Naked Bike Ride... Effective Tactical Urbanism or a Robespierre for a Bicycle Revolution?

As I've posted about before, Philadelphia cycling culture, especially in Center City, is strong.  As the chicken-egg dance goes, public infrastructure to support that culture is incrementally improving.  I sold my car almost five years ago and my bicycle is my primary non-foot means of getting around, so suffice it to say I'm an advocate.  But over the weekend, I came to the quick conclusion that a Naked Bike Ride doesn't really advance my cause at this point.

On Sunday afternoon, we were riding down to the grocery store and couldn't figure out why there seemed to be so many more cars on the road than normal for the time/day, and why so many of the drivers were noticeably more aggressive/annoyed by our presence (honking, tailgating, cutting off... that sort of thing, despite our polite riding.  Upon arriving at South Street, it suddenly became clear... the entire street was occupied by several blocks of naked and almost-naked cyclists. The event, according to its website, is intended to promote cycling advocacy, raise awareness about fuel consumption, promote positive body image, and promote economic sustainability.  As a somebody trying to live those ideals as a part of normal life, I couldn't help but find myself mostly just annoyed by the whole thing.

Now don't get me wrong, this sort of an event can be very important.  Actual manifestations and demonstrations of the change you want to see in the world can be very effective means of advocacy, opinion-shaping, and coalition building.  It's for exactly this reason that when I was in Hartford, the City and its various civic partners quickly put together winter ice-skating in the park and a summer-fall festival of arts and innovation, despite the fact that major capital improvements to the park and its surroundings were still a few years away, at least.  It's the same reason I suspect the Philadelphia Department of Recreation is beginning to heavily program Eakins Oval on the Ben Franklin Parkway (and if not, then the City should really look at re-calibrating this auto-centric piece of transport/park infrastructure).  Back in Hartford, Bike/Walk CT and Real Artways (the former being a bit more stodgy/formal, and the latter being a bit more carefree) both orchestrate their own yearly rides to promote cycling in a city in which driving is decidedly still king.  These events are successful because they bring new people into the fold, build excitement for the movement, and even bring a little agitation to the status quo. 

However, not all tactics remain appropriate at all times.  At the risk of being too hyperbolic, part of the reason the French Revolution of 1789 imploded back into dictatorship was that after its initial success based on the ideals of the Enlightenment, rather than broadening the appeal and building coalitions for democratic governance, Robespierre persecuted all those not sufficiently revolutionary for him and the Jacobins. I would submit that, while at one point necessary, certainly fun for those who participate, and entertaining for some (but certainly not all) who see, today's Naked Bike Ride (in a city where cycling is become less an exception and more a normal way of life) is a celebration, not a meaningful advocacy tool.  That's fine, even if annoying to drivers and some other cyclists, but don't conflate a celebration with the advancement of the City as a bicycle-oriented place.

At this point in Philadelphia's trip on the bicycle-time continuum, now that there's a cycling constituency, I'd recommend taking a different page out of the Tactical Urbanism playbook and politely installing temporary bike lanes in useful places, or using chalk to claim an on-street parking space as a space for 30 bicycles.  These are strategies that make an experiential argument for more equitable use of the street.

Maybe I'm being a buzzkill, even a bit of a prude, but I also suspect I'm not the only one.  In orchestrating a revolution, you've got to know where on the calendar you are, and keep the momentum moving without generating a counterrevolution.  

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