Justice in Action

How a group bicycle ride seeks spatial justice

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.


Comments: 5

Ron wrote:

Q: Why is the article titled "Justice in Action" on line, but "Democracy in Action" in print?
Q: Why is it so one-sided? E.g.; "a group of cyclists in San Francisco ... figured the car was ... a mode of transportation that disrupts the capacity to ride a bike comfortably..." - Seems you can just as easily say that a bike is a mode of transportation that disrupts the capacity to drive a car comfortably.
Since cars - autos - all have turn signals, brake lights, reverse lights, license plate lights, head lights, and mirrors, all of which (when used - rarely in Calgary, I admit) allow a person outside the auto to know what its driver's intent is, whereas very few bicycles have any of the above, it would seem the bicycle is the more disruptive vehicle. That should be acknowledged in a unbiased article.
Then, it is claimed that "the CM ride itself is democratic theory in action. Ride routes are determined democratically: the person who encourages the most riders on a route ultimately chooses the route.
But that is NOT democratic theory at all. Democracy is rule by everyone in self-interest. Nothing more. Nothing less.
It is only democratic if everyone involved votes and keeps doing so until a clear majority decides on one way. Otherwise, the voter of all who selected a third, or fourth etc. person who mas less than a majority, but still a significant plurality, are wasted as if they never occurred. Sort of like Canadian politics.
That creates a small number voting in self-interest. Not a democracy, that is an oligarchy.
There is a huge difference between "demanding a right" and just taking it without permission of the recognised authority. The first is legitimate. The second is anarchy. Where is the "justice" in that?
Roads laid out for the convenience of autos do not disadvantage those who do not drive (for any reason), and do not constitute "injustice." Those people are still free to use the roads by riding in cars, buses, etc., or use bicycles, or walk alongside the roads.
The public DOES have equal access to them.
Unasked and therefore unanswered in Mr. Snell's sermon is "What happens when an ambulance, fire truck, or police car needs to use the road the pedal-driven anarchists are blocking with their bicycles strewn willy-nilly?" Does the risk of human life have to take a back seat to a very noisome self-interested, self-serving minority? What if the person at risk was - dare I say it - riding a bicycle?

on May 25th, 2014 at 11:39pm Report Abuse

PsySal wrote:

I'll reply to just one point here:

"Seems you can just as easily say that a bike is a mode of transportation that disrupts the capacity to drive a car comfortably."

The difference is in the level of "discomfort".

In my experience it's incredibly rare for a car to be delayed by a bicycle, but it's certainly possible. At any rate, this is certainly one kind of discomfort or inconvenience for the driver.

But this discomfort is small compared to the issues you face when using a bicycle on a public street. Some points to consider:

- Most drivers I know have been in a fender bender at some point or another. A bike can certainly stand to be in a "fender bender" with another bike, but never with a car. So the level of caution somebody on a bike has to exercise is much, much higher than if they were in a car. It's not hard to understand, some people even suggest banning bicycles from roadways completely for this reason.

- Some drivers do not yield to bicycles in the same way they would to someone in a car or on a motorcycle. This is due perhaps to an unconcious perception that the bicycle is not entitled to use the road in the same way. So a person on a bike is constantly having to assert space to travel safely in a way you normally take for granted in a car. This should be relatable if you consider what it's like when somebody doesn't give way when you're merging. Now imagine this happens all the time, almost by default, with almost any traffic maneuvre (left turn, right turn, stop sign, stop light, green light, lane change, etc.)

- A small percentage of drivers will actively antagonize and endanger cyclists. I won't speculate as to why, and it's a small percentage, but it's an extremely serious threat that may be difficult to relate to this if you've never had it happen to you. A directly comparable event would be if you've ever had another driver point a gun at you-- most likely you'll never have to worry about that, fortunately. But it does happen that drivers use their car as a weapon to threaten cyclists. If you have a hard time accepting this, it's only because like most people you are a reasonable person who wouldn't dream of actively swerving at a person on a bicycle. But they're out there.

on May 26th, 2014 at 6:28pm Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

It is great to see the admission from a commuter cycling fanatic that commuter cycling as exemplified by "riding collectives" is political action to attack the current economic system, by "lessening the efficiency of automobile transport". Cognitive dissonance? Attack the system that provides the wealth that allows commuter cyclists to live a first world lifestyle.

The fundamental distortion is "a city built for automobiles". No. It is great semantics to make the argument that it is automobiles versus people, but that is false. Correctly, it is automobile drivers & passengers, including SOV drivers, HOV drivers & passengers, taxi passengers, truck drivers & the goods they move, bus passengers, emergency vehicle crews & passengers, and motor cyclists versus commuter bicyclists with special entitlements, beyond existing rights to ride on the roads, albeit with the constraint that they obey the rules of the road.

The statement that "a cyclist collective opens the narrative up. A street becomes a place for the public rather than a single user group." is Orwellian double speak. It changes the street from multi-users (the drivers & passengers of cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, emergency vehicles, and bicyclists) to a single user group, bicyclists.

To claim that this is "Democracy in action, or Justice in action" is hilarious. This is an elite: mostly white, financially well off, young, healthy, white collar, and male.

To Psy Sal, my experience is the opposite of yours: it is routine for cars to be delayed by commuter bicyclists, in many cases more than once in a single trip by a single bicyclist. However, I will admit that most motorists do not face many delays from commuter bicyclists during the winter, because there are so few bicylists in the Great White North.

on May 27th, 2014 at 8:36pm Report Abuse

AP wrote:

Now that we have seen the utopian model of a bicycle society, let’s look at the reality of what happens in cities around most of the world. Please take a gander through the streets of India, South East Asia and China one day, where swarming masses of humanity mix in the form of pedestrian, bicycle, motored two wheelers, private vehicle, taxis, buses and trucks. After having experienced those traffic scenarios first hand, I began to appreciate the ordered sanity of rush hour traffic in Calgary. And I really don’t want my city to turn into that.

In a democracy, everyone has a voice. And in all societies, there are always those who yearn for the “simpler good old days”. Well, in those good old days, there was also a heavy reliance on horse and carriage for transportation. Should we be bringing them back as well?

And for those who yearn for automobiles displacing bikes, the analogy would be that the advent of internet has taken away from print media, radio and television (which had all taken away from each other). Should be stop the internet, or expect the other forms of media to evolve and transform themselves.

Bikes, pedestrians, motorcyclists (which I am one of ) and vehicles need to share the roads and the space at one point or another. Each needs to be given their due space and acknowledgement. And each has to understand their limitations and accept which spaces they should and shouldn’t use (ie. 1000 pedestrians walking down in the middle of a city street is as stupid as large multi trailer trucks driving through residential roads).

Also, to bicyclists who plan to ride on the roads and share them, I encourage that they start a lobby ground that mandates they take a safety course and get a licence, just like motorcyclists do. After all, they are a viable form of transportation on the roads and have their presence felt.

on May 30th, 2014 at 1:05pm Report Abuse

jakeonhisplanet wrote:

The motorist comments here(Ron, AP),prove a point about perceptions.

As a member of a club complete with fees and initiation ceremony, a motorist can feel excessively entitled.

Pride in ownership, membership and (to varying degrees) competence, breeds chauvinism.

'1000 pedestrians walking down in the middle of a city street' is entirely sensible and possible, and always was before the advent of motor transit. It only becomes insane when mixed with heavy vehicles. By contrast, routing heavy freight through residential areas is obnoxious and hugely inefficient, unlikely to be undertaken by any haulage firm seeking a profit.

'Roads laid out for the convenience of autos...' are inherently inconvenient for pedestrians and HPV, because they favor fast vehicle movement over human safety and social interaction. Try having a conversation next to a busy junction at rush hour, let alone crossing it with a clutch of kids.

Cars have their place, for sure, but it isn't in the heart of the city.

on Jun 5th, 2014 at 10:16pm Report Abuse

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