On the occasion of World Car Free Day, Leszek Sibilski recounts the significant events in the history of bicycles and it’s growing value in our lives.

“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race”. – H.G Wells

Bicycles are resilient:

The 1817 invention of the bicycle by German inventor Karl von Drais was inspired by the April 1815 volcano eruption of Mount Tambora, followed by riots and looting in Europe due to food starvation and death of horses caused by crop failure in 1816. Is this a deja vu all over again?! Let’s hope not.

In the past, the bicycle has served humanity as “the freedom machine.” Nowadays, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate crises, and global social protests, it has the potential to become the support ‘vehicle for justice’ through its exceptional mobility and universality the world over and evident by a recent and an unprecedented boom in bicycle sales and usage.

Customers lined up outside a local bicycle repair shop.

Role of bicycle in social movement:

In the still ongoing 2019-2020 Hong Kong “Umbrella Movement” protests, the bicycle is not present on any of the sides with a few exceptions when a falling bike hit a police officer in the head. However, the Honk Kong bike-sharing firm unlocked its bikes amid protests for students due to apparent “system breakdown”.

In the French ongoing protests of the “yellow vest movement” that started in November of 2018, the bicycle has been more frequently utilized, but playing still an insignificant role.

On January 3, 2016, then the Polish Top Diplomat, told German tabloid Bild that he believes that there is no place for cyclists and vegetarians in Poland. As a result of his statement the community of disheartened cycling enthusiasts protested by using the bicycle as the symbol of disagreement.

The Occupy Wall Street movement of September 2011 had some mind-boggling effects on cycling activists. The bicycle played a small role along with the Critical Mass events. Bikes were also used to charge batteries for the New York City encampment.

During the 1992 Los Angeles riots bicycles were used sporadically by non-organized bystanders.

I would not associate the Tiananmen Incident of April 5, 1976, or the Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 4, 1989, with the bicycle as the catalyst or the vehicle for justice as the ever present “Flying Pigeon” was one of the main means of public transportation (besides metro and bus) at that time; however, the protesters commuted to the square on bikes on well-developed bike lanes.

On February 22, 2016, I wrote a blog for the World Bank’s People, Spaces, Deliberation, entitled: “We, the people, for the global bicycle momentum.” highlighted by Mark Twain’s quote: “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it. If you live.” Who knew that my dream would come to a realization so soon by the current coronavirus-associated bike boom, besides the fact that on April 12, 2018, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the World Bicycle Day Resolution for which I passionately lobbied for years.

“Happiness is being content with what you have, living in freedom and liberty, having a good family life and good friends” – Divyanka Tripathi.

A multifaceted machine:

We can’t try to analyze the importance of the bicycle in the current global struggle for justice without pointing out two very crucial elements associated with this ongoing social unrest. The lockdown paralyzed the graduation ceremonies for the “Generation Z” which is on its way to being most well-educated, racially and ethnically diversified, and not associated with a pre-smartphone era. Undoubtedly, the easing of lockdown mixed with police brutality triggered the movement boosted by solidarity in creating this perfect storm for social change. The events surrounding the death of George Floyd in America have exposed centuries of oppression and discrimination suffered by the communities of color, including immigrants from all walks of life from the world over.

In recent weeks, the bicycle was a part of controversy due to the brutal tactical weaponizing of bikes by police squads while taming the protests in the US cities. Under the pressure of cycling communities and media, some of the bike manufacturers decided to de-vest from providing bicycles for police, some created social programs to balance the racial inequities.

This is a maturing process in the third bicycle revolution. Sooner or later we’ll see the bicycle on the right side of the barricade. The police started to use bicycles as a response to the high mobility of the protesters. Unable to chase them. Interestingly, on June 3, the 3rd edition of the World Bicycle Day, I took part in a brief discussion on Twitter, where I argued that by the end of summer, the bicycle will be called a “Justice Machine.”

“It’s better to send it by bikes!” – Anonymous.

We can look at it as a glass half empty or half full. Boneshakers as police tools for beat patrolling were used as late as in 1869 in Illinois. British police officers used tricycles by the 1880s, followed by Penny-farthings roamed Boston, MA. In 1888 Newark, NJ police formed a bike squad. The modern use of bikes dates from the early 1990s. The bicycles were recognized as efficient tools for patrolling by police forces almost right after its inception.

In 1986, Susan B. Anthony called the bicycle “the freedom machine” by allowing women to participate in public life. Now, protest leaders, alert to the streets, see the bicycle as a pillar for their cause, as the bike has a greater capacity for self-expression and distance coverage.

The bicycle’s presence sends a memo. Running errands while respecting physical distancing is not mutually exclusive from functioning as the “vehicle for justice” in cities like Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC., (more to follow). Health and protests can work together.

The bicycle rider makes a peaceful but subtle statement by reaching a destination while being a vehicle engine and captain. Undoubtedly, the bicycle potentially can support global social change as the “Vehicle for Justice”! The bike teaches that PEOPLE are POWER by its nature!

“When you support a small business you support a dream” – Anonymous.

On June 10, The New Yorker published a very interesting article: “The Bicycle as a Vehicle of Protest” supported by many historical facts. One of them was a striking one: “One of Adolf Hitler’s first acts upon assuming power, in 1933, was to criminalize cycling unions, which were associated with anti-Nazi political parties. Brown Shirts were sent to villages to confiscate bikes …”

A couple of days later we were treated with another article with a bit more balanced approach towards the role of bicycles: “Bikes can be a tool for protest and police brutality“. On the same day, the British cycling star and guru, Chris Boardman, second the New Yorker author by stating that the temporary bike lanes are a matter of social justice.

Bicycling Magazine published well-illustrated and educating interviews with participants of a critical mass ride in San Francisco.

A tool for expression:

The contemporary social unrests have several priceless tools at their disposals: smartphones to communicate and document, the security cameras to objectively document and verify the facts, and the durable, loyal, and simple bicycle allowing protesters for longer, safer, greener participation, especially for women to avoid not too safe mass transportation. Bicycles expand space for expression and most importantly guarantee the physical distancing in the era of COVID-19. In comparison, the right-wing protesters tend to drive pickups or SUVs taking more space.

Mass public protests are optically the most powerful, high impact forms of civic engagement utilized to preserve and advance democracy. The traditional marches are slowly being transformed to bike rides mostly due to tactical urbanism and global bicycle awakening. Initial demographic data indicates the significant participation of whites in the #BlackLivesMatter protests with over 50%.

“History will judge us by the difference we make in the everyday lives of children” – Nelson Mandela.

As injustice has many shades and shapes, I would not focus on one but for all of them; therefore, we need a pedal-powered Vehicle for Justice that is going to serve us all. The bicycle already secured a bright future for itself in social movements. Now, it’s time for active mobility transportation to secure enough infrastructure for its global development.

About the Author:

Leszek J. Sibilski is a Polish-American sociologist and longtime advocate for issues related to climate change, the environment, public policy, global poverty, youth, and the role of women in contemporary society. He is a former member of the Polish National Olympic Cycling Team. In 2015, Dr. Sibilski wrote an article published on the World Bank’s People, Spaces, Deliberation blog entitled: “Cycling is Everyone’s Business”. This article was extremely popular and received excellent feedback prompting him to originate and spearhead a global campaign for the United Nations to establish a “World Bicycle Day”. On April 12, 2018, his effort came to fruition when the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted Resolution A/RES/72/272 that declared June 3rd “World Bicycle Day.”

Connect with Leszek:

twitter: @leszek33

facebook: @Leszek Jan Sibilski

Photos by Vijay Malhotra

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