Interview with Danish Bike Activist Mikael Colville-Andersen

December 17th, 2009 by hughillustration

Our own Chris Carlsson has a fascinating interview on sf.streetsblog.org in which he interviews the Danish bike activist Mikael Colville-Andersen. The whole interview is great, but here’s a highlight of some Mikael’s comments on Critical Mass:

I know, riding around, there’s families, you have kids, it’s quite cool, it’s big at Critical Mass, so I think that helped a lot. And then you turn the corner and there’s this lady getting out of her car saying “Stay the fuck away from me… get away from meeee!” and people honking, and I think “aw, this is bad, this is bad,” but then all of a sudden you’re sucked into the good again, the whole spirit of it. There were conflicting emotions to be honest…

I compared it directly to the Budapest Critical Mass that I was in last month, or in September. 20,000 people, completely peaceful, everyone stops at red lights, completely different mood and much more of a festive atmosphere. But I think San Francisco is a different case compared to other North American cities. It started there, and it’s just so relaxed. The whole bicycle culture is relaxed, it’s not all the sports geeks, it’s just regular people.

I appreciate a great deal of what Mikael has to say about avoiding the identification of bicycling with subculture, allowing bikes to be mainstream and “normal,” rather than something exclusively identified as radical chic or some hipster fringe phenomenon. He goes into that a bit in this piece he wrote on Critical Mass on his awesome Copenhagenize blog. But I’d take strong exception to this part of his argument:

We figure that the point of Critical Mass is to profile the need for bike culture and all the enviromental plusses inherent in it. A good thing. Therefore one of the primary goals is to get more people to ride their bikes. For whatever reason: sustainability, oil-dependence reduction, better health for fellow citizens.

If so, does Critical Mass work? We don’t know. 15 years on and are there any cities that have made massive gains towards a bike culture similar to many European cities?

We do know that we see a simple alternative. An easier route. What if all those massers merely rode their bikes every day? In normal clothes, like normal people? Like the millions of citizens of Northern Europe.

What might happen?

What we’ve seen in San Francisco is that after 17 years of Critical Mass there has, in fact, been a dramatic increase in bicycling ridership, an increase in bicycle infrastructure, the normalization of bicycling as a means of transportation and the rise of bicycle advocacy as a force for change with real clout in city politics. It’s true that we are nowhere near Copenhagen or Amsterdam in terms of bike-friendly policies, but that may be setting the bar a bit too high.

We have to remember where we started, which is at absolute zero. In the early ’90s, riding your bike in San Francisco was something that only very hardy individuals would do, simply because it was downright dangerous. Motorists did not respect people on bikes, and there was little or no infrastructure in the form of bike lanes that reflect a societal interest in protecting cyclists and promoting the safety of cyclists.

I also appreciate this item that Chris mentions in this same interview concerning the SFBC in the years before Critical Mass:

The Bike Coalition, I don’t know if they told you this, but it was practically nonexistent when we started Critical Mass. They had no paid members and no paid staff back then, they were meeting once a month in the back of a Chinese restaurant. Now it has 11,000 dues-paying members, a paid staff and a big budget and a penthouse office!

As for the question of whether we would be better off if people simply rode bikes as part of their day-to-day life rather than in Critical Mass, I think the clear answer is that they do. Speaking from personal experience (since we don’t have any data to examine), I can testify that every single person that I know that takes part in Critical Mass is also a daily bike commuter. Moreover, I have known many people who have been inspired by Critical Mass to become daily commuters, and to make bikes more central to their lives and transportation.

San Francisco has been dramatically changed for the better, in part as a result of what we’ve done with Critical Mass — bringing people into the streets month after to month to provide a collective vision of how life could be different. We’re not European yet, but we are heading in that direction.

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