Conference Velo Mondiale

September 13-17, 1992, Montreal, Canada

Michael J. Vandeman

"Some 628 delegates from 32 countries participated and assisted in 91 workshops and took part in producing and delivering 160 papers on all the subjects related to the bicycle." By all the usual measures, this conference was a great success.

But was it really? The vast majority of papers were on how we can increase bicycling's share of the current transportation system. This kind of bicycle promotion has been practiced for over a hundred years. After a hundred years of this, we are no better off than when we started. The giant's share of the system is still dedicated to the automobile and its relatives. Sure, we all came away with warm feelings -- feeling like we had made enormous progress. But if these warm feelings were justified at all, it is only because the auto-cracy has thrown us slightly bigger crumbs than previously.

I would like to suggest that most of the conference (like most of the conferences I have attended lately) was concerned with rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. All indications are that what we really need is a rapid revolution in how we live and particularly, how we transport people and goods. Miniscule improvements in bicycle safety and facilities won't be enough to stave off global warming, prevent ozone depletion, save our farmland and wildlife habitat from destruction, restore clean air and water, or significantly reduce traffic deaths. It is far more urgent to stop the automobile/highway juggernaut, than to promote the alternatives (which are already available, anyway). So why don't we say this? Why don't we simply tell the truth?! Then maybe we can do something that will really make a difference.

A number of the participants did point in the right direction: "In most of the world's cities, city planners worship at the altar of smooth automobile circulation." (Robert Boivin, p.18) "The automobile is driving us to extinction.... It is absolutely necessary and urgent to stop the car.... ban new highways." (Rene Dumont and Charlotte Paquet, p.20) "The results show that even if bicycle use doubles, car use will remain high. It becomes clear that promoting bicycle use can only be part of an integrated policy for reducing the use of the car." (Tilman Bracher, p.136) "But this goal [getting better bicycle facilities] would be more easily attained if the main adversary were cut down to size first." [the key is the word "first!] (John Roberts, p.248) "... the encouragement of cycling is futile unless motorized traffic is restrained.... encouraging the green modes is futile unless the red modes are calmed." (Rodney Tolley, pp.264 & 266)

"The most successful device for curbing traffic is a parking policy aimed at freezing [I prefer "reducing"] the number of available parking spaces." (Nico Vlasveld, p.273) "Restriction of the growth of [he should have said "reduction of"] car use is an [the most!] important part of this policy.... For many drivers,... simply making car use less attractive will tip the scale." (Anthony Welleman, pp.275-6) "Policy directives must be aimed at discouraging automobile use." (Robert Noland, p.348) "...bicycle advocates and activists should ... not be afraid to criticize the car, or to ask for limitations on its abuse." (Gianni Catania, p.418) "The proportion of car traffic must be reduced appreciably.... further road building exacerbates rather than alleviates the problem. Even 'technological fixes' cannot remedy the situation, because they will be offset by increases in car traffic volumes." (Wilhelm Hoermann, p.454)

New bike lanes, bike paths, fun rides, etc. won't solve the problem of the automobile. The pollution, noise, and threat of accidents due to cars will continue to deter bicycle use. When something is in the way, you can't progress until you remove the obstacle! Asking to share the stage with the automobile is like asking to share power with a dictator: since he has all the power and you have none, you will never get anything but crumbs.

Auto users are hoping that we will keep quiet and be satisfied with the crumbs they toss us. They think that if they give us a new bike path, we will shut up about the new and expanded freeways they want to build. And until recently, they have been right!

What we need is not more coexistence with the automobile; what we need is to all but eliminate it. How can we get this much power? Not by logical arguments delivered to the power brokers (politicians), but by stepping off the auto/highway/oil bandwagon altogether: boycotts. Our real power is not over other people, but over how we spend our own money. We will never be able to force a legislator who is profiting from the status quo to vote with us, but no one can tell us how to spend our money. That is true power! We need to start organizing to stop purchasing the products of the auto and oil companies. The auto and oil industries are not doing well, but that is not enough. We need to bring them to their knees. We need to support instead industries that promote, rather than prevent, a sustainable economy and protection of the environment.

The next Velo Mondiale conference should be called the "First International Conference for an Auto-Free World". Let's set our sights high!