Unlike some other experts in the field of bicycle advocacy and urbanism I don’t carry thousands of stats in my head—just a few personal favourites. You amass lots of facts and rational arguments if you’re heading to court. But if you’re heading to city hall or a board room, you won’t get far without power.
I teach my students about power relations in architectural practice by asking them to think back a few years to dinner table arguments with their parents and how they could never win. Even if their logic was perfect, and their parents’ logic was flawed, their parents’ logic prevailed. “While you live in my house, you live by my rules”, parents say when they’re wrong, thus showing how the child’s rationality gives them no power. The rationality that holds sway is that which is constructed by those who have power.
If those in power running your city have decided bike infrastructure is an irrational investment, your rational counter arguments will not change their minds. They will think you are loopy for having ideas that don’t tally with the rules of their house. Our ways of getting through and making a difference roughly parallel the means a teenager has available to them of getting their way.
Jacques Ranciere writes about the power of civil disobedience, something that works in the home. A teenager who locks the door to their room, gets in trouble at school and breaks a vase is likely to bring their parents to the negotiation table. Die ins, stencil campaigns, ghost bikes, critical mass rides, tweed runs, and guerilla interventions can all force authorities to listen. Unfortunately, in cases like these, authorities make few concessions. They do the minimum required to appease dissenters for a few weeks, then go back to business as usual.
Teenagers have power for a day when they bring home glowing report cards. That’s like me having power for a day after I have been recognised overseas. But validation from external sources takes a long time to earn and takes no time at all to wear off.
As for gratuitous favours like doing the dishes, smart kids know their parents will come to expect a favour a day. You get no power at all in this way. So I say to hell with doing nice things for politicians. The bike advocates who play this game are angling for local government jobs or commissions. They don’t want to fight city hall. They just want a job there.
The #1 trick kids use to gain power with parents, even into their teens, is the one they use from the time they can draw. It’s the same trick architects use when they hit city hall. We wow them with pretty pictures. More broadly, we remind those whose power is only economic and/or political, that they lack imagination and talent. Oh and it hurts them to hear it!
In the case of architects, the pretty pictures we bring are visualisations and plans, of what could possibly be.
The architectural theorist Charles Jencks wrote a genius piece about architectural power, in which he said:
Observations like these are what buoy me, and at the same time make me want to engage other architects who identify as bicycle advocates. I really think urban cycling is one of the keys to our species prevailing. Here’s a little gallery of works from our studio here. They represent my gradual accumulation of power over elected officials, politicians and the business community, who have no ideas of their own. They can only hope to be beaten by me, as I can only hope to be ultimately beaten by my own brilliant teenager.