Activists, advocates…scabs.

I have a vested interest in writing this: too many so-called bicycle advocates belong to a category my unionist forebears would have called scabs. More polite, but less accurate are words like dilettante, outsider, amateur or non-professional. Some are doctors—how I would love to establish free try-your-luck surgeries next door to theirs! Some are engineers—gee, I could do that!

If you do not receive money for your work to further the cause of bike transport, then the only really effective stance you can take is that of an activist. An activist is someone who rallies huge crowds to obstruct movement in public spaces until the government either caves into their demands or throws them in gaol. Die-ins, critical mass rides, and the old stop the child murder demonstrations in Holland in the 1970s all fit this description. Other good examples, though not directly related to cycling, are the Occupy movement and the student demonstrations in Tiananmen square. In my mind I’m provoking unrest with this blog. In reality the nearest I have ever physically come to true bicycle activism was this critical mass ride in San Francisco.

No one I know could call themselves a real bicycle activist and, thankfully, no one I know ever has. What they will call themselves are bicycle advocates.

What, exactly, is a bicycle advocate? A polite kind of activist, who achieves just as much with their emails and meetings? Or are we really just talking about the kind of guy who sits on hold waiting to have his say on mid morning radio, or who responds to right wing press stories about cyclists with 500 word comments? Wouldn’t he be better described as an unemployed lobbyist?

The tobacco and auto industries have lobbyists. They work in teams of fifty or more and some are on wages of a few hundred K; if I knew any of those guys I’d have stories about parties with brass and old Moët. But all I know are bike industry lobbyists. They represent bike shops and importers, or the interests of rider insurance policy holders. I’m glad to know all of these people. My only regret are the tales of $4 coffees; the car and fag lobbies have much better parties..

I’ve shared a few coffee breaks with unemployed lobbyists, you know, the ones my dad would call “scabs”. The conversations all seem to follow this pattern. He has recently met with someone in power who sent him away to get stats. He has now gathered those stats (sometimes with a little guidance from me) but has been sent away yet again, this time to get costings. Next he will be sent away to get stats. Then he’ll be sent away to get costings.  He’s feeling so close now he has started designing the bicycle track and the lighting. After his next visit to council he is sent away to find a cambric shirt without no seams nor needlework, and the week after, an acre of land between the salt water and the sea strand. He still hasn’t gotten the hint, that he has not been sent away to get prices and stats. They just sent him away.

What the unemployed lobbyists have done over time is devalue professional research and consultancy work and created a myth that unpaid advocacy work is just as effective as true bicycle activism. It’s not. For every story I’ve heard of an advocate’s campaign breaking through, I’ve heard a politician’s side of the story, that the decision to do something for cycling had been in advance. At best the campaigner gave the government some tips. More likely he was doing a rain dance then one day it happened to rain.

I’m sensitive. I know when I’m being fobbed off. Fortunately I learned all about it decades ago. As a precocious post-graduate student I took a grand scheme for my city to our mayor at the time. He told me to go and do some more research. Fortunately my plan was so grandiose (burying my city’s heavy rail line to build apartments above) that I was able to step back and recognise my own megalomania. I’m lucky too that my natural male urge to build towers and roads has been satisfied in the course of my work, especially in Singapore during the Tiger boom phase.

Since I’ve gone into practice I get roughly one inquiry per fortnight for legitimate work, and one a day for free advice or a free public lecture. I was rarely bothered this way in the tertiary sector, and never bothered when I worked in architectural practice before that.

Whether for my sake, or the sake of bike planning more generally, I would urge you all to stop doing free work. Put your energy into genuine activism. You just saw how it works last week in Melbourne. And you can understand the theory behind it by reading a little Jacques Ranciere or David Harvey.


  1. James says:

    If our paid advocates were doing what people on the ground believed they ought to be doing, there would be no need for the unpaid advocates to even exist. However that is not the case at all. Most of the paid advocates in Australia do not do what we should expect from them. For example, some are supported by big automobile clubs, and cannot or will not do what is best for cyclists, in fear that they might upset their cash cow. They have to tow their master’s line. Most paid advocates in this country actively support mandatory helmet laws, though the laws stopped a large portion of people from cycling. Most paid advocates compromise and bow to the pressure of “must not inconvenience motorists”, which has the effect to further marginalise and reduce cycling.
    I’ve witnessed the facilities they rubber stamp that are dangerous by design. They don’t think about how the design and how people will use it. They are a waste of space.
    About all the paid advocates are good for, seems to be organising mass participation rides to help justify and puff up their inflated pay packets.

    • Steven says:

      Yes, many lobbyists in this space are being gagged by their funders. But volunteers aren’t the only exception. Academics and professionals have autonomy too. Of the three—volunteers, academics and professionals—the volunteers are misguided. I just wrote a blog about that.

    • James says:

      It seems to me the academics and professionals are not immune from being misguided either.

  2. The first thing to remember about infrastructure is that the only group who can install bike infrastructure is the authorities. Ordinary people and advocates for people on bicycles can’t install bike infrastructure. When advocates set infrastructure as their number one priority, that means that their number one priority is to petition the authorities, not to get more people on bicycles. I believe that the most effective way to get people on bicycles is to show them people like themselves on bicycles (this is the reason why Cycle Chic was an effective form of bicycle advocacy; it made bicycling an aspirational activity for a certain group of stylish people).

    • Steven says:

      I like your clarity. If New York blocks were only as long as they are narrow, Sadik Khan would have had little to do. Thankfully I live in a city that has a fine street grid already, and notwithstanding a few black spots and hills that local cyclists know to avoid, it is completely bike safe. If you followed me on a ride you wouldn’t know you weren’t cycling in Holland — except for the scooters (there are none). So yeah, I could become a another Cyclechic franchisee, but I don’t want to waste my time increasing the bike share. The bike share is rising of its own accord, due to people’s access to knowledge and the slowing of traffic as cities get denser. Anyway I’ve got (sporadic) working already, helping architects anticipate and conceptualise cities and buildings in an era of increasing bike transport.
      Thanks for that!

  3. Jonathan R says:

    Dr. Behooving, after reading your blog for several months I too have realized that “bike mode share” is indeed a rather vague measurement, and not really worth committing oneself to improving. Seems to me that the important thing is hedonic travel, in which people enjoy themselves moving from place to place. Bicycling is speedy and therefore naturally joy-inducing; walking too has many happy moments if the authorities only keep the sidewalks paved and make it easy to cross streets.

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