The Right to the Cycling City

3 min read.
Lucas Snaije is the Content & Communications Manager for BYCS and the Editor of BYCS Perspectives. 

One only has to see footage of cycling protests in Santiago or New York City to grasp the power that cycling can yield when reclaiming spaces for political expression and public life. This form of mobility is profoundly connected to the right to the city. Far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources, it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city and advancing social change. Cycling has been leveraged over decades as a tool for gender equality, economic dignity, street safety, addressing the climate crisis, and ending systemic racism. Taking a closer look at movements that have incorporated cycling and social justice can thus shed light on the potential for cities to become truly socio-spatially equitable. It can also help remove misconceptions and reframe what kinds of cycling practices are desirable, both as forms of mobility and social anchors.

Since the dawn of urbanisation, our streets and public squares have been conduits for political expression and the sites of contestation in the face of oppression and social injustice. The advent of industrial capitalism, triggering a wave of urban privatisation and mass motorisation, has however placed extreme pressure on the vibrancy of our streets, public squares and political spaces of our cities. As early as the 1970s, Richard Sennet deplored “The Fall of Public Man”, urban dwellers having lost their connection in the isolation of skyscrapers and private vehicles. Street life has essentially been transformed for the most part from a place for sensory and bodily interaction among strangers into solely transitory, “dead” spaces.

Cycling has the potential to “slow down” our  obsession with speed and high energy cities, while bringing to the fore intersectional issues of urban justice. Ivan Illich succinctly captures this sentiment when he writes “participatory democracy demands low energy technology, and free people must travel the road to productive social relations at the speed of a bicycle”. Linking this to a new vision of ‘cycling citizenship’ that Rachel Aldred has proposed, could transform the restrictive image of the individual in society as neoliberal consumer and the citizen as conceived primarily in national, formal political terms, towards a vision of individuals within a community that are responsive to environmental issues, take care of each other, are rooted in their locality, and respond with openness, tolerance, and curiosity to their social environment.

If we want to craft an inclusive transnational vision of cycling citizenship that allows cross-racial, multiethnic, all-gender, all-abilities access to low-carbon mobilities, mobility justice is a critical lens to take. This will not only entail more participatory forms of planning and a more representative transport sector, but redefining cycling research and planning from a geographic and socio-cultural perspective. Paola Castañeda has for example highlighted how turning to the cities of the South could allow the cultivation of different kinds of worldly ambitions and standards for cycling, framing social inclusion as a benchmark for cycling-inclusive transport policy instead of, or in addition to, getting more people to cycle.

As an Amsterdam-based organisation, our history has informed our belief in the power of  civil society as a driver of social change. In the context of colonial histories and Eurocentric valuations of Dutch cycling cultures however, it is our responsibility to uphold and amplify learnings from more diverse geographies and cultures instead of solely relying on and exporting our local experience. Around the world, activists are playing a key role in promoting cycling as a tool against social injustice, and have much to teach us about our own societies. Whether it is strengthening communities in Lebanon, fighting police violence and systemic racism in the USA, shaping feminist cities in Argentina, or decolonising cycling “best practices” in Latin America, we spoke with members of civil society for this edition of Perspectives that are expanding the frontiers of cycling for social transformation.

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