If you’ve not heard of them, Joe Biel and Elly Blue are two writers, filmmakers and bicycle activists. They co-own Microcosm Publishing in Portland, Oregon, and are currently touring various cities in the UK with Groundswell: Bicycle Culture Rising.
The event comprises of 8 short films that delve into communities using bikes for social justice, and a discussion of the boundaries which undermine them.
On Tuesday 5th September, Joe and Elly came to Bristol and presented Groundswell to a packed-out workshop at The Bristol Bike Project. The night was organised by Lucy Greaves, a mechanic at the Project, and a wonderful wordsmith in her own right.
The night was hugely insightful, providing a glimpse into other cycling communities.
On the one hand we laughed with Peatonito, a Mexico City vigilante, facing the traffic head on and using guerrilla tactics to make public spaces safe for cyclists and pedestrians alike. All while wearing a custom-made lucha libre costume. We loved him.
On the other hand, we shook our heads in dismay and gasped at the treatment of a single mother, who has been pulled over, ticketed, and arrested more than once, just for riding her bike to work.
Other films tackled subjects like race, poverty, gender, and social isolation. I won’t talk about them in depth, you should just watch them for yourself. What I will say, is that it was hugely thought-provoking to glimpse into other worlds. Where for some, bikes are a form of social justice, and for others, they’re simply a way to get out into the world and meet other people. For one man in particular, bicycling quite literally saved his life.
But it wasn’t just about how people are making it happen. Some of the grassroots initiatives that we saw and talked about, didn’t quite achieve their goals. The reasons why they failed were also discussed.
Joe and Elly argue that in order for a city to be able to build a thriving cycling community, they need three things:
- Political proponents – local politicians who support cycling infrastructure, and ideally use it.
- Boardroom advocates – the important folk who schmooze with various influencers and acquire vital funding.
- Street-level activists – those of us who ride our bikes every day, showing that there is a demand for safe cycling infrastructure, and lobbying our governing bodies for change.
This made me question whether Bristol has what it takes to become a better cycling city. Supposedly it’s one of the best cities in the UK for cycling, and in many ways I can see why. We have plenty of bike lanes, both on- and off-road, shared use paths, space for bike parking, and a wealth of beautiful Sustrans/National Cycle Network routes at our disposal.
However, while these things make it possible to cycle around Bristol, many of them were clearly not well thought through. Many bike lanes are nothing but crumbling red paint on the left side of the road. Plenty of them suddenly end, and become car parking spaces. The road surfaces can be awful in certain parts of the city.
And yet, we are the home of Sustrans. For four years, George Ferguson was our mayor. Every day, scores of people commute to work by bike. Yet, I just don’t know if I can see things improving for us.
Of course, watching these films did make me realise that we have it better than many cities, and I recognise that we’re very lucky in that respect. But it made me question, if even a city like Bristol hasn’t managed to get it right yet, then what hope do others have?
Go watch the films, and tell me what you think. There were so many thought-provoking themes that came up that night, I’ll be exploring some of them further in future posts. Stay tuned for that.