Viva the Vélorution!
Bringing Back the Bike
By Nick Peck
Ah, the bicycle is a highly intricate machine with hundreds of moving
parts-rollers, balls, springs, races, cones, axles. In combination with a
human rider, the bicycle goes farther per calorie of food energy than a
salmon, its closest competitor. Manufactured in its modern form by 1885,
the bicycle was outsold by cars by around 1910-but it came back to surpass
the car in annual sales in the United States by 1971.
The most massive and sudden adoption of the bicycle was in Cuba in 1992, when the fall of the Soviet Union forced Cubans to suffer-or, from the bicycle activist's point of view, enjoy-a 60 percent drop in oil imports. The Cuban government bought one million heavy old fashioned, one-speed bikes from China, and the Chinese threw in 200,000 more as a free gift. Following this mass purchase, one woman cyclist was reported to have said, "I used to be lonely. But now I have my bike."
And then there is Québec, where more than 3,000 kilometers of bike paths are either built or are well into the planning stages. Though its presence may not be as great as in Germany and Holland (where pedal power never died out), the bike has rebounded from near oblivion in Québec to become an increasing part of the culture. This resurgence is due in some part to the relentless advocacy of Montréal residents Bob Silverman and Claire Morrissette, founders of Le Monde à Bicyclette ("Everyone on a Bicycle and the World on a Bicycle"). This super-charged bicyclist collective has a 25-year history of conducting bizarre(I prefer colorful) and effective demonstrations (dubbed "cyclodramas"), and applying constant pressure on public officials. Inspired in large part by what Bob calls "cyclofrustration" over lack of government and public transit authorities attention to bicyclists' needs, the organization has published a newspaper, has lobbied, and demonstrated, and has achieved so much success that the number cyclofrustrated Le Monde members has declined in the last few years shortly after its last two victories: the recycling of the last St. Lawrence River crossing bridge and the obtaining of 5,800 bicycle parking spots in Montréal.
Bicycle usage is so prevalent in Montréal now that one sees intersections with more bikes than cars waiting for the red light to change. "Vélo culture" is so ingrained that the government of Canada is currently building a $250,000 tunnel for an urban bike path to pass beneath a highway, and the City of Montreal and the Québec Transport Ministry have just allocated $10 millions, for a five year period, for the extension of the bicycle path system in Montréal. Montréal is also one of the many cities in North America that require new buildings to designate indoor space for bike parking. And its annual "Bike Week" includes the "Le Tour de l'Ile" (a tour of the island that Montréal sits upon) which attracted 35,000 riders this year, as well as the "Le Tour des Enfants," in which 10,000 children parade downtown on bikes. And let's not leave out the "Un Tour la nuit" in which about 4,000 cyclists ride together under the night sky.
"The bicycle: Not a sport, a transport." This Le Monde slogan is confirmed by Montreal's bike repair shops that specialize in winterizing bicycles, using old inner tubes to make rubber seals that keep the sand and salt and moisture from getting into ball bearings. Now there are increasing numbers of commuters who will put off purchasing a monthly subway pass as November looms because they are equipped (with face mask, etc.) for the cold and figure they'll save money by cycling for another month. Hiverise ton vélo! (Winterize your bike!)
I have a stack of old yellowed issues of Le Monde à Bicyclette, the newspaper that came out roughly four times a year with some articles in English and some in French. (The paper Le Monde has temporarily ceased publication, but plans are afoot to rekindle it online.) Looking through these relics, I discover that the Spring '95 issue (Vol. 20, No. 1) contains a centerfold of photos depicting highlights from the organization's first 20 years. A caption describes the June '81 action, La Manif spatiale ("The Space Demonstration"), and the accompanying photo shows a parade of special bicycles-each equipped with a car-sized wooden rectangular frame so that the bike takes up the same street space as a car. "This was a powerful demonstration," Morissette recalls. "We wanted to really show how much space a car takes. We had 15 of the special bikes invented and made by one of our volunteers. Then we went down the street. This blockade drove some car drivers crazy with anger." The space demonstration was repeated in Edmonton, Minneapolis, and in London, where about 30 of the special bikes hit the streets. Silverman, known to many as Bicycle Bob, thinks that "the car should be banned from cities just for its space-hogging characteristic alone," citing the fact that "half of pre-World War II Montreal has been torn down for the car."
Also in '81 was the "Moses" demonstration, organized to decry the fact that there was no legal way for cyclists to safely cross the St. Lawrence River. There was one bridge with a decrepit sidewalk, and it was illegal to bring a bike on the subway, which crosses the river to serve communities on the south shore. So demonstrators asked Moses-dressed in a long robe and carrying a tablet with the Le Monde rewrite of the ten commandments (Thou shall not waste; Thou shall not pollute)-to part the waters of the St. Lawrence. I also read about the "Fly In," which featured Icarus on the shore of the river preparing to attempt the flight across. "For this we got wings, big white duck wings. We rented them from the same place where we got the Moses costume," Silverman recalls. Earlier on, in '78, there had been the so-called "canoe" demonstration. Two experienced canoeists, with their bikes on board, paddled across the treacherous rapids and made the newspapers. "We learned in those days to always have our demonstrations on Sundays because we had the best chance to make the papers on Monday, a light news day," Morissette says. These actions and the publicity that resulted are partly responsible for the fact that there are now bike paths on two bridges, a third bridge is being remodeled for cyclists at a cost of $1 million (Government of Canada), subway travel with bikes is now permitted, at non rush hours and there is even a bike route across the river involving two ferry boats and a cycling path that crosses from an exceptionally beautiful mid-river island which was artificially built for the 1967 Montréal Worlds Fair.
Other actions in the subway campaign included the "ladder" demonstration. To mock the unfairness of singling out bicycles as a banned object on the subway, protesters boarded successfully with a 12-foot ladder, a toboggan and skis, while the accompanying bicycle was denied access... Similar efforts followed- finally, at the station near the zoo, activists came on board with a full-size papier mache hippopotamus. When all this mocking of the bike ban didn't quite do the trick, Silverman, displaying his defiant pluck (always wearing a tie and tweeds), attempted to board with his bike on the strength of a fake bike pass-a forgery of one issued in New Jersey for the PATH trains Niet.
Formed in 1975, Le Monde held their "founding congress" one year later. There were, as Silverman recalls, four "tendencies" in evidence among the 60 people attending. First: There were the bike mechanics. Second: There were reformers who did not want to raise a ruckus, who said go easy, cooperate with government; it's going to happen anyway. Third: There were the Trotskistes, who expressed the view that the car industry was so powerful, nothing could be done while capitalism continued to exist and suggested an alliance with the working class to overcome capitalism. And, finally, there were Silverman and Morrissette, the advocates for "poetic cyclists" and "vélorutionaries"-a word coined in Paris in 1974 by Les Amis de la Terre (Friends of the Earth), meaning revolution by the bicycle.
"Our faction became an historic new movement based on the lack of bike support by government at a time when the bike had a new role in the world," Silverman recalls. "At the congress the Trotskistes called for a 30-hour work week, the independence of Quebec, homosexual and women's rights, and nothing for the bike. I said, hey, if you prevail, the workers will work for 30 hours and then have traffic jams and nothing will change for the city bicyclists, us. -Then I recited some poetry." Silverman can't remember which of his bicycle poems he recited, but he probably read this short one called "A Reason to Live" which goes like this: "Killed by a car, reborn by a bike: That's the story of my life."
I simply pointed out that while the liberation of the workers, women, homosexuals and of Quebec, all clearly indicated in their program which I read from was desirable and necessary, there was not a singe word about bicyclists and their specific denial of rights at the time. And, when the votes were counted, the poetic velorutionary tendency- we who wrote that the velorution constituted a new dialectic requiring original stategies and tacticts to advance the cause of bicyclist's rights received the most votes, followed by the reformist tendency. I read no poems.
Silverman says that over the years there evolved two types of demonstrations: those directed at a specific cyclofrusatration, like a bridge, with no bicycle path or sidewalk and those with general consciousness-raising value, like the space demonstration. In June of '75, one of the group's first demonstrations consisted of a pair of cyclists carrying a banner between them that read, "pedal for a better planet," followed by a cavalcade of 3,000 cyclist demonstrators who took up the street. This was dubbed international cyclists day and Silverman said it received a lot publicity. Another fairly famous demonstration that has since been duplicated elsewhere was the 1976 "die in." A banner, in French, reads, "bike for your life," while a crowd of activists feign death and collapse on the street, mocking the hazards that cars pose to cyclists-and to the planet, while illustrating the most irrevocable consequence of the car culture: death.
In '88 Le Monde made a bike lane out of tar paper and rolled it down a downtown street. The Montréal Daily News photo of the event bore the caption: "No Red Carpet: Cyclists Unveil a Fake Bike Path to Make Their Point." And in 1990 demonstrators painted the words "Bus Lane" on the backside and rolled it out along a parking lane, right up and over parked cars. Many years earlier Silverman and Scott Weinstein were arrested for, as he describes it, the premature painting of a bike lane (later the city established one in the same location) and, unwilling on principle to pay the $30 fine, spent three days in prison.
Nowadays, Le Monde is focused on getting city buses equipped with
bike racks, and improved access to the commuter trains. These racks,
which generally hold two bikes, are increasingly being installed in cities
from Edmonton, Alberta, to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, because they
increase ridership. Morissette tells me that the broader goals of the
organization are to "Amsterdamize" Montreal. "We want to make it so there
is no political impediment to biking. We can't end the winter. We can't
end the mountain. But by political means we can theoretically have
extensive bike paths, access to all transit at all times.
Also, showers at work places. That's now a requirement in newly built office, commercial and industrial buildings in some places in California and in other U.S. cities." And so the battle to topple the "auto-cracy" continues in Montréal. And the vélorution is still underway in Cuba as well. When Cuba held an international bike conference in 1993, Silverman was continually being interviewed and was on TV a lot-a bicycle celebrity of sorts. On the flight back to Montréal, our Russian-built Cuban airliner took the hour-longer, offshore Cold War route required by the U.S. As our pilot complained about all the wasted jet fuel, I noticed the stewardess seeking out Silverman and asking him for his autograph. The scene reminded me of another one of Silverman's short poems: "The bicycle, a ray of truth in a world of lies. A glimpse of peace in a universe at war."
Another ray of truth emerged from the Velocity conference in Basle, Switzerland in September 1995 where the conference slogan cast some light on the roots of the vélorution: "The turn to the bicycle begins in the mind."
Top of Page
Nick Peck, a perennial cyclomartyr, co-founded the Association for Bicycle
Commuting in Boston in 1972, has worked as a bike messenger in New York.
Guest Gems | Welcoming Page
© Robert Silverman 2000