlier post (and thanks for not deleting your post) I colleague of mine on the Bicycle Transport Alliance reminded me of this post on their website which highlights the difference between an event which is run once a year on Perth’s freeways and the daily ride that commuters have to experience just to one side of that same freeway, the Mitchel freeway.

    The event is great for promoting cycling and for raising money but it dos nothing to promote improving infrastructure for day to day riding, the very thing that can significantly contribute to the growth in cycling, something that I believe the draft Federal report, Walking, Riding and Access to Public Transport goes somewhat towards recognising.

  6. Netscape says:

    Broken link “Bike Hour”

  7. Steven says:

    thank you all for taking the time to leave such considered comments.

  8. I think it is valuable to band together to promote a safe environment for people who ride bicycles (instead of using a car) to get to work, school, shops or train stations.

    At the Bicycle Transport Alliance we have a board that is like a federation of valiant cycle warriors responding in their own ways to issues on how people are moving around in urban environments, and at times these warriors are quit effective.

    Providing feedback on infrastructure plans is time consuming, as is planning for and participating in meetings that deal with road planning and safety issues. Influencing funding via the political process can be effective, but if successfull the flowers need to go to politicians for their electoral survival – the lobbying becomes invisible.

    Funding is a major issue. It is hard to get people to shell out money to support activities that most people think should be a given, and should be considered and acted upon by governments without prompting.

    Organising rides is an effective way of creating income, but because effort follows revenue, the focus then shifts to the income source, and advocay efforts get diluted.

    To really get quantum leaps you need political champions and highest level public servants that are passionate about moving people instead of facilitating car trips. Examples that come to mind is Boris Johnston of London, Gil Penelosa of Bogota or Jeannette Sadik-Khan of New York.

    … and perhaps some Shenigans, such as critical mass rides, can also stimulate the discussion….

    To close – I would love to have an events based income and combine it with the integrity and passion of people on the BTA board – it would change this corner of the world. In the meantime I guess we have to be content to come back as cows and have somebody play with our nether regions twice a day.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks Heinrich. I’m just an outside observer. It’s great to get insider perspectives. Somehow, this blog post that I whipped out last week without all much thought, has touched a nerve and stimulated quite a bit of discussion—hopefully for the betterment of bike advocacy generally.
      I’ve also learned the Bicycle Network (who organised the shenanigans ride) did indeed take the opportunity to do some behind-the-scenes work investigating rail trails parallel to the routes they would be taking. My only criticism then, is they did not succeed, but I guess that would have required capturing and torturing quite a few politicians in this part of the world. Would the ends justify the means in this instance? I’m really not sure.

  9. Robert Hunt says:

    Not one grant of about 5000 for non-profit groups in Australia is available for activites to promote safer conditions for commuter cyclists to ride to shops, work, school, university, training college or recreation passtimes. As secretary of the Bicycle Transport Alliance of WA I went through the whole list put out monthly by the Our Community organistion. There are plenty of grants under the health and sport categories for setting up cycling clubs and running events but none for campaigning for safe cycling conditions from any point A to any point B — a process that take years of work getting local councils and State Government organisations to recognise the need and to get through the long and tedious process of getting the money.
    The Australian Government Climate Change Program — part of its carbon tax campaign — rejected the BTA’s application for a grant in the sustainable transport category to survey everybody in WA who did not ride a bike to find out why they didn’t. The rationale submitted was that every commuter on a bicycle was not in a car polluting the atmosphere in a traffic jam or on a bus or train subsidised $5 for every single trip by the state taxpayers.
    The BTA proposal was to advertise the survey in the program pages of the two major weekly television magazines — a total audited readership of about 1.5 million people. The TV magazines were picked because everybody in a household reads the TV programs at least once a day and usually more. The survey was along the lines “Would you ride a bike to the shops, work, school and recreation activities if you could? What’s stopping you?” The idea was to find out what cycleways were needed all over WA by asking the people who would use them — it has never been done. It also would have focused on what made people feel safe on a bike and whether they thought they needed some sorrt of refresher course to get their skills up to scratch.
    The grant application was rejected because it did not list any public “events” or publications to publicise the Australian Government’s message on the carbon tax.

    • Steven says:

      Frustrating. The bicycle unit in city of sydney council did manage to conduct such a survey. I’m sure the results are online.
      I’ve reasoned that greenies will never help cycling. A link to my oft bandied piece to explain why: http://www.theurbancountry.com/2011/11/parable-of-bicycle-advocate.html
      So don’t be dishearten about missing out on climate change dollars.
      The heart foundation are more likely to fund stuff. Or I guess I could put a case to the ARC.

    • Steven says:

      Frustrating. The bicycle unit in city of sydney council did manage to conduct a survey like that. I’m sure the results are online. They were crucial to their being able to push through the Burke Street cycle track, and similar.
      I’ve reasoned that greenies will never help cycling. A link to my oft bandied piece on the subject: http://www.theurbancountry.com/2011/11/parable-of-bicycle-advocate.html
      So don’t be dishearten about missing out on climate change dollars.
      The heart foundation are more likely to fund stuff. Or I guess I could put a case to the ARC!

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