Citizen movements reclaiming space for bikes in cities
Walk around Barcelona on a Friday morning and you’ll probably come across a bunch of kids on bikes (and other wheels) who take over the city’s streets. Escorted by their parents, volunteers, and sometimes the police, they get to school in a healthier and more sustainable manner.
Barcelona has a long history of citizen movements fighting for various causes. In the past couple of years, groups asking for safer streets, more sustainable transport, and better air quality have become very visible. We look at some of the actions that everyday citizens are taking to make their city more child- and bike-friendly.
Every month in more than 200 cities globally, people gather together to ride their bike for one to two hours on roads that are usually dominated by motorised vehicles. The leaderless event called Critical Mass is free and open to anyone interested in taking their bike and joining the movement – often accompanied by music playing from speakers fixed on cargo bikes.
One commonly shared objective of the Critical Mass is to raise awareness about the use of public space and the role that bikes play in this, although every participant has their own reason to take part in the bike ride. The latter relates to the idea of xerocracy that is often linked to Critical Mass: anyone can share their vision on what the event means to them and advertise it through traditional or online media platforms (e.g., flyers, social media) (Furness, 2007).
The movement started in September 1992, when the first flyers were distributed through San Francisco, calling people to join a monthly bike ride to “make their presence felt” on the road. This event, originally named Commute Clot would later that day change its name to Critical Mass (SFist, 2022). Critical Mass refers to a movie scene in Return of the Scorcher (1992), a documentary about bike cultures in nations including the Netherlands and China. The scene describes the phenomenon where cyclists would accumulate at a busy intersection, waiting until they have the critical mass to safely cross a road together. The movement celebrated its 30-year anniversary in San Francisco in September 2022, supported by hundreds of participants.
Nowadays, citizens in more than 200 cities across the world organise a Critical Mass in some way. The events vary in scale and frequency: while Barcelona’s Masa Crítica takes place every first Friday of the month, the event is held twice a year in Budapest. On Earth Day, April 20th, 2008, Hungary’s capital saw over 80.000 participants. While this number is significantly lower for the more frequent bike rides, monthly Critical Masses, such as the one in Barcelona, still attract hundreds to thousands of people.
Sometimes, large groups of bicyclists occupying road space provokes conflicts between the participants and other traffic. Although this led to the contentious reputation of the event in some cases, Critical Mass participants often express that their aim is not to block traffic, but to show that bicyclists are part of traffic. The global movement has demonstrated that alternative forms of transport other than motorised vehicles can make a more efficient use of the urban space, and that there are hundreds of people advocating for this. In San Francisco alone, this demonstration has resulted in positive outcomes including an increase in bike use and funding for cycling infrastructure (SF Critical Mass, 2010). Although the direct effects of the Masa Crìtica in Barcelona have not extensively been researched, it is evident that the city is taking concrete steps to redesign its mobility. Barcelona has adopted strategies to improve and extend bicycle infrastructure, and measures to decrease private car use.
You might expect bicyclists bumping into each other, in such a large group. On the contrary – being able to talk and have eye contact (while enjoying music together), shows the interplay between bicyclists that makes it such a safe and smooth traffic flow.
(Rosa van Gestel, Consultant at Bax & Company)
A Bicibús, also known as a bike bus, a bike train or a cycle train, allows children to use active transport to go to school, accompanied by adults and sometimes the police. The group follows a set route with school drop off points, similar to a bus. Via a Smartphone app, other people can see where the group is and join on the way. Most participants use bikes, yet some of the kids prefer rollerblades or kick scooters, while some of the adults might sometimes be walking/running along, using a skateboard or an electric scooter. For the youngest children, parents will often carry them on their bikes.
While this might vary across the world, the Catalan Bicibús has 3 main objectives:
- Supporting the transition towards sustainable mobility
- Fostering new skills and more autonomy for the persons involved
- Improving children’s health and school performance
The first Catalan Bicibús started in the city of Vic, in March 2020. Two teachers decided to accompany nine of their pupils to school, going by bike through one of the busiest roads in Vic. Although the pandemic interrupted the Bicibús for some months, the experiment inspired pre-existent movements from Barcelona (such as Eixample Respira – fighting for better air quality, and Revolta Escolar – requiring better environmental and safety conditions around schools) to take similar action (City Lab Barcelona).
Currently, there are almost 100 Bicibús lines in the Metropolitan Area of Barcelona, engaging more than 30 schools and 900 people (Bicibus app). Twelve of these lines are within the city of Barcelona, covering most large neighbourhoods. While the majority happen on Friday mornings, the line in Via Augusta operates 3 days/week and the one in Sant Antoni daily since October 2022.
Bibuses generally occupy the entire road space, with adults (parents and volunteers) ahead, behind and on the side of the children cycling. Some of the volunteers position themselves at the intersection with other streets, to ensure the entire group can pass without being split if the lights turn red. In some cases, this might mean that other drivers will need to wait longer, which can make some lose patience, honk and sometimes display angry behaviour. While the Bicibús aims to protect the most vulnerable traffic participants, it is also a revendication of public space, of which the majority is currently allocated to cars. Most of us take it for granted that cars have priority on roads, so it will be interesting to follow up with some of the Bicibús kids to study the effect on their perception of road use in the years to come.
For me, the Bicibús is a live demonstration of how a city designed for kids and inclusive mobility could look like, and how it would reverse the logic of traffic we have today. I can’t wait to see how these kids’ travel behaviour evolves in the future. My hope is that we’re supporting future generations in reclaiming space for active travel and in developing a better relationship with public spaces.
(Lorena Axinte, Future mobility consultant, Bax & Company)
Other similar events
Drum & Bass Cycle, Kidical Mass
While the Critical Mass and the Bicibús are regularly taking place, there are also other similar events happening occasionally. One of them is the Kidical Mass, a global event which in Catalonia brought together all the different Bicibús-es. More than 2000 people attended the one in May 2022 (planned in advance of the summer break), filling Barcelona’s streets with people of all ages, bikes and music. Similar to other kidical masses, the one in Barcelona is asking for a child-friendly traffic policy, where people of all ages can use a bike to travel. Gathering in one place, children, parents and volunteers interested in creating safer and less polluted cities across Catalunya gives this topic much more visibility.
Besides, similar to the critical mass, Barcelona also hosted a Drum and Bass (D&B) event led by Dom Whiting, a British DJ whose turntables and speakers are fitted onto a cargo bike. Whiting rides among tens and sometimes hundreds of other people, accompanied by other cargo bikes with sound systems which can further amplify the music all along the group of cyclists.
Although the D&B event tried to distance itself from a traditional critical mass, it played a similar role through the occupation of streets and the traffic cut-off. Many of the attendees are also often participating in critical masses and supporting the Bicibús. Nonetheless, during the D&B event, the police took a more active part in closing streets in advance (similar to a sporting event), which reduced the friction with car drivers.
The first kidical mass happened in Eugene, Oregon (City Lab Barcelona), and spread around Europe, too. In 2022, events happened simultaneously across 400 cities, towns and rural areas, gathering 90,000 participants.
Bike parties have existed for a long time, too. Dom Whiting started his during the COVID-19 lockdown, as a way to continue broadcasting music and bringing people together, while still keeping everyone at a safe distance. He has toured various British cities (London, Bristol, Manchester), and has also come to Barcelona.
Kidical masses are able to fill the streets with children and people of all ages, demonstrating that there are alternatives to the current transport system. Similarly, a D&B bike party demonstrates that our streets can host a variety of uses, and cars do not necessarily need to dominate space.
I got involved in organising the kidical through the contacts I made in the Bicibús community. I started in Bicibús as a passionate cyclist and a father, but after deciding to set up the Bicibús in Ciutat Vella and getting involved in the bike activism community, I was blown away by the dedication and motivation of those involved, and I was immediately hooked. It’s blatantly clear that we are driving the world to a catastrophe and although many don’t agree because their lifestyle is based upon the use of the car, it simply cannot be denied that a change to the model of mobility is part of the solution.
(Chris Severin, initiator of two Bicibús lines and volunteer at kidical mass)
- Various groups are dedicating a lot of time and energy to making cities friendlier to bikes and active transport. These are mostly volunteers motivated to take action and reduce pollution and mitigate the climate crisis.
- Any public space reclamation will lead to certain conflicts. While these conflicts should be managed to avoid escalation, they can be a sign of active citizens who are exercising their ‘right to the city’.
- The local authorities are showing some signs of support, although the formalisation of the Bicibús, for instance, brings with it various uncertainties (e.g., would a protocol impose certain restrictions, such as age or maximum number of attendees?)
Making space for people to travel actively – How Bax is helping cities reclaim and redesign public space
Many cities, including Barcelona, are embracing and trying to accommodate these grassroots initiatives. Besides, public authorities are also active in various European projects to further improve their cities. Bax & Company is supporting them in various ways:
- MOBI-MIX facilitates the collaboration between public and private stakeholders to ensure that the implementation of new mobility solutions benefits cities and their inhabitants. Such solutions include regular and electric bikes, cargo bikes, and e-scooters, amongst others. The recently published MOBI-MIX guide for implementing shared mobility can be a useful tool for public authorities, policy makers and practitioners.
- Shared Mobility for ALL (SMALL) is working with cities and regions across Europe to co-create new mobility solutions for children and families, elderly and physically impaired people. The project aims to foster and build upon initiatives such as Bicibús or cycling without age to promote volunteering and support schemes as an integrated part of our mobility system.
- Active Cities increases the share of active mobility (walking, cycling) in North European Cities for sustainable zero-carbon multimodality. The project will demonstrate various human-centric design solutions in public spaces to encourage sustainable, multimodal and active travel. Street-pilots first use tactical urbanism (planning-by-doing) with citizen-led, short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions. They enrich existing planning frameworks for active mobility and test innovative technologies.
It is wonderful to see that cities are recognising the positive impact of local associations and starting to empower and professionalise them to become efficient social mobility services.
(Sami Angsthelm, consultant at Bax & Company)
Get in touch if you’d like to know more about any of our projects on active and shared mobility.