I was working in Portugal last week. Initially I was reluctant to go so far for what was essentially a one-day workshop. But when João Bernardino, who’d invited me, offered use of a bike whilst I was there, and said Lisbon’s community of cycling activists would like to meet me, it became more attractive. It was a fantastic experience, the hospitality of everyone I met truly exceptional.
Ana Pereira greeted me at the airport. Ana is one of the founders of Cenas a Pedal – not ‘just’ a bike store or workshop, but a more total project striving to sell everyday cycling in a place where such cycling is still rare. It’s the sort of pioneering place every city needs, and which will multiply and prosper as cycling’s popularity grows.
Ana rode a pedelec –the sort of bike perhaps most likely to democratise cycling in a hilly, low-cycling city such as Lisbon. She guided me out of the airport and along some big and busy roads to the city’s 1998 Expo site, and from there into a fierce wind along the Tagus River to the ferry at Cais do Sodré where we met João.
A true gentleman, João rode his wife Filipa’s bike and gave me his own. From Cacilhas on the Tagus’s other side we rode south towards the remote monastery where the workshop was to take place. The roads were full of cars; the dedicated cycling infrastructure was sometimes good, but too discontinuous to be really useful.
The Arrábida Monastery sits high above the Atlantic Ocean on the wooded slopes of the Arrábida Natural Park to the south of Lisbon. It’s a stunning place which feels a world away from the capital.
With a free day before the workshop’s opening dinner, I rode east along the coast to the port city of Setúbal. I set out in thick fog but the road was quiet, it was a lovely ride, and the air cleared as I dropped towards the sea. It was the first time since October I’ve ridden without gloves, and the warmth made me impatient for spring – alas my first ride back home saw me battling through a blizzard!
The workshop was part of a European project investigating the long-term future of transport. We were discussing and developing scenarios based on the ‘mega-trends’ considered likely to shape people’s mobile lives over the next half century. One ‘expert’ amongst others from different fields and around the world, I felt like ‘the cycling guy’. It’s important cycling’s represented in such spaces if it’s to have hope of moving from the margins, so it was good to be there and I was happy to play that role.
But the highlight of my trip was Friday night; the workshop over, I shed my suit and had some fun! From my hotel Hercules, Ana Santos, João and I rode to Cenas a Pedal where we met more people and rode together – “a mini-Critical Mass!”, as Ana from Cenas a Pedal described it – to the book store, Ler Devagar, where I was to speak. This is a vast anarcho-dream of a place – evidence of its former life as a printworks is everywhere, bicycles dangle from above, books are of course piled high, and then there’s beer, wine, coffee, music, and lots of signs of the space’s centrality to alternative social and political networks; to me it felt like heaven!
Ana Pereira began the evening’s conversation by explaining the work of MUBi, the Portuguese association for urban cycling. MUBi advocates urban cycling as an ordinary means of moving around. Car ownership and use have exploded across Portugal over the last generation, and whilst it’s on the up, levels of utility cycling remain very low. Mário Alves of MUBi told me that the proportion of commuter trips made by cycle in the city is currently 0.6%. There’s some dedicated cycling infrastructure and some of it’s pretty good, but it’s woefully disjointed and there’s too little actual cycling for that dedicated space to be consistently recognised and respected by pedestrians. On the roads cars dominate, and whilst I was impressed by the patience of drivers, it felt a harsh and unforgiving cycling environment. Like so many other places, to ride here you’d have to be either committed or desperate.
This is the context in which MUBi is working, and – with minimal resources – doing an extremely impressive job. But besides MUBi’s various projects aimed at promoting cycling, MUBi campaigners themselves – some of whom I met on Friday night – are crucial to the struggle for cycling. Passionate about the bicycle and clearly recognising the difference more cycling would make, they are cycling’s keepers, continuing to shine a light through the darkest days of automobility, actors of the greatest importance to future life.
This bears on one topic of my talk at Ler Devagar. We need strong sub-cultures of cycling to sustain our favourite practice through the darkest times (though from a sub-cultural perspective these can also of course be the best of times too). And as cycling’s staunchest advocates we’re the ones who are best placed to speak and work for more cycling. From what I saw MUBi is clearly doing a magnificent job on both these counts.
But there may come a time – and probably Lisbon is a long way from it, and in the UK we are closer – when activists would do well to examine their strategies for popularising cycling, and ask whether those strategies result from the identities they’ve developed in order to sustain cycling through bleak times, and whether they might at some point come to stand in the way of –rather than facilitate – making cycling a more normal practice in which identity is a less central factor. As I say, I think cycling’s current marginality in Lisbon society makes such questions remote. And MUBi is well equipped to deal with them when the time comes. I know some people disagreed with what I said at Ler Devagar, but their willingness to hear, and to respond so constructively and respectfully sent shivers up my spine. Wherever I go, I’m struck by how cycling’s in such safe hands.
I’m a lucky man to be made welcome in strange places. In particular I have to thank João Bernardino for inviting me to Portugal in the first place, and also Ana Pereira, Ana Santos and Mário Alves for their extraordinary hospitality whilst I was there. Ana Santos and Mário are organising this year’s International Cycling History Conference. It was an honour to share their company for the evening, and to get a taste of Portugese social life. Such community is our strength, and power.
Hey! I returned home to the clearest news yet of the urgently needed paradigm shift away from the car and towards the bicycle as an urban mode of transport. As an unrepentantly critical sociologist I’ll always find problems, but the promised changes to London over the coming decade are good news indeed (and reassurance to many of us that perhaps we’ve not been so idealistically deluded after all!). As my new friends in Lisbon might say, “Viva a velorution!”