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What Bike Hacks Teach Me About Cities

As I mentioned in my previous post, the Bike Hack + Soundride was first performed in Cambridge. We started at Art Interactive, and rode off in the drizzling rain, through the streets, and onto the Harvard campus, where Parents’ Day was in full swing. We split up, and then spent the next 15 minutes whizzing, loudly, around well dressed students, parents, professors, and grandparents.

In Cambridge, like Boston, you have to engage in extremely defensive cycling. For example, you don’t stop at intersections unless you can absolutely not help it. If you do, a car will cut you off. Critical Masses are less a celebration of cycling culture and more (at least they were in 2005) a defiant stand against the cops.

In Toronto, you can generally expect not to get cut off at intersections, and when I did the Bike Hack at InterAccess during the 2007 Nuit Blanche, we were the envy of most of the revelers trapped on Queen West. The festival had decided that year to host events throughout the gallery district, which caused mayhem for blocks. Cars full of excited visitors attempted to get to the spaces. The streetcars were like landlocked whales. And we, led by a guy in a mask that arrived to “guide us through” (I heart relational art) clattered along the street, between the cars, and around to Kensington Market.

In Copenhagen, cycling is a way of life and as a Toronto-based, living-in-Buffalo commuter cyclist, I kind of suck by comparison. The area where I am the most inept is when I am being passed. In Toronto, we ring, we give room, and we pass. Ring, Room, Pass. In Copenhagen, they pass you so closely, that they brush you. This would automatically set me into absolute, wheel wiggling, bell ringing alarm every time it happened. I was concerned when I did the Bike Hack that it wouldn’t really be well received – if everyone cycles, would playing cards, mikes and amps not be kind of ordinary? It turns out that it was very well received, which was good, and we attracted a lot of attention from confused passersby.

In Sibiu, Romania, cycling is perceived in completely the opposite way. Cycling is what you do when you don’t have a car, and if you don’t have a car, you must be hovering near the poverty line. I did the Bike Hack as part of a residency at artlabs, and I was laughed at, from cars, as I rode around the city. There is no biking for the sake of the planet, there are no beautiful people biking along in nice outfits, and I seriously got laughed at, more than once. This being said, the cyclists that do ride, do so with absolute conviction. When we took to the streets after the workshop, it was almost as if we were engaging in an act of political activism. It was awesome.

In Calgary, cycling is interesting. There were a few things I didn’t get at the beginning, and I was lucky enough to get few observations/survival tips, which I will share, for the sake of fellow visitors, who may be used to doing things slightly differently:

  1. Bikes and pedestrians share the trails. I have never seen more people running, or walking along shared trails at all times of the day in my life. There is a speed limit for cyclists of 10 km per hour, which seems painfully slow, but at the same time, given the number of people around, is probably quite necessary. Everyone seems to work together, more or less, and parts of the trail are less crowded than other parts.
  1. A lot of cyclists ride on the sidewalk, and sometimes you get honked at when you’re not on the sidewalk. This was weird for me, as I almost never ride on the sidewalk unless I’m about to park, or someone is threatening to run me over. Motorists here seem genuinely surprised to see a cyclist, especially on bridges and overpasses, which I like to ride on because a) going into downtown is downhill and fast; b) the sidewalks are full of pedestrians, so riding around them while going downhill seems inconsiderate and dangerous; and c) I like riding down hills.
  1. You have to really be careful not to get doored. Motorists who park just don’t seem to look before they open their doors. In Toronto, this is also a problem, which is made worse by the fact that we have more cyclists, we have bike lanes, and many people get doored by people who park illegally in the bike lanes. On the upside, we have a Cyclists’ Union.

Tonight’s Bike Hack + Soundride was fantastic – the Good Life Bike Shop was packed, and in spite of the persistent drizzle, we took off for a short ride through Chinatown. There were lots and lots of photos being taken and there will be video somewhere on the Fast Forward website in the next few days. Thanks to all who attended – see you @ Critical Mass tomorrow.

I also wanted to send a big thank you to the folks at the Good Life Bike Shop, who, in addition to hosting noisy, chaotic workshops, has been signing out the SOUNDBIKE all month. Everyone is really nice, and they have a ton of workshops. For more info, visit them online.

Posted by: Jessica Thompson