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A Magazine for Sheffield

Bike Sharing: From Anarchism to App

Earlier this year, Sheffield woke up to a colourful new transport development: hundreds of yellow bicycles ready for anyone to ride away through the grey winter streets. Bike sharing makes cycling accessible to a large number of people, offering immense benefits to both cyclist and city. It’s great for the environment on both a global and local scale, and the Ofo bikes have reminded me of the childlike joy of cycling. Their introduction to Sheffield could make our city a healthier, happier place to live, work and play. Bike sharing schemes have their origin in the White Bicycle Plan, masterminded by Laurens 'Luud' Schimmelpennink. Luud was a member of a Dutch anarchist movement known as Provo, whose plan was simple: introduce 20,000 bicycles to the streets of Amsterdam which would be free to use and could be left anywhere outside for someone else to ride away. That idea seems tame now, but the original plan was surprisingly radical in the way it attempted to shift the focus of planners towards sustainable, shared methods of transport. According to the original manifesto, “The white bike symbolises simplicity and hygiene, as opposed to the gaudiness and filth of the authoritarian car.” The Provos presented their plan to Amsterdam City Council, who refused to support it. Not prone to giving in easily, Luud and his comrades scraped together a bunch of old bicycles, painted them white and left them around the city. When the police returned them for violating a law against leaving bicycles unchained, Provo redistributed them. This time, each came equipped with a combination lock, the code to which was spray-painted in black on the white. Provo often provoked law enforcement like this. At the wedding of Princess Beatrix and Claus von Amsberg, who had been a member of the Hitler Youth, Provo chanted slogans including, "Mijn fiets terug" ("Give me back my bike"), a reference to the confiscation of bicycles by the Nazis. They also threw a smoke bomb at the wedding carriage, causing no harm but inciting a violent police response. Bike sharing schemes have moved on significantly in their relation to power, but even more so in their relation to technology. To use an Ofo, you unlock it using a smartphone and your journey is tracked and logged. There are a couple of benefits to this, like the ability to easily report damaged bikes. On the downside, the data collected is worth a lot of money to advertisers, who could use it to target us through our phones or the bikes themselves. It is not hard to imagine the city changing, as billboards spring up along popular routes or large shops and restaurant chains offer deals to customers in return for parking nearby. It is no surprise that corporate advertising companies like JCDecaux have been involved in recent developments. To return bike share schemes to their radical roots and realise a better model of accessibility for all, we must place bikes in the same conversations as the railway and call for genuine public ownership. Critics might point towards costly schemes in cities like Melbourne, where bikes are underused but cost the taxpayer millions. They conveniently forget that mandatory helmet laws in Melbourne are the major reason why the bikes are an unloved drain on public resources. In a publicly-owned model, we could ensure that data is disposed of once the end location has been uploaded, or it could be used by city planners to design improvements to our infrastructure and services. If we owned the bicycles, every penny we spent using them could remain in the local economy. The Ofo bikes around the city are an invigorating development, but there is no reason not to imagine the best possible world when thinking about our city and our transport. For me, that means more green transport, paid for through taxes on unrenewable energy companies. In the meantime, however, you’ll see me riding yellow bikes around Sheffield. )

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