75,000 Miles, 1 Question
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2015 American Bicyclist Magazine. It is written by Kristen Wilkins, an urban designer, disruptor and founder of ContestedSpaces. She lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa, and her work focuses on rethinking mobility as a public space concern and place for robust public engagement. You can follow her on Twitter @contestedspaces.
In February, I was invited to attend both the World Bicycle Forum in Medellin, Colombia, and the League’s National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C. As the only African represented at both these forums, it was with great curiosity that I presented to and gleaned knowledge from those who have navigated the advocacy space for much longer than me.
Initially almost every workshop session and talk in Medellin bore reference to Copenhagen. From gender split to trip generation percentages — with the requisite baguette and basket imagery, of course! — it was always there. Until a question from the audience changed everything. “Can we please talk about our own country and let Copenhagen be?” A nervous bundle of applause cascaded into a unanimous agreement from the 2,000 strong auditorium of advocates, activists and all those positioned somewhere in between. Thinking had shifted. It was a coming out of sorts: a great day for change makers in the Global South.
CITIES FOR PEOPLE (ON BICYCLES)
Methodology for understanding and interrogating so-called best practice urbanism is fascinating and complex. South African urbanists gaze with a similar doe-eyed expression at the infrastructural revolution in Latin America, in addition to those of the Nordic countries. Passport stamps from Curitiba and Bogota are replete in the travel documents of politicians desperate for a quick fix solution to the African “transport problem.”
The challenge for today’s urbanists lies not only in interrogating the multiple moving parts that give rise to any successful urban management system, but in also encouraging local solutions through local knowledge. And so the emerging theme of “people on bicycles” emerging from Medellin is really about the solutions of people rooted in a local context equipped with bicycles that will serve their needs. Great news for those of us who are better at urban design than we are at racing in lycra!
BE YOUR OWN BEST PRACTICE
While appearing to be a simple and well-timed comment, the audience disruption witnessed in Medellin points to an important body of work emerging among urban scholars. There’s a growing recognition of the importance of examining urban policy exchanges and travel as a socially constructed, uneven, and power-laden process rather than a rational transfer of the “best” policies between context A and context B. In simple terms, best practice adoption is, in fact, a highly politicized powerplay with its roots in new public management systems of the 1980’s. An argument not apparent in the stylized images of Pinterest or blogtastic representations of slow cycling replete on social media.
PRACTICAL VS ASPIRATIONAL
A second and related theme emerging from within Medellin from my perspective was the silent scrimmage between pretty and practical. Icing and cake. Braids and helmets. Plenty and poverty. Much of the imagery cycling advocates use evokes an aspiration of cycling — if we succeed in securing this “holy grail” in our matching repurposed bamboo panniers. It is a polarized nirvana where the battle against cars is won and the weather is always perfect for riding. Admittedly it’s a less appealing notion to photograph bicycle commuters in the rain turning across traffic with nothing to assist other than courage and a small flashing LED light.
Most cities aspire to that which does not yet exist and asks people on bicycles to get out there and make it happen.
This is the reality though, even in South Africa’s purportedly most bicycle-friendly city of Cape Town. Most cities aspire to that which does not yet exist and asks people on bicycles to get out there and make it happen. Between today and an aspirational Copenhagen-esque reality lies a city’s best practice. A space to revel in shape and accurately represent. How we embrace the practical and move to the aspirational is the story each city must create.
In the City of Cape Town I long for a more realistic view to bicycle transport: embracing the practicalities of a situation where we are still striving. With almost 40% of residents living below the poverty line, many folks are simply surviving. Where a skateboard can cover the same distance but can cost a fraction of a bicycle, it’s both legitimate and necessary. Animal-drawn school buses and self-styled 3-wheeled mechanisms are part of an innovative reality unlikely to fit the current “best practice” molds unless we rewite these narratives ourselves.
In moving to action from sessions of knowledge-sharing during these enlightening conferences on mobility I’m reminded of sociologist and urbanite David Harvey’s poignant description of why we advocate. It is not for bicycles, nor even for people on bicycles, but for the Right to The City: “… a collective right, more than the right of an individual to access the city, but a right to change and reinvent the city to what it is we desire… where everything depends on who gets to fill it with meaning.” Thanks to the League of American Bicyclists and the team at the 4th World Bicycle forum for tireless work to ensure that conversations about cities and the bicycle are robust and city changing.