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Less Gas, More Ass

'You Never Bike Alone' suggests a new, bike-based world order.

By Dorothy Woodend 1 Jun 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every second Friday.

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The rise of Critical Mass.

"Less gas, more ass!" might just come to be the credo of the new world order. It's not the most soul stirring of phrases, but the sentiment it implies is critical, Critical Mass that is.

Robert Alstead's film, You Never Bike Alone, documents the rise of Critical Mass in Vancouver. The basic premise is that on the last Friday of every month, a group of pedal powered people assemble and ride through the city in an effort to reclaim the streets. Critical Mass first raised its gnarly head from the asphalt of San Francisco, a city that might not seem well suited to cycling given that most of it is perpendicular, but the notion soon spread, popping up in cities around the world. Alstead's documentary, assembled from footage shot over the last ten years, follows the path of how cycling came to be a viable, nay, necessary means of transportation in the city.

In Vancouver, the cycling tsunami started small. Richard Campbell (of BEST which stands for Best Environmentally Sound Transportation) organized some of the earliest rides. One of these, called "Taming the Lions," involved pointing out the dangers of riding on bridges by sending a group of cyclists into the lanes of traffic on the Lion's Gate Bridge. Many of participants in this ride expected to get arrested, but the Vancouver bike cops actually ended up ticketing drivers on the bridge, who were taking runs at the cyclists.

Peace over protest

When Critical Mass was still finding its sea legs, the Vancouver Police often found themselves in the embarrassing position of arresting cyclists who had done little more than participate in the ride. (Scenes of activists like Jaggi Singh being thrown into a police paddy wagon are particularly telling). The VPD finally learned to look the other way, and let the riders ride. Harder to convince, however, were car and SUV drivers. Road rages incidents in which cars crushed bicycles with impunity scared people away, and at one point in the early days, there were only eight people taking part.

Unlike other cities (such as Edinburgh), where the confrontational elements eventually overtook the event, Vancouver organizers chose to emphasize the peaceful aspects of protest. People still got bumped and butted by cars, but more often than not, they simply turned the other cheek. This was especially effective in the World Naked Bike Ride. Conrad Schmidt (founder of the Work Less Party), who initially organized the Naked Bike Ride, is a prime example of a well-spoken advocate who simply cast an idea upon the worldwide waves and let it float. It doesn't hurt that he also looked very good naked. The success of World Naked Bike Ride, in which penis and pudenda power won hearts and other things, isn't hard to understand -- there is something exquisitely joyful about a huge pack of cyclists riding about naked. It just looks insanely fun.

Some of the most pertinent problems of modern urban living are represented in You Never Bike Alone, but it's the underlying spirit of self-directed action that makes the film a lovely piece of agitprop. It isn't didactic, nor proselytizing, but blunt and straightforward. The people interviewed seem so sane, so reasonable and so utterly practical that I wanted to ride off in the sunset with all of them. The sight of so many people engaged in a happy act of civil disobedience makes my heart swell, but it's the sense of community that can go grow out of something as simple as riding bikes that prevails in the film.

Bike riders constitute a huge, and often radically diverse bunch of people in Vancouver, and the documentary presents just a few of these groups with a benevolent gaze. From the chopper freaks (the MC3 Collective) who build machines that only vaguely resemble bikes, to Clitoral Mass, to Artists Against War, a number of different organizations came into being, as a direct result of Critical Mass. But it was involving the larger population of the city that proved a tipping point. Ordinary folks and their kids swelled the numbers of the ride, and the small motley band that caromed through the streets grew into thousands of souls moving through the city like a river.

BC bike bravado

Other cities might have experienced the same idea, but in Vancouver, bikes seem to fit particularly well. The emphasis on cycling continues across the Lower Mainland with the 25 kilometre stretch of bike route dubbed Central Valley Greenway, which will connect Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster.

While former city councillors Gordon Price and Bonnie Fenton provide thoughtful analysis in the film about the trials and errors of organizing the flow of cars, goods and bikes in and out of Vancouver, the issue of sustainable transit is far from settled. Despite the growth of bike routes, suburban sprawl and traffic density continue to be something of a twin-headed hydra. The province has proposed the idea of a bike friendly city by 2010, while at the same time, the Gateway Project continues like a juggernaut. The 18 months of public consultation initially proposed for the Gateway Project end this July. The movie touches on the inadvisability of a city trying to build its way out of congestion, and the province's plan to do exactly that with the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge, but exactly how things will unfold remains to be seen. The screening of You Never Bike Alone, square in the middle of Bike-to-Work Week (May 28 - June 3), and leading off Bike Month in June, could not be more timely.

Bike routes and greenways are all lovely and fine, but before we get too self-congratulatory about sustainability and such, other parts of the world are only too eager to ditch bikes and get into cars (China in particular). All the politicians' yapping about green-this and green-that that most often seems like an excuse to spend more money. Garret Keizer says it far better than I, in a fiery polemic in the June Issue of Harper's Magazine entitled "Climate, Class, and Claptrap." Writes the fine Mr. Keizer: "If one can be forgiven for applying base political considerations to such a sublimely moral issue: you do not repair the climate of an entire planet without staggering sacrifices, and people will not elect to make staggering sacrifices unless the burden is shared with something like parity." Getting rid of cars, and devising a city that promotes bike use is only the barest beginning.

'Olden days'

My son Louis keeps asking me about the "olden days," as he calls them, a time when video games hadn't been yet invented, and computers were merely a blip on the horizon. I tell him that when his grandma was a kid, she rode her horse everywhere, or when his great-grandma was a girl, people still drove their wagons into town. The fact that the world has shrunk considerably within the space of two generations might seem bleak, but it gives you pause for thought. It can go the other way, maybe just as quickly, a point that You Never Bike Alone also makes. A decade or so ago the idea that smoking could effectively vanish was unthinkable, and perhaps, the same might come to be true of cars.

The unequivocal need to change, I mean really change, the way we live in the world is pretty evident. The message is clear -- saving this finite and fragile place will require much hard work and human sweat. Mass ass or ass mass. It's either one way or the other.

You Never Bike Alone screens this Friday (June 1st) at the Cinemark Tinseltown in Vancouver, and is followed by a Q&A with the director. The You Never Bike Alone website has info about screenings around the province

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