Every day I ride my bike to language school. I am living in Ljubljana, Slovenia, learning Slovene. On my Slovenian worksheets, after questions about houses and cities, there are often questions about bikes. What is your bike like? Do you like to ride your bike? Do you ride your bike to work? Everyone in Ljubljana rides a bike. Their bikes are often 50 years old, built in the old Rog bicycle factory along the Ljubljanica river when Yugoslavia was still intact (the factory, once a famous squat, was evicted in 2021 under the guise of pandemic safety and is now a glitzy coworking space). Old people ride their bikes. Children ride their bikes. Families ride their bikes together. I ride my bike.
My bike is a Rog cruiser from the ’70s. The first gear (of three) doesn’t quite work—the shifter requires squeezing to keep the gear from slipping. It has a front basket and a rear rack. The chain is protected by a chain guard to keep my pants from being swallowed up. It is the best bike in the world. Everyone here rides their bikes without a helmet. There are bike avenues and lanes all throughout the city. Some are protected, others more exposed, but regardless, the drivers and the pedestrians expect cyclists to be there. This is a liberating experience for me as an American, who, during the non-Slovenia months of the year, lives in Chicago—probably one of the better US cities for cycling, which is not saying much.
Every Chicagoan who rides a bike—be it for pleasure, for transportation, for exercise—has an “almost” story. I almost died at X intersection. I was almost hit on Y street. We laugh it off: Oh, I almost died, but I didn’t, isn’t that funny! And yet we keep riding our bikes because there are distances that need to be traveled that aren’t worth walking (or waiting for the equally slow, relentlessly gutted public transportation system). When I am on my bike in Chicago, I think about riding my bike in Ljubljana, where the fear of death is minimal due to narrow streets and robust infrastructure—the city center was pedestrianized in 2007—and I want to cry.
At the same time, I find bike advocacy in the United States to be extremely frustrating. Our cities deserve better bike infrastructure because cyclists deserve to live and to go about their lives free of mortal danger. That, it must be remembered, is the central task. The numbers are unacceptable. In 2018 alone, a bicyclist was killed approximately every third day in the greater Chicago area. Each of these unnecessary deaths is blood on the hands of feckless politicians who refuse to do the necessary work to create streets that would ameliorate the carnage because it requires inconveniencing a certain type of crank who thinks the city exists as a place to park their car. When the life of a bike rider is torn from their friends and families, often nothing is done because infrastructure requires money, and funding things like bike lanes (or, while we’re at it, other public goods like schools or transportation) means diverting money from other interests (like, say, violent, lawless police forces who terrorize the poor and protect only private property). In America, a bicyclist is usually not envisioned as being on par with someone who drives a car. They are stereotyped as either a rich hobbyist in spandex or as drunks who lost their driver’s license and have to rely on a lesser form of transport. While in Ljubljana, everyone rides their bike because the space has been made for them to do so. It is that simple.
However, for a long time now transit rhetoric has focused narrowly on individuals: Car drivers are the villains, those who bike and use public transit their virtuous foils. There are endless memes about highway width and entitled schmucks who park in the bike lane. But what is more to blame for a near-death experience: someone’s lapse of attention or the fact that the way our streets and cities are designed creates scenarios in which a lapse of attention can prove deadly? An individual driver is a symptom of a system that has catered to them for 70 years. Most of the time, people are just trying to get home or to work. This should be as easy for the bicyclist as it is for the driver, which is why I take umbrage with advocacy approaches that target individual offenders. These are often drivers parked in bike lanes, many of which are delivery workers who, in order to meet high quotas or because they have nowhere else to park, have little choice or are just trying to create less work for themselves. Under the guise of “tactical urbanism,” I’ve seen advocates threaten to key the offenders’ cars or threaten to call the cops, which, considering the deadly potentialities of involving the carceral state, especially against the people of color, should give one pause. It’s not individual vigilantism that has ever solved this problem, though I empathize with the desire to act out a visceral rage I myself have felt many times.
Only mass action and solidarity can force those in power to change our streets for the better. This is a proven approach. It is a misconception that Europeans are more civilized or urbane than Americans and thus naturally developed a culture of cycling for transportation. A war was waged for the right to ride. Most famously, in Amsterdam in the 1970s, thousands took to the streets to stage die-ins to protest an intolerable level of traffic deaths. Four hundred children died on the streets of Amsterdam in 1971 alone. After a swath of high-profile cycling deaths, more and more people in the States are turning toward similar tactics. In Chicago, the Bike Grid Now campaign has been staging mass actions such as bike jams (riders purposefully clogging the streets) and bike buses (mass commutes), making it explicit that their call for justice includes all cyclists: commuters, hobbyists, athletes, and even those who don’t cycle at all but feel morally compelled.
At the end of the day, the right to the city includes a right to free movement. In most US cities, bicyclists simply do not have that right. That’s what is at the heart of this issue: It is a fight for bodily and spatial autonomy. Sure, there are also benefits to riding a bike—it is healthy and arguably better for the environment. But at the core of things, I want to come home safe. I want my husband to come home safe. I want my friends to come home safe. Now that I know what that freedom feels like at the daily, mundane level of a commute, I cannot and will not tolerate nothing less. A better ride is possible—only if we come together and make it so.