A city is both a physical thing, a construct within an environment, and something symbolic, something in our minds. It is a setting or an actor in the stories we tell others. When we go to another city, the symbolic form becomes more perceptible. We don’t tell a story about Lethbridge, Juárez or Florence, but rather a story about our experience of it. By endowing a place with a story, we change it for our audience. In this sense there is no single Calgary, but rather all the stories we tell about it. Some stories just become more prominent than others.
A city is as much buildings, parks, roads and sewers as it is conversations, dreams and ponderings. In my previous columns I’ve been writing about how a small group of pedestrians in 19th century Paris employed a type of walk to avoid a story that was being created, one of an economic model based on resource extraction efficiency. The Victorian economics of exploiting the Earth and labour for profit was making for an ugly city and this group didn’t have much interest in taking part, so they walked to emotionally detach from it. Avoidance doesn’t do much to change a city, however. That requires action.
I’m going to take a break from writing about pedestrians and move to cyclists — how a group of cyclists in San Francisco didn’t much care for what their city was becoming, or already was. They figured the car was not only a mode of transportation — one that disrupts the capacity to ride a bike comfortably — but also an analogy of the economic model that the small group of Parisian pedestrians had also critiqued.
In her paper, From Counterpublics to Counterspaces: Bicyclists’ Efforts to Reshape Cities, professor Lusi Morhayim helps inform us that a political decision is also a decision about space: it effects the places we live. Morhayim describes a loose collective of bicyclists taking back streets from drivers in San Francisco. She writes, “On the last Friday of every month since 1992, rain or shine, bicyclists gather in Justin Herman Plaza starting at around six in the evening. When their numbers grow large enough for them to negotiate the right of way safely, they start the ride together. One by one, all of the bicyclists pour onto Market Street” and cycle, sometimes extending for over a kilometre as they ride city streets. This great collective under the auspices of justice has been termed a Critical Mass bicycle ride.
The CM ride itself is democratic theory in action, but also built upon a belief in democracy. Ride routes are determined democratically: the person who encourages the most riders on a route ultimately chooses the route. Leadership is created by moving amongst the group handing out Xeroxes of a desired route and encouraging others to follow along.
Riding a bike thus becomes a story about a city. The CM cyclists perceive each other as sharing “worldviews, values, lifestyles, and identity traits (broadly defined as environmentally friendly and socially responsible).” They share a story representing a counter-narrative to city planning, not one that is simply in opposition to a city built for automobiles, but a larger critique involving the automobile as a symbol of an economic model that incises cities with individualism and alienation.
Although justice is often associated with the marginalization of race, gender and class, “demanding right to an urban infrastructure that incorporates clean, natural environments and accommodates health and physically active lifestyles, is also a significant rights claim and spatial justice problem.” The CM riders thus identify as a marginalized group. They demonstrate unequal access to public right of way. They are marginalized to the shoulder of a street. Or because that is often a dangerous and uncomfortable experience, they are completely removed from the street.
A cycling collective proffers a counter position to the auto-dependent city. It elevates traffic from being a condition of transportation efficiency to one of justice. The current model of moving people about in their cars and creating road designs to reduce automobile traffic is an issue of justice. Design solutions to aid automobile movement, rather than human movement, is an injustice; it disadvantages those who choose not to drive, can’t drive, or cannot afford to drive.
As Morhayim writes, “the extent by which citizens have a right to the city is defined by the social production of and control over public space.” The CM ride attempts to rejig the sense of ownership, to tell a different story about the city. Rather than a city solely oriented around a given economic model, and its manifestation of automobile dependence, a cyclist collective opens the narrative up. A street becomes a place for the public rather than a single user group.
Streets can be owned and operated publicly, but they’re only public in the true sense if the public has equal access to them, without discrimination based on desired mode of transportation. Riding collectives subvert the automobile’s authority, and also symbolically critique the economic system by lessening the efficiency of automobile transport. They create traffic in the city and in the economic model. But as is the CM thesis: “We are not blocking traffic, we are the traffic.”
Steven Snell is a professional city planner with a master’s in urban planning. His series of columns will focus on spatial justice and the city. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @stevenpsnell.