Category Archives: Joy

How a book dedication saved this bicycle advocate’s life

Riding a bicycle is life-affirming, but I never thought writing a history book about cycling could have the sort of impact I’m about to relate.

Montreal in Quebec, Canada, was a hot-bed of cycle advocacy in the 1970s and 1980s, one of the key reasons that city now has hundreds of miles of cycleways, including a two-mile curb-protected cycleway smack-bang in the Central Business District.

Montreal became bicycle-friendly because of people power. Bicycle-advocacy group Le Monde à Bicyclette was founded in April 1975, and many of the campaign tactics it employed – such as die-ins – are still used by advocacy groups around the world.

The anti-automobile activism group was cofounded by Claire Morissette and Robert “Bicycle Bob” Silverman. The curb-protected cycleway in the Central Business District was built in 2007, replaced a car lane, and was named for Morissette, who had died from cancer earlier in the same year.

To research Bike Boom I visited Montreal, and hung out with some of the 1970s members of Le Monde à Bicyclette. This is my pic of Robert on the Piste Claire-Morissette (I ferried him around in a Christiana cargo trike):

Bike Boom is dedicated to him:

For Robert “Bicycle Bob” Silverman and all of the other 1970s cycle advocates who tended cycling’s flame when planners and politicians were trying to snuff it out.

Last week I sent Robert a proof of the designed pages. His reply took me by surprise:

“Thank you for dedicating the book to me. Reading it actually saved my life. I’m going blind with macular degeneration which started a few years ago, which was combined in early October with a stroke. Life has been very hard; so bad that I cannot ride a bicycle any more, cook, or do other very simple tasks. I was prepared to take my own life, but changed my idea after reading your dedication.

“This is true, not an exaggeration. In Quebec, dying with dignity is legal … But since receiving your dedication [my mind has] changed.

“When I became a bicycle advocate [in the 1970s], for the first time I had a reason to live. I would ride a bike, and that in itself was revolutionary … I have dedicated my life to making the world a better place via a simple solution: the bike!”

I was very touched by Robert’s candour, and asked his permission to tell this particularly sensitive tale.

Wonderfully, Robert is now working with local advocates to produce an in-depth history of Le Monde à Bicyclette and will also be dictating a number of hard-hitting bicycle blog-postings. Bike power!

Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive, ee-lee-min-ate the negative

“Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.”

From Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front by Wendell Berry, 1973.


[tw_dropcap]W[/tw_dropcap]hy am I writing Bike Boom? Listen to Jack Thurston’s The Bike Show. I may have said “stay positive, keep pushing” more than once. This is not to say Bike Boom will be happy, clappy, everything’s rosy – it will be gritty, realistic and always factual. But if planners and politicians are to “buy” in to cycling we can’t just give them messages of doom and gloom. We won’t get meaningful amounts of bicycle infrastructure by saying how dreadful cycling is, and how the modal share is pitifully low. Pity won’t bring cycleways. (Nor will optimism alone, of course, and there are times when protesting is right and proper – what’s almost certain to bring about diddly-squat is unrelenting pessimism.)

Getting new people to use bicycles for everyday, normal journeys will require more than infrastructure. It’s important to campaign for safer streets but if we demonise the use of bicycles on the unreconstructed streets of Britain and America – and everywhere else that’s not the Netherlands – we risk pushing away, for ever, the very people we could be attracting. Undoubtedly, some of the £1bn promised for cycling in London came about because of negative campaigning but it mostly came about because more people are cycling in London, despite the dangers. Dangers which are real on far too many roads, and, clearly, the fear of having to mix with distracted/speeding motorists is a huge deterrent to cycling, but not every road is like that and it’s counter-productive to claim that every single road is a death-trap.

Cycle advocates must never stop arguing for better and safer facilities for cyclists (for sure, they’re needed) but advertisers and marketers have known for a very long time that positive messages far far out-sell negative ones. In his classic 1923 book, Scientific Advertising, advertising guru Claude Hopkins, wrote:

“Show a bright side, the happy and attractive side, not the dark and uninviting side of things. Show beauty, not homeliness; health, not sickness. Don’t show the wrinkles you propose to remove, but the face as it will appear. Your customers know all about wrinkles.

“We are attracted by sunshine, beauty, happiness, health, success. Then point the way to them, not the way out of the opposite. Picture envied people, not the envious. Tell people what to do, not what to avoid.

“Compare the results of two ads, one negative, one positive. One presenting the dark side, one the bright side. One warning, the other inviting. You will be surprised. You will find that the positive ad out pulls the other four to one.”


The Kickstarter for Bike Boom runs until March 17th. Please consider pledging for first-edition rewards and more.


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