Radicals do change history, but sometimes in ways they can never fully anticipate.
In the 1960s, Provo was a Dutch anarchist group inspired as much by the Dadists and Situationists as by Herbert Marcuse. It warned: “Because this bureaucratic society is choking itself with officialdom and suppressing any form of spontaneity. Its members can only become creative, individual people through anti-social conduct.” Going further, it explained its vision in provocative terms:
Provo has something against capitalism, communism, fascism, bureaucracy, militarism, professionalism, dogmatism, and authoritarianism. Provo has to choose between desperate, resistance and submissive extinction. Provo calls for resistance wherever possible. Provo realises that it will lose in the end, but it cannot pass up the chance to make at least one more heartfelt attempt to provoke society. Provo regards anarchy as the inspirational source of resistance. Provo wants to revive anarchy and teach it to the young. Provo is an image
One of its “heartfelt attempts” was promoted by Laurens (Luud) Schimmelpennink, a social inventor, industrial designer and politician. He proposed the “White Bike Plan” to give away free bicycles for use in Amsterdam.
Provo issued a pamphlet stating that “the white bike symbolizes simplicity and hygiene as opposed to the gaudiness and filth of the authoritarian car.” The white bicycles were left unlocked around the city, to be used by anyone in need of transport. Provo saw it as a way to revolutionize public transportation and create a more sustainable environment.
Provo distributed 50 unlocked white bicycles throughout the city, but they were seized by the police on the grounds they were not “lockable.” As one source notes, “all bikes in Amsterdam at that time had to be lockable.” After the police returned the bikes, Provo activists installed simple combination lock with the number painted on the bike’s frame. The White Bicycle revolution had begun.
Now, a half-century after Provo’s action, white bikes have been superseded by bikeshare programs offering both electric and traditional bikes as well as e-scooters. These programs provide a low-cost alternative to cars and public transportation and are part of city life around the world. In addition, bike riding in healthy — riders burn calories and don’t burn carbon dioxide.
In the U.S., bikeshares is a business and Lyft dominates the market with revenues at $2.8 billion for the twelve months ending September 30, 2021.
Bicycles have been around for more than two centuries. In 1817, Karl Freiherr von Drais invented the “draisine,” a two-wheeled walker. By the 1870s-‘80s, the more traditional two-wheeled bicycle, with air-filled rubber tires and chain drive, had gone mainstream; it also saw the introduction of the step-through frame for women.
A century ago, there was massive transit infrastructure growth of streetcars and trains promoted by private companies. It helped create what were known as “streetcar suburbs” for white middle-class people who bought homes while still easily getting to jobs in the city. However, WW-I inflation, the emergence of the auto and then the Great Depression crushed most private transit companies. The era of the bicycle was over.
The National Association of City Transport Officials (NACTO) reports they are seeing an “explosion in cycling” in many American cities today. It is estimated that since 2010, 207 million people have taken trips on shared bikes and e-scooters. In 2016, the U.S. had 2,655 bike share stations in 65 cities. In 2018, one estimate pegs usage at 84 million trips, including scooters (38.5 million), station-based bikes (36.5 mil), dockless bikes (9 mil) and e-bikes (6.5 mil). In addition, between 15 and 20 million bicycles are sold in the U.S. annually.
Today, almost every large city in the country has a bikeshare program. For example, in New York, Citi Bike offers 14,500 traditional and electric bikes at 646 stations or hubs across Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Jersey City; in Madison, WI, the Madison BCyle offers access to 300 bikes at more than 40 stations.
One of the unappreciated advantages of bicycling in a city is that it can make it easier to get around. According to one study, 90 percent of New York City’s land is allocated for car transport and only 2 percent for bike lanes. It reports, “from Midtown Manhattan 54% of the city is reached fastest by bicycle, superior to 26% by public transit and 20% by car.”
In the years of Covid-19, The Guardian reports, “bikeshare data shows that cycling has also become an open-air – and socially distant – alternative to public transport for essential workers.” It notes that “Citi Bike’s most used New York docking station since coronavirus is the one positioned close to three Manhattan hospitals (previously, the busiest were transport hubs such as Grand Central and Penn Station).” And cities across the country – from New York to Mesa to Oakland, from Boston to Seattle to Minneapolis, Philadelphia to San Francisco – are opening bike lanes and closing streets for cars.
There are numerous bikeshare companies operating in the U.S., including JUMP (acquired by Uber), Spin (part of Ford Motor Company), Bird (merged with Switchback), Lime and Lift, the biggest.
Lyft got its start competing against Uber as a car-based ride hailing business and now dominates the bikeshare market. It runs bikeshare businesses in eight of the largest metro markets and scooter shares in six.
In 2018, Lyft acquired Motive, a bikeshare company that operated New York’s Citi Bike and San Francisco’s Ford’s GoBike program, among others. It also operated networks in Chicago, Boston, Washington, DC, Portland (OR), Columbus and Minneapolis. In 2019, due to problems with the braking system on its pedal-assist electric bikes, Lyft temporarily withdrew them from service in its three biggest markets, New York, San Francisco and Washington, DC. This contributed to a decline in ridership, notably in San Francisco.
In San Francisco there were calls to shift the bikeshare program from Lyft to a city-owned and potentially city-operated service, like its buses, light rail metro trains, streetcars and cable cars. As Supervisor Dean Preston argued, “We need to meet the rise in demand for green transportation in our city–and part of that is through a municipal bike-share program to complement public transit and advancing public ownership of vital city services,”
Provo disbanded in May 1967 around the same time as the uprising in Paris. In January ‘67, San Francisco’s hosted the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park. It was followed by the Democratic convention in August ’68 and Richard Nixon’s election as president in November, bringing the tumultuous ‘60s to an end.
In August 1971, Virginia tobacco industry lawyer, Lewis Powell, fired the first shot in the Republican counter-revolution. He wrote a secret memo for the Chamber of Commerce, “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System.” His advice to the business community was simple:
Business must learn the lesson . . . that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.
Powell called for business leaders and conservatives to aggressively fight for political power. Independent of the memo, Powel began serving as a Justice on the nation’s highest court on January 7, 1972.
At the same time, a new business era began to take share, one anchored in the silicon chips manufactured by companies in the Bay area. Their success fueled investor-driven innovative start-ups and fostered the process known as “disintermediation,” the process of cutting out one or more middlemen from a transaction, supply chain or decision-making process. In time, disintermediation was applied to nearly every market sector, including taxi cabs and bicycling. Which brings us to Lyft and bikesharing.
The increase in bikesharing may signal the end of car culture and suburbanization. For the last half-century, local governments saw public transportation as a subsidized service for those too poor to own a car. But today in large cities like New York, cars are becoming an impediment to city life – too expensive to maintain, difficult to park, a challenge to get round in and an environmental nightmare.
If the era of the automobile is coming to an end, what then? Where once fiscal failure led cities to acquire and subsidize municipal transit systems, perhaps the popular success of bikesharing could lead cities to acquire and run such services?
Who knows, perhaps the success of bikesharing as represented by companies like Lyft will recall the Provo’s and Luud Schimmelpennink’s dream of White Bikes and make city bikes a moderately priced – if not free – public transit service.