Over the last couple of years I participated in bike events, usually titled “Bikes, Cities and the Future Of Getting Around,” all over North America. Usually these would be in some small (800 seats or so) theater and the format would always be the same: 4 folks on stage—a city person (sometimes a mayor), a local advocate for bikes or new transportation ideas, a historian or urbanist of some sort, and myself. We’d each talk and show slides for about 15 minutes each, and then take questions. The whole thing usually lasted about hour and a half. The events began as an alternative to a book tour. I refused to do readings from Bicycle Diaries, but signed books were available in the lobby, so the publisher was happy.
My presentation evolved to be a kind of background and introduction to the subject. I’d show early 20th century ideas about what our cities could be—utopian or dystopian visions, depending on your point of view—which, coincidentally, were not heavily influenced by car and oil companies. There is a way to accommodate the automobile into our lives, but I think that in the 20th century, the scales tipped rather heavily to accommodate the car at the expense of almost everything else. The question then becomes how can we make our cities more livable again, without denying the occasional value of the infernal combustion engine or other forms or private motorized travel. How do we tip the scales towards cities that are more people-centric, more enjoyable, more sustainable and easier on the eye?
My short bit then usually segued from background into positive examples of what various cities around the world are trying—which are succeeding, which are experimental. I do have an axe to grind, I can’t deny that, but I try not to make it a rabble-rousing talk, or to position myself as some sort of expert. My talk tips more towards informative stand up comedy, with a little bit of a take away. Generally though, it is the other speakers who deliver more of the concrete local information—what is actually planned for their town, what is being discussed and what are the next steps.
Overwhelmingly, the questions afterwards go to the city person. The audiences were all much more interested in what’s happening in their town than asking me about a Talking Heads reunion, for example. That is as it should be, and a relief—and a bit of a surprise sometimes to the city people, who, except for the mayors, might not be accustomed to talking to a live general audience (they might usually have more experience addressing press scrums and TV cameras).
I did 16 cities in the US and Canada: Philadelphia, Providence, Boston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Chicago, Washington DC, Seattle, Portland (are you kidding?), Vancouver (went for a bike ride with the mayor) Ottawa, Toronto, LA (a long shot, there), San Francisco, Austin and NYC. In New York, I also did an edited version as a way of introducing a panel of mayors, who were speaking on sustainability at the New Museum’s Festival of Ideas event. Some cities are fairly active, trying new ideas, while others are awash in rhetoric and mired in politics. Others—Atlanta and LA are obvious examples—are cities so thoroughly given over to the car, that only small pockets of what one might view as city life are ever going to be possible.
So, though I’m loath to view myself as an activist, I might accept the idea of being a catalyst, as the folks assembled at these things may have used me (in the nicest way) to get folks together to discuss their own situations—as it should be. And, I think I’ve done as much as I want to do of those events in North America.
Through the NY organization Transportation Alternatives and Janette Sadik Kahn, NYC’s DOT commissioner, I met Enrique Peñalosa, the ex (and possibly future) mayor of Bogota, who made sweeping, economical, successful and popular changes in that city’s transportation and urban infrastructure. It’s become a model that others look to. Helping Peñalosa, and sometimes Sadik-Kahn as well, was Oscar Diaz, who asked a while back if I would consider doing some of these events in Latin America. Oscar is the go-to guy down there when it comes to these issues, and he gets called to various countries as an advisor, so this would also help his agenda (or so I would imagine). I said I’d love to (it’ll be a whirlwind trip, but I love Latin America, so why not?), and mentioned the idea to Bernardo Baranda in Mexico, who is the Latin American Director for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). He joined in the planning and organization of the tour as well, and now we have dates and venues coming up—just around the corner!
Here are the dates and venues:
7/10 - FLIP Festival; Paraty, Brazil
7/12, 7:00 PM - SESC Pinheiros Theatre; Sao Paolo, Brazil
7/14, 6:30 PM - Konex Cultural Center; Buenos Aires, Argentina
7/16, 12:00 PM - Cultural Center Gabriela Mistral; Santiago, Chile
7/19, 8:00 PM - Daniel Alcides Carrion Convention Centre; Lima, Peru
7/21, 7:00 PM - Centro de Arte Contemporáneo El Bicentenario; Quito, Ecuador
7/23, 5:00 PM - Centro Cultural Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Bogota, Colombia
7/26, 7:00 PM - Roxy; Guadalajara, Mexico
7/28, 8:00 PM - Tlatelolco Cultural Center; Mexico City, Mexico