Culminating in the inauguration of the Claire Morisette bike path downtown and the runaway success of BIXI, the first decade of the 21st century was a watershed for cycling in Montréal. Robert Silverman, the quixotic co-founder, in 1975, of Le Monde à Bicyclette (LeMàB), Montréal’s first citizen lobby group for cyclists, a godfather of North American bicycle activism, is pleased about Montréal’s recent pro-bicycle and alternative transportation victories. A co-conspirator with the late Ms. Morissette, it’s been 34 years since LeMàB’s first meeting in his Plateau apartment.
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Silverman came in contact with John Dowland of the Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition. Dowland, the man behind The Bicycle Network and Cycle and Recycle Calendar, sent Silverman material that showed that in many cities in the US and abroad there were bike activists groups: London Cycling Campaign, Amis de la Terre in Paris, Melbourne and San Francisco. They were all over the world.
LeMàB also adopted policies for bike parking, a network of bike paths, access to the subway, bike parking all over the city, police enforcement, teaching bicycle mechanics in high school. “And,” said Silverman, “we got a lot of members in the early days, about 500. This was harder back then, there wasn’t the Internet then. We were photocopying and typesetting on Gestetner machines and really primitive things.”
While they’ve since disbanded and his most ardent days as a Bikeshevik may be behind him, “Bicycle Bob,” now 74, reflects on the bike movement’s journey in his distinct joual of bike-speak. In late September he was a speaker and the guest of honour at the opening of Montréal’s Vélo Vélo, a bicycle coop conference.
The following is a sort of glossary of some terms used by Robert Silverman throughout the interview, along with their definitions, in his own words.
“I am, I was a Bikeshevik: a person who works full-time for the revolution, a person who’s really disciplined in their thrust for biking infrastructure in cities. It comes from an article that I wrote in 1980s published in Open Road an anarchist publication out of Vancouver. At LeMàB, I was considered the theorist of the movement. I never finished university but became a scholar about the social history of the bicycle. I just focused and devoured all these bicycle related and urban transport related books.”
“Ivan Illich’s Energy and Equity is the cyclist’s bible. It was initially suppressed but all of his ideas are coming true, especially with the collapse of the auto industry.”
“That’s the thought that the reversal of the car movement is historically important and you’re prepared to do something to accelerate it. What we saw this past weekend at Vélo Vélo was unbelievable. No one cared about themselves, people teaching others, it was almost evangelical, showing them the way of the bicycle.”
“In the past, the papers would say that Silverman did this and did that but it really wasn’t true. It was the expression of a certain consciousness. LeMàB was pretty democratic, very democratic when you consider that some of these groups are not.”
The many bike activist groups in other North American cities and abroad made me see that my own cyclofrustration that I was feeling wasn’t just in Montréal; it wasn’t just me. It’s a universal contradiction between the rediscovery of the bike and the lack of facilities for biking in cities. And it was all in rich countries. It was all in places where the car problem was making cycling dangerous.
We were all cyclofrustrated but with various differences. If you live in the suburbs you’re not so cyclofrustrated, but if you live downtown you are. At LeMàB we thought: Why isn’t there a bike path? Why can’t I get on the subway? Why can’t I get across the river?
In the early days there weren’t enough roads, it was before the Route Verte, you could get cut off and it was dangerous. There was a lot of cyclofrustrations.
“I wrote a poem: ‘Killed by a car, reborn by a bike. /That’s the story of my life.’ It sounds crazy but it’s true. It gave me a will to live. It was invigorating, not only the pedaling but the thinking about it.”
“It was an epiphany; I got an instant pleasure when I rediscovered the bicycle over 35 years ago. That’s really what happened. The same with me, the same with Claire, the same with thousands of others.”
“When you get therapy by bicycle, you see life in a different way, from a different seat, you spend less, you’ll be less artificial, you’ll maybe work less hours because you don’t have to have a car, you look forward to your day more, you get the physical fitness.”
“We were considered really good at publicity stunts; they were called cyclodramas, there were two kinds: targeted cyclodramas to emphasize a certain point and general cyclodramas.”
“We did die-ins. We invaded the auto show covered with ketchup as fake blood and played dead in front of the Cadillacs and then got dragged out. That got publicity.”