November 7, 2013 | Contributor Articles

How an Enormous Foam Cowboy Hat Might Create a Bike Friendly Town or an artist’s perspective on making change

When I need to get somewhere, I bike. Cycling is the default way I move through space, keep appointments and transfer stuff. It’s faster than walking, I never have to look for parking and my calves are so defined I’ve fallen over trying to remove “skinny” jeans. Cycling is cheap, healthy and fun and I’ve adjusted my life to make bike transportation comfortable, preferable and practical for the majority of my daily needs.  Merrily, I’ve lived in places with excellent infrastructure that supports this, or at least in places that have passable public transit when the going gets tough.

All of this changed when I moved to a certain regional centre in BC’s interior. Characterized by industry and spread along two rivers like hastily buttered bread, my new home could be described as bike tepid. There are three major recreational paths, designed around existing features rather than specifically for bikes and to take advantage of long, flat stretches and scenery around the rivers. These are routes for leisure rides, shared with other users and frequently interrupted by highway or busy street crossings, herds of families or awkward transitions into suburbs, often emptying onto narrow rural roads with no shoulder and high speed limits.

Getting around town is a clunky experience. 2012 saw an unprecedented spike in pedestrian and bike related injuries and deaths. The city has designed some wider, multiuse lanes to extend bike paths through neighborhoods without having to put in bike lanes, which could be costly or can’t be managed. This has encouraged cyclists to ride on sidewalks generally, especially where no alternative exists or in high traffic areas. Naturally, this angers pedestrians. In a place where sidewalks frequently disappear and it’s normal to be honked at in the middle of the street on a walk light, it’s not surprising peds resent the additional intrusion. Urban construction zones often make no effort to redirect foot or bike traffic because it’s a blind spot. If everyone drives, other users become invisible. The dominant mode of vehicle traffic then designs the ways we’re able to get around. This perpetuates the impossibility of options by creating a cycle of stasis:

A. There aren’t enough cycle commuters to warrant the creation of bike lanes, bike racks or bike shelters. Designated routes for cyclists prevent car/bike interaction. There are purpose built recreation areas for cyclists. Numbers don’t support increasing bus service routes or frequency.

B. Cyclists who might commute don’t because of safety risks, driver aggression or structural roadblocks that physically prevent access or make access dangerous. Cyclists use available means of locking their bikes including places that are inconvenient, in the way of other users or at a higher risk of theft. Designated multi use lanes are for leisure and not commuter focused. Drivers are unused to cyclist space margins or cycling hand signals because they see them so infrequently. Purpose built recreation areas are designed for mountain bikers, who often drive to trailheads. Bus routes are infrequent and inconvenient and are under-accessed.

Essentially, the situation will not improve because bike, bus or pedestrian-centric design is reactive – it responds to need, which is absent. This absence is caused by design.  If there are sidewalks and crosswalks, people will use them. If there are bike lanes, they will fill. If the bus can get you somewhere cheaper and faster, a percentage of people will access them. What I’m talking about is simply the creation of options, not the reversal of current urban design or expensive revisions. This is a space for activism, the promotion of change through effort. This is my blueprint for change:

Research existing bike and pedestrian advocacy groups and potentially join one.

Attend bike specific events like Bike to Work Week, Critical Mass or Fun Rides.

Start a midnight bike ride with friends. Be creative with illumination. Make visibility fun.

Talk to city counsillors. Get a better idea of current sustainability plans.

Document and sketch instances of unfriendly design. Use this information to stage actions that play with and draw attention to deficiencies.

Research collision information and frequency. Fact check and revise theories. Inspect personal prejudices to build a stronger, more informed case for simple solutions to specific problems.

Promote human powered and mass transit at work.

Interview drivers and understand their perspectives.

Create a cycling/walking map of how to access dangerous places or get through busy intersections. Describe and draw safer routes or illustrate the absurd lengths required to get to a specific place safely. Make this publicly available.

Have an art show!

Screenprint “I AM TRAFFIC” t-shirts.

Create a “space margin shield” for my bike. Attach a sculptural hoop around my bike that makes the amount of space I need to be safely passed visible.

Create an enormous cowboy hat out of lightweight material to fit over my bike helmet. Create amusing spectacle to increase visibility, avoid getting hit while making left turns.

Use children as human shields. Who’s going to hit a kid on training wheels?!

Clearly, I’m kidding about the last point. Successful activism requires a variety of approaches, enacted with a certain frequency, at a certain scale. Activism requires that you see yourself as having an ability to influence your surroundings and collaborate with others who have sometimes wildly different values. It demands an understanding of systems and networks and how to access them. Real change typically occurs at a threshold where consensus about a thoroughly researched and clearly articulated issue is promoted vigorously by a large or influential enough group and supports connections through several strategies varying in legality or force. It usually gains traction when solutions proposed by its resolution or evolution benefits many or marginalized people and has additional benefits or cost saving options for other demographics.

Interestingly, arts organizing and arts education developed many of these skills for me. Art strategies are activist strategies, or can be, especially with respect to creating visual attention and approaching complex, layered problems. Activist efforts without artistic components are missing a highly effective, critical tool. It might takes years of lobbying before bike lanes are common in my town, but nobody is going to ignore that giant cowboy hat…


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