Sunday, July 22, 2018

Seeking Cargo Bike Cultures: Rio and Beyond

When I flew to Rio de Janeiro in June to attend the Velo-city conference I looked forward to reconnecting with my bicycle advocacy colleagues from all over the world. What I didn’t expect was my discovery of a bike culture so deep and proud as Rio’s cargo bike riders and craftspeople.

Within my first steps along a Rio street I encountered a cargo bike. It was draped with gadgets for tourists, but my gaze landed on the springs under the front cargo box that looked just like the coil springs from a car. Not far away in an open, car-free square I saw another cargo bike. That one had leaf springs, also from a car.

As I walked through the square I checked the frames and fittings of every cargo bike I encountered. From the springs to the dropouts to the gearing to the cargo boxes, every one of these bikes was unique, built, or at least repaired, locally! And every one of the riders sat proud upon their steads. In my first hour in Rio I had encountered the tip of an extraordinary bike culture.

Since returning to Arizona, I’ve tried to find anything in writing or video about Rio’s cargo bike culture. The helpful advocates at Transporte Ativo sent me some papers like this one that demonstrate the benefits of their city’s cargo bikes. You can also find some of these numbers posted on the Velo-city Rio site. Research and papers like these are extremely important for influencing government policies to enable cargo bikes to function well in a city. Such studies have clearly helped to increase cargo bikes in Europe. Find many of the studies here.

What I can’t seem to find is anything from the perspectives of Rio’s cargo bike craftspeople and riders. There is a quiet culture there of making, caring for, and riding these vehicles. With that sort of care follows a desire to be part of the culture, including to ride the bikes and incorporate the bikes into businesses. That’s a support system that no government policy or funding can cause.

My personal experience with such a culture was as a bike messenger in San Francisco in the 1980s. That’s where delivery by bicycle was born in the U.S. And the 1980s were the heyday of bike messengers right before the fax machine and then personal computers hit. I rode the peak of the wave and will be forever grateful.

Last month, as I walked and bicycled amidst Rio’s cargo bikes, was my first encounter of that level of bike culture since my messenger days. I know there are other proud pockets of working cyclists and craftspeople around the world, too. Perhaps Europe’s cargo cyclists have it, though their fancy bikes and mega companies cause a bit of doubt. I suspect Cuba could be another enclave, after discovering this story, which I posted about a few years ago.

Pedicabs and cycle rickshaws seem to create their own proud cultures in some parts of the world. One example is Rickshaw Bank in India. This video gives a good overview. I hope that Rickshaw Bank is inspiring similar social enterprises in other parts of the world.

Think of your own experiences with working cyclists. Have you ever had a package delivered by someone riding a bike? Have you seen mail carriers delivering by bike? Have you watched from an airplane window as airport workers pedal heavy bikes under wings and across an ocean of tarmac? Have you encountered entrepreneurs perched on sidewalks peddling goods or pedaling bicycle machines that sharpen knives, grind corn, or mix drinks?

Strong cultures of working cyclists are very dear to me because I was part of one. But they should be dear to all of us because they are the support systems that enable these cyclists and craftspeople to thrive even in places where motorized transport still dominates. They are silently shifting transport from noisy, polluting, and dangerous trucks to quiet vehicles ridden by people who take pride in their self-propelled occupations.

Quiet is the unfortunate term here. I can’t find anything on Rio’s cargo bike craftspeople or riders. For that matter, besides some edgy books and movies about bike messengers and a few video interviews with rickshaw drivers at Rickshaw Bank, I’ve found next to nothing from the human side of working cyclists.

Do you know of any? If so, please email them to me at sue{at} If I can pull together several more resources, I’ll use them in a follow-up post and, who knows, perhaps something even bigger.


Saturday, May 26, 2018

Cycling Club Helping Homeless Women Regain Independence

I am always on the lookout for great model programs that tap the freedom of bicycling to help people who are struggling. This recent article from the Guardian caught my eye because the cycling club it spotlights focuses on the dignity that cycling can bring to those caught in homelessness. This cycling club in London shows its women members that they no longer need to be identified as homeless. They are strong, independent people who can transport themselves wherever they choose. The article starts off with this:

A cycling session at Queen Mary homeless women’s hostel in London starts with some reflection in the tea room. Eleven women discuss how they’re doing this week, how the cycling went for them last week and what they’re hoping to build on in today’s session. Then they push their bikes to a local basketball court to practise in the safety of an off-road environment. Supported by instructors from Westminster council’s training team, they practise riding by themselves; pushing off, cycling in a straight line, looking over one shoulder, turning, keeping going.

Small achievements are important and depend on the starting point of each woman; for some, keeping going is a key goal to address physical fitness, for others it is balance or specific cycling skills. They are all working towards Bikeability Level 1 which enables them to control a bike safely enough to progress on to quiet roads, making turns and negotiating traffic. In some sessions the women learn about map-reading and planning journeys, pumping up tyres and other basic maintenance. Read more here.

Enjoy the article and consider how your bicycle programs could be adapted to welcome homeless people.


Sunday, April 1, 2018

Social Change through Bicycles and Healthy Organizations

The publication of my memoir, Bike Hunt, gave me the opportunity to present at various venues and through various media about the power of bicycles for improving our world. Even though, or perhaps because Bike Hunt covers my struggle toward that goal, the book offers the perfect backdrop for intense discussions on this topic.

The bicycle is the greatest machine ever invented because it provides so much for so little. With simple pedal strokes it will transport a person six times faster than walking and can carry hundreds of pounds. It is easy to make and available in all parts of the world. When people choose to travel by bike, they not only improve their own physical health, but the health of their communities by reducing emissions and noise. And yet, in most countries, bicycles are only used for fewer than ten percent of trips.

Central to my presentation are the many disturbing barriers to bicycles being used as a tool for social change. Since the 1950s, the U.S. bicycle industry has presented bicycles as toys. On top of that, their push to sell bicycle helmets has stigmatized bicycling as far more dangerous than it actually is. Though car occupants suffer 25 times more head injuries than cyclists, the car industry would never dream of promoting helmets for their customers. Then there is Hollywood with its portrayal of cyclists as dorks. So it’s no wonder bicycles are forgotten by social movements (see my last post on Civil Rights) and even the environmental movement.

The other barrier is one that is faced by all nonprofits – group dysfunction. In Bike Hunt, I delve into many of the causes of this, including power grabs and infighting. Unfortunately, because our bicycle movement is so fragile and undermined by our bike industry and other stigmas, bicycle nonprofits cannot withstand the forces of group dysfunction like nonprofits in other movements.

I show in Bike Hunt and my presentations how to overcome these barriers first by recognizing them then stopping them at the slightest hint. If you have run into these sorts of struggles or more, please read the book and visit to tap into the resources there.


Monday, January 15, 2018

Human Progress Is Neither Automatic nor Inevitable, MLK

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, my favorite holiday because the man it honors would expect us to work for good on his day rather than take an actual holiday. I like to start this day by flipping through a huge volume of his writings, stopping to read random passages. I did that this morning and found some good ones, but there is one simple quote of his that I have fixated on this year: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.”

My fixation on this MLK quote actually began months ago. In my job at One Street, I answer calls for assistance from leaders of bicycle advocacy organizations all over the world. Since last fall, I have had the great pleasure of working with several extraordinary nonprofit leaders in some of the most battered areas of our world including Bosnia, Puerto Rico, and DR Congo. In spite of great odds against them, whether a recent war or hurricane, or marauding armed gangs, these nonprofits have become beacons of hope in their communities. But just like them, I have had to recognize the infection of human malice that has crippled and even destroyed other nonprofits that have contacted me for help.

Martin’s quote is imbedded in his book from 1958, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, where he describes the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement up to that point, but shows that much more must be done. I think that he was rightfully afraid that their successes would cause complacency. But even more than that, I believe that Martin had seen both the extraordinary potential of humans to overcome malice as well as the insidiousness of that malice. He knew all too well that backing off even slightly would allow of flood of brutality back in.

Over my more than forty years of working with nonprofits, I, like Martin, have come to realize that our species will not reach a point where we care for each other and halt brutality without a great effort.

I discussed this with a friend of mine recently and, instead of simply agreeing, she described a scene where a child is building a tower with building blocks. He places each block with care choosing his next to ensure his tower will reach the greatest height. Then another child enters the room and kicks the tower over. I tried to butt in here to bemoan the human tendency to destroy things built for good, but she corrected me. The second child did not kick the tower over in order to destroy it or even to harm the first child. He did so simply because he could, because it was easy.

Working to improve our world and help others is difficult. Harming it and others is easy. We must keep Martin’s quote in mind as we commit to this difficult task and always remember that human progress will never be automatic nor inevitable.