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:

21 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    I ride my bike in Newcastle and when I am in situations where there is an empty footpath beside a very busy road, I use the footpath, eg Glebe Road. I have had police cars drive past me and not one has ever stopped me or even attempted to. If one ever does, my arguments will be ready: how can you ask me to ride in that traffic and truly believe I will be safer, are you booking me for looking out for my safety as well as for that of others? I do not hassle pedestrians, I ride around them if they are there (which is very infrequent) and call out to them if I am approaching them from behind so I don’t scare them. I keep a close watch for cars reversing from their driveways and when I have to cross roads, (for my own safety as well as than theirs). I don’t think your son will be unable to ride on footpaths once he is beyond age 12 but I think your idea is an interesting one. I don’t agree that hassling pedestrians is a good idea though, I think it will just damage the cause of bicyclists wanting to ride safely and cause more aggro between cyclists and other community members.

    • Steven says:

      How do you propose we make cities safe for kids to cycle to school, without damaging the cause by being pests?
      I appreciate your comment, and tempered my wording in response. Thanks for that. I’m not so happy that you think I would “hassle” anyone, with my own kids along. I’m proposing fun rides, that pedestrians can jolly well accept, of else “hassle” the government for long overdue bicycling infrastructure. Thanks again! Please join us, or at least talk about the idea.

    • Anonymous says:

      I agree with you that upgrading the cycle infrastructure is necessary here, absolutely! And the govt needs to be hassled in order to provide this, to make our city a better place in so many ways. In the meantime I would be encouraging kids to use the sidewalks, safely, though I know this is not legal if they are over 12. The sidewalks are really underused in many areas and using them to cycle does not pose a threat to anyone, and if the kids are aware of the dangers on the footpath, they should be safe. I do not know of anyone who has been booked for riding on them, and I see quite a few people riding them.
      I do not think that a group protest ride along a busy sidewalk would achieve anything, though. If it was done along, say, Beaumont St or Darby St, I think you would just get many people offside in regards to promoting urban cycling. I like your blog, I was really happy to find another Novocastrian cyclist blogger 🙂

    • Steven says:

      I had better give you some background. I had a meeting with Lars Gemzøe in Copenhagen last week (Jan Gehl’s partner and coauthor) and he drove home the importance of giving cyclists access to places people like going, like shopping and cafe strips. Giving them back routes and rail trails is like giving drivers loops in the bush to go do some burn-outs. Totally useless if you want to make bikes a part of our urban lifestyles. So it is essential we make a pest of ourselves in the most popular places, the places we wan to go, and the places that need more humans (not cars) on the street. Is that better?

    • Anonymous says:

      Yes, thank you for the further information, that makes it much better. I will be interested to hear about the effect your action has, if you carry it through.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks. I’m keen to see if it takes off gradually elsewhere as well. I’m getting this one retweeted by a few dudes with thousands of followers. We’ll see what happens. What is your blog then?

    • Anonymous says:

      I will link to it at another time, when I feel it is up to a better standard, it is not nearly as impressive as your blog, and never will be, but it takes a local perspective on bicycling, which is what is important to me, along with improving cycling conditions around here.

    • Steven says:

      Am interested to read it myself, so maybe just email the link to me? steven@behoovingmoving.com
      We’re both on the same side!

    • Anonymous says:

      Done! And thanks for being so welcoming on your blog.

  2. Anonymous says:

    already happening

    in singapore, your city of encouragement, the ‘gahmen’ already allows cycling on the footpath in a couple of the heartland towns. once they find that not a single pedestrian has been put in hospital by a cyclist (how could they, at the speed the uncles and aunties ride at?), hopefully it will be extended to all the other towns as well.

    one other advantage SG has is that along major roads, there are virtually no driveways crossing the footpath because all the residential blocks are self contained with one major exit / entrance serving anywhere between 1000-2000 people, that itself comes off a side road.

    but wait, there’s more! the universal access ramps they’ve been putting in everywhere are fantastic for cyclists. (there’s hardly any disabled people because they’re not tidy. and old people are usually being wheeled around by the indonesian maid who leaves them under a tree while they flirt with taxi drivers. the maids, not the old people.) you just need to make sure you have the mad skillz to get around a tight 180 bend on an incline.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Re: already happening

    Hi Tom, I was an HDB architect there in the mid 1990s. Still, I can’t quite picture the universal access ramps you mention. I gather they’re more than just the old access balconies. Are they something that has been retrofitted to those old buildings that didn’t have lifts stopping at every level? No chance you could share a photo? And no one complains about you riding on them?
    What does “gahmen” mean? A Malay term I’m guessing.
    And, while I have you, is there a cycleway map for singapore? I’m particularly interested in “park connectors” as I’ve heard them called.
    Thanks a lot for the info!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Re: already happening

    hey steve i found your blog through shaun’s blog – liked the singapore cyclespace vids you put up 😉

    gahmen = government in singlish. the tampines cycling trial kept being ‘extended’ but now tampines is officially a “cycling town”, the first of many, supposedly. http://www.asiaone.com/Motoring/Motorworld/Story/A1Story20100304-202443.html

    universal access = a policy they’ve implemented to allow wheelchair/blind/old people access to (almost) all hdb’s / shopping centres / MRTs etc etc. eg wherever there were stairs at the ground floor of an hdb / MRT station they’ve added shallow incline ramps (with tight turns!) that lead to the lift lobby/footpaths, but more usefully, wherever a side road came off a main road and the gutter just continued around the corner, they’ve now “shaved” those down to road level and put those yellow bumpy things on for blind people. perfect for transitioning between footpath and road on a bike 😉

    the PCNs maps are on the Nparks website.
    http://www.nparks.gov.sg/cms/index.php?option=com_visitorsguide&task=parkconnectors&Itemid=74

    oh i also have some vids of various bits of the network:


    and finally (i know, i know), the old malaysian KTM railway from tanjong pagar to woodlands now belongs to singapore. there’s a (fairly) concerted effort to get the corridor converted into a rails-to-trails type thing. it would be a perfect cycle route as it connects to the western and northern PCNs, flies right by the biopolis / fusionopolis, could easily be hooked to the southern ridges (in my second vid) and would dump people right in the financial heart of SG. total no brainer right, but whether they do it or not…
    more info here http://www.thegreencorridor.org/about/

    good luck on the book!

  5. Anonymous says:

    annoy the motorists not the pedestrians

    If you are brave or the conditions are right, annoy the motorists by taking the lane. Then motorists will be in favour of bike lanes. This strategy is not for everyone, and won’t work everywhere. But if done where/when possible, it could be persuasive.

    I’m even thinking of putting a sign on my back “Sorry, there’s no bike lane”, that I can lift up and put down as appropriate.

    BTW I hardly ever miss CM, because I enjoy riding with my friends in the relative safety of a big bunch. Plus I get to ride on roads I normally avoid.

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