Charles Komanoff


Komanoff 1999 essay, "Avenues for Activism: A Talk at the Start of BikeSummer"

© by Charles Komanoff /
August 1, 1999, San Francisco

[Charlie gave this talk at a Sunday evening forum in Noe Valley ... sort of ... actually this is what he wrote after the talk.]

Wow! It's hard to believe BikeSummer is just 48 hours old. So much has happened already! Starting with that magical Critical Mass ride on Friday.

The whole weekend has been a bracing antidote to car culture and its implicit denigration of bicycle activism. It's great to be around so many people who are committed to the belief that we can humanize and liberate our society by making it possible for many more people to ride bikes.

As a New Yorker, I've been asked to talk about the cycling situation there - a subject that, for me, revolves around the character of the cycling community. Sadly, bicycle culture is mostly hidden in New York City these days, compared to its prominence in the late eighties and early nineties, or in San Francisco now. Lots of people ride, but the scene isn't imbued with much consciousness or sense of happening. (Perhaps you'll get a different view from the grassroots cycling group Time's Up, which is sending a delegation here later this month.)

I attribute this, in part, to the devolution of Transportation Alternatives from a vanguard activist force guided by volunteers to a relatively ordinary "progressive" advocacy organization driven by staff. The leadership seems uninterested in harnessing the creativity and energy of its members. In a disastrous but characteristic decision, T.A. turned its back on bike messenger union organizing five years ago, crippling the organizing campaign and smashing cyclist solidarity in one stroke.

In a kind of "lose-lose" outcome, bike radicalism and fun in New York have withered, and there have been few notable infrastructure victories or policy advances. T.A. is respectable and is quoted often, but mostly reacting to events, not propounding a vision. Cyclists are despised less than 10 or 15 years ago, which I guess is grounds for hope. But we're stuck on the fringe. Cycling, and cyclists, should be defining transport, public space, life in New York. That we don't is frustrating.

Let's move on then and touch on four "big thoughts" for bike activists. I offer them as possible ways for us to move forward, or at least present ourselves to the world. They are: the Toronto coroner rule; stand with pedestrians; tell it to environmentalists; and "wellness" via cycling.

1. The Toronto coroner rule:

In 1996, after two cyclists, both women, were killed by automobiles in Toronto nine days apart, the group Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists induced the Toronto regional coroner to study cyclist casualties and recommend preventions. The coroner's report, analyzing 35 deaths and several thousand injuries over 10 years, and shaped by ARC so as to avoid becoming another exercise in victim-blaming, was published last year.(1)

The coroner's key recommendation was to establish, as law, "the principle of motorized vehicles yielding to non-motorized vehicles." Just as motorboats yield to sailboats on the water, motor vehicles would yield to bicycles (and bicycles to pedestrians) where the two are vying for the same space on the road, and where clear-cut criteria like traffic signals don't apply.

Putting into law this "common sense rule," said coroner W.J. Lucas, "would likely significantly reduce risk of injury and death" to cyclists. No longer could a motorist feel entitled by law to commandeer a traffic lane from a bicyclist.

The coroner's rule, that motorized vehicles yield to non-motorized vehicles, offers an important organizing opportunity. In campaigning for its enactment, cyclists would be showing the way to a different road culture - one in which rights are conferred in direct proportion to the vulnerability of the various types of vehicles and users, and in inverse proportion to the danger that each creates. The rule is clarifying, far-reaching, fair and winnable.

Perhaps the life experience of Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong presents a similar opportunity. Lance's victory is being celebrated as a triumph for cancer survivors, and justly so. What is not widely known is that twice in the past 18 months Lance was attacked, on training rides, by drivers who deliberately aimed their vehicles at him; and that Lance fought back both times.

The perils of celebrity culture notwithstanding, I urge that we try to persuade Lance to publicly discuss his experiences with driver violence. The fear of being run off the road is universal among cyclists in America, and is a huge impediment to mass cycling. A public conversation about Lance Armstrong's "other battle," in tandem with campaigns to enact the Toronto coroner's rule, could go far toward gaining adherence by drivers to cyclists' lawful right of way.

2. Stand with pedestrians:

Since leaving Transportation Alternatives, I've been active with a new group in New York City, Right Of Way. Our mission is to challenge and undermine the legitimacy of the "car system."

We have created 250 "street memorials" - life-size police-chalk outlines of a human body, spray-painted on the pavement where people have been KILLED BY AUTOMOBILE, with that phrase stenciled alongside the person's name and the date she was killed. The image and words last at least several months before fading away.

Right Of Way's stenciling "crews" vary in composition, but we always travel by bicycle, usually pulling our gear on a trailer. Reflecting actuarial data, most memorials are to pedestrians; cyclist victims get no special designation.

The fact of cyclists memorializing pedestrians is powerful. Our memorials have been seen and noted widely, and have helped bring together cyclists and pedestrians against the automobile. In New York, where scapegoating of cyclists has long deflected pedestrian anger from automobiles, this is no small achievement.

Right Of Way members also spent over a thousand hours compiling a database of one thousand pedestrian and cyclist deaths in New York City over the past four years, and then distilling the terrible facts of these deaths into a report. KILLED BY AUTOMOBILE shattered the mold by formulating "pedestrian fatalities" in terms of driver behavior. We found that drivers were culpable in the vast majority of pedestrian and cyclist deaths.

We invite you to download KILLED BY AUTOMOBILE from the Right Of Way web site, or to read a copy at the SFBC office.(2) While circumstances differ between cities, in New York the memorializing by cyclists of people killed by automobiles has been an enormously effective and gratifying way of drawing attention to the damage done by privileging of cars - and of building support for a cycling and pedestrian agenda. I commend that approach.

3. Tell it to environmentalists:

I'm talking here about enviro's who think "green cars" are the answer (um, what was the question?), and who won't touch the subject of bicycles (or an actual bicycle) with a ten-foot pole - because they want to "protect their credibility" or 'cause they'd rather drive.

We have news for those folks: we can't stop the greenhouse effect without bikes - without major bikes. The enviro answer, so-called super-efficient or "green" cars, serves only to greenwash the motorization of the entire planet, which is fast becoming a climate catastrophe as well as a human disaster.

Consider this: if the average Chinese person drove as much as the average American, worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide from all sources would grow by one-fourth - a huge rise that would doom any hope of reining in emissions of greenhouse gases and saving Earth's climate.

Even if we made all cars and trucks five times more efficient, and the world's population stopped growing tomorrow, carbon dioxide emissions would increase if everyone in the world drove as much as Americans.(3)

We have got to create a radically different U.S. model for the rest of the world. That's why BikeSummer is not just thrilling but essential. In China, India, everywhere, people's struggles to move, travel and work with dignity are being sabotaged by American-driven automania. To stop motorization there, we have to infuse cycling here with prestige and desire. Environmentalists must be bicyclists.

If your environmentalist friends say, uh-oh, forget the bikes, then we have to say, forget stopping the greenhouse effect.

Or, if they can't get real about stopping global warming, try engaging them on the big backyard enviro bugaboo, suburban sprawl. Cyclists are anti-sprawl by necessity, since cycling doesn't work too well when destinations are spread out and aren't served by local streets or transit. But now turn the argument around: to get people to reject sprawl, help them become bicyclists. Once people have integrated cycling into their daily life, they'll just say no to sprawl environments.

4. Wellness via cycling - or, the health risks of not cycling:

There's a growing feeling that guilt-tripping doesn't get people onto bikes. We need to appeal to people's self-interest. Health is one place to start.

Seven years ago, the British Medical Association published a landmark study by cycling campaigner Mayer Hillman. It concluded that even in Britain's anti-cycling road environment, the health benefits of regular cycling, in terms of life years gained, greatly outweighed the actuarial loss of life from road accidents. Each minute of lost life expectancy from the increased probability of crash injury or death was offset 10-fold by the increased longevity from improved cardiovascular health.(4)

In other words, it's unsafe not to cycle.

Still, to address possible criticisms over sample self-selection, Hillman subsequently recruited 91 individuals between the ages of 18 and 65 who were not then engaged in cycling or any other regular exercise, to begin cycling several times a week. He tested them at the start of the program, after six weeks, and after four months. Most of them showed significantly improved fitness and mental well-being.

In particular, of 35 subjects who initially ranked in the bottom quintile in the national population distribution of aerobic fitness, all but two showed improved fitness after just 6-8 weeks; that group's mean percentile ranking increased by 13 percentage points, from 9% to 22%. And all this for an average distance cycled per week of just under 20 miles.(5)

Let's get this message out, perhaps after health professionals here have replicated Hillman's analysis. At the same time, let's keep broadcasting that cycling is fun, especially compared to the deadliness of driving in cities and suburbs, where most car use takes place.

Of course, cycling is more fun when it's safe and done in numbers. That's almost a tautology, since numbers provide safety and only safety will produce cyclists en masse. And it's most fun at a San Francisco Critical Mass.

I can still feel the lift to my spirit from the November 1992 and February 1996 masses. Now I have that indelible moment on Friday, when three thousand of us streamed down Lombard Street like falling water.

On a previous trip here, I had cycled up to the same spot at the top of Lombard, and stared down that steep and twisting road and said, no way. The bricks might be slippery and the line of cars behind me looked scary. So I walked down. On Friday, when I saw the ride was headed down Lombard, I thought, oh no, I can't do this! But in true Critical Mass spirit I took courage from everyone around me and plunged ahead. Of course it was easy, and wild, and beautiful.

As I neared the last bend, I saw hundreds of cyclists at the foot of the hill cheering and applauding us - me! What a feeling! At the landing I joined in cheering the next wave of riders coming down. The bikes and the faces seemed to blend into one long silky liquid motion, like a river winding down a mountainside. Today, still seeing that image in my mind, I thought of "River Of Orchids," the opening song from the new album by XTC, Apple Venus. I'd like to close by reading the first half-dozen verses.

I heard the dandelions roar in Piccadilly Circus
I heard the dandelions roar in Piccadilly Circus
Take a packet of seeds, take yourself out to play
I want to see a river of orchids where we had a motorway

Push your car from the road
Push your car from the road
Just like a mad dog you're chasing your tail in a circle
Just like a mad dog you're chasing your tail in a circle

It's all in your back yard
You've the whole world at your feet
Said the grass is always greener when it bursts up through concrete
Push your car from the road
Push your car from the road

River of orchids winding our way
Want to walk into London on my hands one day
River of orchids the road overgrows
Want to walk into London smelling like a Peckham rose

I had a dream where the car is reduced to a fossil
I had a dream where the car is reduced to a fossil
Take a packet of seeds, take yourself out to play
I want to see a river of orchids where we had a motorway

It's all in your back yard
You've the whole world at your feet
Said the grass is always greener when it bursts up through concrete

Thank you. Have a great BikeSummer!

(1) A Report On Cycling Fatalities In Toronto 1986 - 1996, Recommendations for Reducing Cycling Injuries and Death, July 1, 1998, prepared by W. J. Lucas, M.D., C.C.F.P., Regional Coroner for Toronto. It may be viewed at

(2) Via (or, equivalently, For a professionally printed copy, send $7.50 to Right Of Way, 305 Broadway, Room 402, NYC 10007.

(3) These calculations are included in a sidebar by the author critiquing "green cars," scheduled for the fall 1999 Amicus Journal (Natural Resources Defense Council, New York).

(4) Mayer Hillman, Cycling: towards health and safety, Oxford University Press, 1992.

(5) Mayer Hillman, Howard N. Boyd, Bill Tuxworth, "Promoting Cycling as a Way to a Healthier Life," from Proceedings, Velo City conference, April 1999, downloadable from (go to p. 318).