I’m a fan of guerrilla gardening, which is ‘the illicit cultivation of someone else’s land’ in Richard Reynold’s definition. I’m all in favour of citizens taking charge of neglected plots, tree pits and verges, making something beautiful out of them, and getting permission later. Last week I was reminded of a similar philosophy among cycling activists, featured in the 99% Invisible podcast.
Regular cyclists know which roads could do with a bike lane, or junctions where they could do with being separated from the traffic. Often local groups will petition the authorities to install bike lanes, and not get very far. There might be no budget, no political will, or the needs of car drivers are prioritised. For whatever reason, cyclists don’t always get what they want, and sometimes they take matters into their own hands instead.
Here’s an example from Latvia. Cyclists in Riga had been told that a particular road wasn’t wide enough for a cycle lane. Bike riders knew better, so they proved their point by making their own bike lane in the middle of the night. Commuters were able to use it in the morning, and then the city found out and came and removed it.
That is the fate of most guerrilla bike lanes, it has to be said. But not always. A group in San Francisco have installed a series of vigilante bike lanes on key streets, and the authorities have kept one of them. Another ‘suggestion’ was made permanent in Omaha after activists installed a proof of concept overnight. In the Omaha case, the bike lane was made out of toilet plungers and reflective tape – something that made the point about segregated bike lanes, but that was quick to install and quick to remove again too if necessary. Some groups use traffic cones for the same reason, rather than risking painting on lines. It demonstrates viability, and then the council can then make it permanent later. Activists in Brussels have been known to make lanes out of white tape, and some of those are now permanent infrastructure.
The most radical success story comes from Fortaleza in Brazil, where the local Critical Mass chapter was involved. Activists installed unsolicited bike lanes, the council removed them and the activists put them back. They developed DIY line-painting machines out of shopping trolleys, or even the bikes themselves, so that cyclists could add them on the fly.
The group eventually pressured the city into formalising the cycle infrastructure, and the network of cycle paths went from 60km to 200km. The Fortaleza campaign crossed well over into civil disobedience, but as they say, it “puts the state in a difficult situation: Will it criminalize a movement that makes bike lanes, which, despite being illegally built with no permits whatsoever, are there to protect people’s lives?”
There’s a healthy diversity to the world of guerrilla bike infrastructure. There are those making temporary lanes to pressure the authorities, and those getting on and making them themselves. Activists in Australia have been highlighting unsafe bike lanes by adding guerrilla signage. A group in New York called Right of Way use them to draw attention to the site of traffic accidents. Some lanes are wobbly and amateur, and others are indistinguishable from the official ones. Some groups focus on existing bike lanes, adding painted tyres or planters to stop cars encroaching on them. Or activists might focus on junctions, adding lanes or safe zones for cyclists. There’s plenty of room for imagination.
So far I’m not aware of anyone using guerrilla tactics in Britain, though there may well be someone out there. If your local council is dragging its heels on cycle lanes or telling you it can’t be done, pick up a high-vis jacket and some white duct tape and show them what’s possible.