The eyes of the cycling world are fixed on Vienna, at least temporarily, as the Velo-city conference begins today. While the presence of a conference in Europe’s most conference-friendly city is not news on its own, the fact that this particular conference happens to be the planet’s largest cycling-oriented conference is indeed significant. Velo-city Vienna’s website states:
“More than 1,000 representatives from 60 countries have registered as delegates for Velo-city 2013. 330 international presenters from various disciplines will ensure a lively professional debate in 240 lectures, seminars, workshops and other interactive discussion formats. 25 plenary speakers will provide delegates with new insights into urban cycling issues. The Mayors and Vice Mayors of cities such as New York, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Munich, Prague and Budapest, amongst others, have confirmed their attendance. The Velo-city 2013 EXPO is fully booked with more than 40 exhibitors and promises a valuable B2B event. We are looking forward to the conference participation of 60 Cycling Visionaries, who are invited to Velo-city 2013 as winners of the Cycling Visionaries Awards. International media coverage for the conference is ensured with over 80 international journalists accredited so far.”
This year’s Velo-city runs under the tagline The Sound of Cycling, but what is fast becoming a ubiquitous soundtrack was not long ago little more than a faint cry, an echo, an occasional rebel yell. Although ARGUS (Arbeitsgemeinschaft umweltfreundlicher Stadtverkehr, or Association for Envionmentally-Friendly Urban Transport) has been around since 1979, cycling in Vienna only really began to pick up steam in the past decade with the addition of the bike lobby IG Fahrrad, the formation of the Bike Kitchen, and most visibly with the 2006 arrival of Critical Mass.
Drawing inspiration from similar group rides that took place in Sweden following the oil crisis of the early 1970s, cyclists in San Francisco conducted the first of what would become known as Critical Mass rides in 1992. Like its predecessors, the event was a form of protest. The bicycle had been marginalized in the United States by automobile-centric urban planning, policy, and infrastructure, making urban cycling dangerous and generally unwelcome and unwelcoming. Hardcore cyclists, those with the skills and temperament to brave the hostile conditions, decided enough was enough. Individually they were at the mercy of motor vehicles, but collectively they could occupy the street, raise awareness, and demand greater transportation equality. Critical Mass rides have since spread to more than 300 cities worldwide.
As demonstrated by Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless unsung heroes throughout history and across the globe, misbehavior achieves its greatest elegance, its highest beauty, in peaceful protest. Since 2006, on the third Friday of every month, Viennese cyclists of all stripes have united in demonstration that cycling is not only fun, environmentally sensitive, and good for one’s health, but also a viable means of urban transportation that must be treated accordingly in law and in practice. The monthly rides attract 500-1000 or more riders, and the good-natured rebelliousness climaxes with the annual Naked Critical Mass, scheduled in 2013 for 21 June.
The bicycle is reshaping Vienna. Cycle tracks are being built and improved citywide, parking stalls and cycling infrastructure is proliferating, policy and design instruments are becoming more sophisticated, and more and more people are choosing the bicycle as a normal mode of transport. 2013 has been declared the RadJahr, or year of the bicycle, and hundreds of supporting events are scheduled. There are free weekly bicycle repair sessions and a weekly bicycle flohmarkt (flea market), and cycling has been placed firmly on the agenda of city government. Figures vary, but somewhere between 6-8% of all trips in Vienna are now made by bicycle, marking a more than 100% increase over that of a decade ago.
As the international cycling community descends on Vienna this week, and as the city transitions into the next stage of becoming a true cycle city, it is worth noting that the current tidal wave of cycling fever was triggered in large part by Critical Mass – a peaceful protest for democracy and equality masquerading as a party on wheels. Misbehavior, executed beautifully.