Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Officials in Latvia’s capital keep saying there’s no room for dedicated lanes. Cycling activists just showed them how it’s done.
When city officials insist there’s no room for bike lanes, how can you change their minds? For cycling activists in Latvia’s capital, the answer was to do it themselves.
Riga’s main drag, Brīvības Iela, is the latest entry in the guerrilla bike lane chronicles. For years, the city has been promising to add dedicated lanes on both sides of this street. It hasn’t followed, through, at least in part because of politicians’ insistence that they just won’t fit. But Friday, Riga’s residents woke up to see that that’s just not true. Generously sized lanes were secretly installed overnight by activists who were tired of waiting for action, and who were keen to show that it could, in fact, be done.
By painting in the lanes, the activists were employing a form of protest that has proved to be a surprisingly effective tool for change. In recent years, impromptu guerrilla bike lanes have been created in cities across Europe, North America and Australia, designed to shame official apathy or highlight the dangers of habitual collision spots. Sometimes, they create change as well as awareness. This March, a guerrilla bike lane in Wichita, Kansas, was made permanent by the city, while cycling safety advocates scored a similar victory in San Francisco in 2016. If Latvians are riding a global protest trend, they’ve chosen one that has already demonstrated its effectiveness.
But who created Riga’s lanes? The city has a large, loose coalition of urban activists working on mobility who might have been involved, but the gossip mill is currently working overtime. The lanes were so neatly painted that there are unsubstantiated rumors that exasperated city workers did it themselves, or that this was a stunt commissioned by a rival political party. The protest has surprised this city of 1 million so much that some locals wrote in to congratulate the mayor on the lanes without knowing that the city—which removed the markings almost immediately—played no role in creating them.
The issues raised by the protest are certainly pretty hot at the moment. Brīvības Iela is a collision hotspot where enforcement of the speed limit is notoriously lax, pushing cyclists to use the sidewalks for safety. Running through the heart of the city, it’s also a noisy, rattling place—the owners of a Latvian motorcycle race course recently defended against noise protests by pointing out it was less noisy that Brīvības Iela. With a few simple tweaks, the street could nonetheless become a good-looking, pedestrian-friendly place at the heart of what remains a singularly attractive, human-scaled city.
It’s not fair to say that Riga’s leaders have rejected calls for bike lanes outright. Given Riga’s fondness for drawing parallels between itself, the Baltic States’ largest city, and the progressive Scandinavian cities just across the sea, that really wouldn’t look good. But while political leaders in the city have (under pressure) adopted some more cycle-friendly policies, they’ve consistently failed to act on them. A few bike lanes have been painted in on the outskirts, but nothing has changed in the city core, which is where most cyclists actually commute to.
After sustained lobbying from pro-bike, pro-pedestrian activists, the city finally commissioned a full strategic plan for better cycling infrastructure in 2015. According to one of the plan’s architects, mobility consultant Toms Kokins, this may have been a box-ticking exercise, with the city never serious about implementing its proposals in the first place. As Kokins told CityLab:
I assume that also by [commissioning us] the city was hoping to silence all the opposition that we embodied. It didn't go as planned, for either the mayor or us. The new mobility strategy was designed, but implementation ever since has gone completely the wrong way, mainly because complete lack of understanding of basic mobility issues and a lack of political will in all the middle ground state and city institutions.
What makes this inaction especially frustrating is that it wouldn’t take much to redesign Riga’s flat, often broad streets to create a decent bike lane network. Take a look at this picture of Brīvības Iela now, showing how poorly the available space is used:
This rendering from designer Oto Ozols demonstrates where bike lanes could fit on either side, simultaneously creating wider sidewalks and tree space that would cut collisions and likely attract more people to the street’s businesses.
Another intervention from local activists Fine Young Urbanists shows how the way that Riga’s roads are laid out could easily be changed with great positive effect. Currently cars and streetcars are given the lion’s share of the road space—though they could demonstrably get by with less—leaving the sidewalks as a rickety free-for-all for combined car parking, bikes and pedestrians. This doesn’t just make cycling harder, it turns Jane Jacobs’s now proverbial sidewalk ballet into something more like a sidewalk roller derby.
In 2014, the urbanists briefly adapted a street that intersects with Brīvības Iela to show how creating bike lanes wouldn’t just make cycling safer, but would also free up the street for far more pleasant, pedestrian-friendly uses without notably clogging traffic in the remaining lanes.
Of course, activists taking actual paint and redesigning streets are liable to annoy some people as a form of vandalism, not least because removing the lines could cost public money. The stretch of street in question, however, is due to be renovated in early June, so the protest altered nothing that wasn’t slated for imminent alteration anyway.
Thanks to the guerrilla bike lane builders, officials who insist that the roads don’t have any space for bike lanes are going to have to work a little harder to prove their point.