[ Robert Silverman ]
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[ Cybernetically, Bicycle Bob Xe-Dda.p ]
Spreading the Vélorution

In the afternoon of Friday, May 4th, 1984, I was in the offices of Energy Probe in Toronto, an organization that struggles to promote sane, renewable and safe energy use in opposition to Ontario Hydro's nuclear power plants. After visiting their offices, I began to prepare the speech I was to give that night to the Toronto Cycling Club. The cyclophiles were going to pay an admission price to hear me, so I felt I had to do a particularly good job.

Much of the first part of my speech deals with the destruction of U.S. urban electric street car systems, which resulted in the construction of the “auto necessity”. The second half of the speech is optimistic and salutes human freedom and dignity. That part deals with people's return to the bicycle. But why, I wondered? From my intense thought flowed a poem:

Cars, cars everywhere
What a stink, packed together,
street by street,
eliminating our feet,
We had nothing to like, and then
we rediscovered the bike.

Toronto was a speaking stop on my way to Minneapolis/St.Paul where I had been invited by the Minnesota Coalition of Bicyclists - the twin cities' Le Monde à Bicyclette - to deliver six speeches on the global velorution in the framework of Minnesota Bicycle Week.

Detrained at Port Huron

The train from Toronto to Chicago stopped suddenly in a field outside the border city of Fort Huron, Michigan. Border guards with pistols ordered all non-Americans off the train and into a small, dark hut. Our baggage and wallets were carefully searched. I had been to the United States many times and I'd never run into a blockade like this.

The police officers were suspicious of me. In addition to going through my valise and black garbage bag, they carefully examined every paper in my wallet. Constable Wilson removed the latest edition of le Monde à Bicyclette newspaper, my copy of “Autokind vs, Mankind”, and a hand-written letter from Tim Crampton of the Minnesota Coalition of Bicyclists, and placed them on the counter.

A mean looking woman in her fifties and wearing dark sun glasses was interrogating non-Americans at the corner of the counter. Everyone had to be questioned by her. Finally, it was my turn after 45 minutes of waiting. “What was I going to do in the United States? Where did I work?” She was negative right from the beginning. She refused to believe, that I wrote an international column for Vélo Québec Magazine. “How could a bicycling Magazine have an international column?” She smirked suspiciously. And what was I doing with this pile of strange newspapers, Le Monde à Bicyclette. She looked glaringly at the centerfold of President Reegan in a bathing suit and the article denouncing the U.S. invasion of Grenada from our paper. “Autokind vs. Mankind's cover of a car hood eating a human's head added to her suspicion. She didn't believe I was going to speak at the University Of Minnesota. So Inspector Haney ruled me an undesirable alien. “It's illegal to receive payment for work in the United States without a work permit,” she said huffily. “To gain entry to the United States, the University of Minnesota must file an official petition for your visit at the U.S. immigration offices in St-Paul and you must also secure a clean record from the Canadian police,” she concluded. The police then drove me over the border bridge to Sarnia.

From Sarnia, I phoned my hosts in Minneapolis to inform them of my predicament. Six speeches, arranged in the twin cities, and the guest speaker is stuck at the border, a thousand miles away. Tim Crampton of the bicycle coalition phoned his Senator and Congressman who were both gone for the weekend. Four hours later, Tim suggests I try another border crossing.

The closest border from Sarnia is Detroit, the motor city. I look for a bus to take me there. I look in vain. “Everyone has a car here and so there's no public transport,” the salesman in the drugstore explains. The auto necessity is more than an abstraction in this neck of the woods. Faute d'alternative, I hitchhiked to Windsor, 70 miles away. From there I could see the buildings of Detroit across the river.

Could I get across? Had Inspector Haney alerted U.S. border stations of the presence of that dangerous anarchist, Bob Silverman? Taking Tim's advice, I sadly discarded seventy-six copies (4 remained) of Le Monde à Bicyclette to avert suspicion of a political mission and prepared myself at the border to say I was going to visit friends. A 60 cent special municipal bus connects Windsor to Detroit. At the small border station in Detroit the woman inspector asks me where I'm going, how much money I have and what I will be doing in the U.S. After showing her my return ticket, and my Canadian passport, she waved me on. The roadblock erected by Inspector Haney 70 miles to the North had been easily by-passed. I was on my way.

After sleeping in Detroit, I took the train to Chicago and Minneapolis/St.Paul the next morning. On the Amtrak train I read the “The Noiseless Tenor”, a new book containing excerpts about the bicycle as freedom, from great writers from England and the United States. The train was no pain. I even had an excellent dining car and a glass lookout car. I arrived at the St.Paul railway station at 10:30 Monday, May 8th, one day late. Ten area cyclists were there to welcome me. They presented me with flowers, a mountain bicycle placed at my disposal for the duration of my stay there, and a poem.

Minneapolis and St.Paul are two distinct cities on opposite sides of the upper Mississippi River. Eventually, over the years the two cities grew together. The population and the climate are similar to Montreal's. Both cities have a cluster of high rise office buildings in their downtown areas, somewhat like Toronto's. These buildings are connected to each other by a series of heated walkways at the first floor level. This midwestern metropolis has very few apartment buildings. The people live mostly in single-family houses. Therefore, the city is very spread out. The twin cities have a density far inferior to Montreal's.


Except for the river bluffs, the urban area is flat, a factor in encouraging bicycling. I was told that bicycle theft was not very prevalent. I saw many bicycles parked with U-shaped locks. I also saw lockers which cyclists rent annually from the City of St.Paul in downtown St.Paul. The twin city region is at the southern extremity of the Laurentian shield. There are six lakes in Minneapolis. No houses have been built beside them. In the winter people skate on them and in the summer they swim in them. It's the country in the city and an important factor in the “livability” of the city.

Like here, the bicycle paths are found where the cars can't go: along the river banks and lake shores. Autoroutes converge on the city centre from four corners. Multistoried auto-parking garages near the centre have reduced the urban destruction. Car ownership is prevalent. Public bus transport is grossly inadequate, although there are bus schedules which are very useful in the winter. Only 4% of the population use public transport.

The very low population density is the chief bicycle deterrent. Unfortunately, that's very hard to change. The political bike changes needed are safe downtown bicycle parking and racks on the buses to the suburbs.

In my speeches I spread velo consciousness. I showed a slide show depicting some of Le Monde à Bicyclette's theatrical guerrilla activities such as our die-in, our auto-show attacks, canoes and Moses by the River and others. This was well received by the cyclists there. The Minnesota Coalition of Bicyclists even built an “auto bike” which appeared in the local Metropolitan paper. In addition to the two campuses of the University of Minnesota - the world's largest with 50,000 students - I spoke at the Cycle Sunday ride, to the Minnesota Federation of Landscape Architects, the local Youth Hostel and at the annual convention of the Minnesota Coalition of Bicyclists.

Bicycling consciousness is limited by neither geography nor age. And the latter factor was driven home to me sharply in the twin cities. I had thought those at the youth hostel would be young cyclotourists. The average age of my audience was sixty. And they asked the most, and the most intelligent questions They were people close to the retirement age, who had rediscovered the bike, late in life.

My one week visit to Minneapolis/St.Paul was a landmark in my life; a satisfying series of events, which I will remember forever.

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By Robert Silverman.

Published in the Le Monde à Bicyclette Journal Summer 1984.

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© Robert Silverman 2000