Last winter, in a highly publicized media event, Mayor Bloomberg bought a bicycle. At the time, few people saw that as a culturally subversive action; rather, it seemed a desperate stunt in the face of a citywide transit strike. This summer, however, the newly equipped mayor may find himself an accidental spokesman for a pedal-driven revolution.
BikeSummer, an annual celebration of bicycles and their riders, convenes in New York on June 27th. Beginning in San Francisco in 1999, the traveling festival provides a focus for those interested in the idea of bicycling as social change. Highlighting the potential of bicycles as an alternative to our auto-driven culture, BikeSummer offers a range of events for the urban biker.
Run entirely by volunteers, BikeSummer employs the non-hierarchical organizational structure often associated with leftist political groups. There are no leaders and no physical center of operation— Chicago, Vancouver, B.C., and Portland, Oregon have all played host in previous years. The only permanent fixture is the BikeSummer URL (www.bikesummer.org), which is passed down from city to city. Each location is decided by informal consensus—Montreal and Seattle were also candidates this time—and the events take shape according only to individual ideas and talents.
This year, a wide array of activities suitably represents the diversity of New York cultural life. There will be workshops, discussions, races, performances, films, swap meets, readings, and above all, rides. A celebration of the city and its accessibility by bike seems to be a major theme. Family trips include rides to Coney Island, a tour of ice cream parlors in Queens, and a screening of the classic bicycle caper Pee Wee’s Big Adventure at Hudson River Park.
More high-minded activities include the “History of Housing” ride, billed as an exploration of the history of housing in New York from colonial times to the present. There are also several tours and discussions of city planning techniques, including a July 21st study of “Broadway Geometry” as an example of traffic calming and landscaping innovations in Manhattan. Along with several trips to local galleries, the Municipal Arts Society will sponsor an exhibit called "Y-Bike NY?" examining the viability of bike transport in the city.
Appropriately, many of the rides show a consideration for environmental issues, which invariably tinge any pro-bicycle discussion. An environmental tour of the South Bronx promises to contrast the beauty of local parks and gardens with scenes of environmental devastation and waste. Community gardens will also get some well-deserved recognition with several Brooklyn tours. Like BikeSummer itself, these horticultural projects embody the ethics of responsible community action and promote the active reclamation of public space.
While BikeSummer presents itself as a simple celebration of the bicycle, it carries an undeniable political weight. It’s no coincidence that the event officially begins and ends with Critical Mass, an ongoing monthly demonstration for bicycle awareness carried out in cities worldwide. At a typical Mass hundreds of bikers take to the streets in herd formation, often ignoring automobile traffic and stoplights. Although the ride usually amounts to little more than a traffic problem, it has drawn an aggressive reaction from police in many cities, including New York.
Police violence marked the finale of last year’s BikeSummer in Portland. After a month of bike-in movies, bridge rides, and bicycle breakfasts, the 2002 BikeSummer was considered a success. Many families turned out for the events, bringing children along to create a playful and relaxed atmosphere. It was in this spirit that over 800 riders turned out for the August Critical Mass. Portland police, however, met the exuberant group with hostile resistance. After dangerously weaving between bikers on police motorcycles, causing several accidents, officers attacked participants with pepper spray and stun guns, arresting some and leaving many others hurt and angry.
Portland’s BikeSummer ultimately drew bicycle enthusiasts into a physical confrontation with agents of the state. This outcome highlights a tension inherent to BikeSummer. While organizers stress the fun, non-intimidating nature of the event, there are latent political implications, as New York volunteer Kelly Moore acknowledged. “When people gather in public spaces for reasons other than work or consumption, it’s seen as a threat,” she said. Thus, she feels, “the celebratory is political.”
In that sense, the BikeSummer ice cream tours may well signify a subculture of people acting against societal norms. To take the logic further, all bikers—Mayor Bloomberg included—may soon find themselves taking part in a form of political discourse. At this point, it seems to be a matter of context. “Non-consumption is a cultural challenge,” Moore says. “Being playful is a cultural challenge.” Though the bicycle revolution may not yet be upon us, BikeSummer’s celebration does not seem premature.
Matt Chastain is a man of many talents and many choices.