Posts by Matt Roth

August 16th, 2010  |  Filed under Metropol

The Bike Culture of Black Rock City

[Matt Roth is Deputy Editor of Streetsblog San Francisco, and a rabid bicycle enthusiast working towards the realization of a world full of bike-friendly cities. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

Photo by Michael Holden

Photo by Michael Holden

Anyone who has lived in a relatively flat and congested city can tell you the best way to get around is on a bicycle. The Chinese, the Dutch and the Danish know it, and increasingly Americans are coming to understand there are few modes of urban mobility as convenient and healthy as putting the fun between your legs and pedaling where you want, when you want.

As the legions of urban bicycle riders grow, city planners have begun to take note and have carved away precious space from several generations of begrudging motorists who have long believed streets were their sole domain. Politicians now boast of how many bicycle lanes they have added, sometimes buffered from traffic, sometimes painted green, red or blue. Some cities have instituted bicycle sharing systems, where a fleet of public bicycles are maintained for use by anyone who signs up and pays a small fee. The newest bicycle trend to gain popularity in cities around the world is the ciclovía, a car-free event where roads are opened to bicycles, skaters and pedestrians for the day to enjoy streets as public space for recreating and socializing.

Bike Arch by Ilana Spector and Mark Grieve, Photo by Waldemar Horwat

Bike Arch by Ilana Spector and Mark Grieve, Photo by Waldemar Horwat

Black Rock City, more than any other urban area, has been given over completely to bicycles, making it unquestionably the highest bikes-per-capita metropolis anywhere on the planet. The playa is the perfect place to ride, flat as a board and expansive. The prohibition on driving anything but art cars beyond the Esplanade makes Burning Man an enormous week-long ciclovía, and makes bicycles of the ultimate utility during the event.

Kinetic Sculpture Race, Photo by Christian

Kinetic Sculpture Race, Photo by Christian

As with most everything else on the playa, a simple bicycle, with one wheel in front of the other, would scarcely begin to capture the experience of participating in Burning Man, nor would it be very cool. Though the dynamics of bicycle engineering haven’t changed much in a hundred years, Black Rock City has spawned a menagerie of innovation, still pedal-powered, but only vaguely resembling a “bicycle.” There are giraffes and fishes, camels and glowing eyeballs, carriages adorned with mastodon bones, tall bikes five frames high, and an number of kinetic sculptures belching plumes of fire and smoke from their steel innards. Whimsy trumps utility and getting to the destination is less important than preening like a peacock along the way (a twelve-foot tall fire-spewing peacock, of course).

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