Back in the 1960s, when I was young, and I thought smart, the idea occurred to me and some of my friends that bicycles were surely the best way for people to get around cities. We could see that for ourselves every day on the streets of Amsterdam. However as we thought about it, it struck us that something was missing. So we came up with something we called the White Bicycles. Free bikes.
A benevolent virus approach to transportation reform
It could not have been more simple. Basically all we did was get together with anyone who wanted to pitch in, collect a couple of dozen old bikes, paint them white, and then “park” them out on the street for anyone to pick up and use as they wish. The project was immediately a success (in over view) and attracted a lot of media attention, not all very kind to our idea. The success was that the bikes provided free, safe, zero-carbon public transport and were heavily used by citizens who simply wanted to get somewhere on their own personal timetable. That was great because that was our idea, our motivation for doing the whole thing.
However, the world being the kind of complicated place it is, and bicycles being such frail things out in public places on their own, it did not take all that long for most of the white bikes to disappear into places unknown, some ending up in our canals. At the same time, and somewhat surprisingly, the police decided that they were illegal because the law required that all bikes should be locked in public. And ours of course were not. It did not take very long for the newspapers and others to chime in with their opinions that this was a crazy idea that never should have been done in the first place. A failure.
But this little idea, this so-called failure, was maybe not quite as stupid as they were announcing. To the contrary, this little idea changed enough in at least some people’s heads that it eventually set off a series of free or almost free shared bike projects around the world, for many years modest and not well-known. But certainly as everyone reading these “messages” will know , within the last couple of years all of this has started to change. And ever since the day that the city of Paris had the “crazy” idea in 2007 of putting 20,000 shared public bicycles onto their streets, this little idea is starting to have some very significant impacts. Maybe it was not so stupid after all
Today, a full generation after those young people got together to paint all those white bikes in Amsterdam, a growing group of people are coming to share the belief that every city in the world should be looking carefully at the idea of creating a public bicycle project of their own. The world has had enough experience with them over the last decade that we know there are many different ways of going about it, not all of them necessarily exactly aping our original concept of painting them white and leaving them anywhere. And if you hear from time to time about this or that project running into this or that trouble, relax because the idea is so simple and so powerful that these difficulties are going to be overcome by all of those smart people in that place who really want it to work. A great idea engages, and engages widely.
But here in closing is my final, respectful and a bit less direct message which I should like to share with all of you in Washington who have been charged by President Obama with the responsibility of creating sustainable transportation projects, sustainable cities and sustainable lives for people of all economic and social classes across the United States. Do not shy away from an idea just because it may at first glance strike you as a bit crazy. Sometimes that is the way it is with a new idea that really could make a difference. So before automatically saying no, just because the idea strikes you at first as untenable, get comfortable, sit back and think it through from the beginning. You may find that within it are the germs of a great idea. A benevolent virus.
Y-tech Innovations Centre
Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Contribution by the author to the world wide collaborative project “Messages for America: World-wide experience, ideas, counsel, proposals and good wishes for the incoming Obama transportation team”. See www.messages.newmobility.org for latest version of this report of the New Mobility Agenda.