PDX Bike Swarm: pedal power to the people

PDX Bike Swarm is a group of Portland, OR (PDx) cyclists using the bicycle as a means to empower anarchists, activists and underserved citizens, and to challenge the idea and use of public spaces. The group began around last year’s Occupy Portland, when it created a buffer zone between protesters and the police just as eviction notices were about to be served. The swarm created a moving buffer between police and the encampment area, which kept the protest more peaceful than hostile, even though the police did clear out the area eventually. PDX Bike Swarm is kind of like Critical Mass in that it is a peaceful protest promoting bicycle use and safety with one simple message to drivers: share the road. But the two vary greatly in mission and riding technique.

A bike swarm congregates in areas where social and political injustices can be found. PDX Bike Swarm has no fixed leaders. People who call a particular swarm direct the swarm along a predetermined area of attack and will call in for help as needed. The beauty of the swarm is that it uses the bicycle — a slow-moving, emission-free, legal mode of transportation — to protest and protect the public and the use of public spaces, by defying ill-conceived notions of how the public is expected to behave in a public space.

Besides Occupy Portland, PDX Bike Swarm has protested police violence, homelessness and hunger, and rode in opposition to the Columbia River Crossing, a proposed 10-12 lane, nine-mile long freeway that will cost 4-10 billion dollars to build. Despite the city’s flourishing bicycle community, Portland cyclists are still overrun by automobiles and auto-centric transportation systems.

Every city deals with these issues. The push for more highways and faster commutes for drivers supersedes the need for livable urban communities and safe roads for everyone to use.

Other swarm groups have formed in Salt Lake City and London since the inception of PDX Bike Swarm, as well as groups with similar missions, including Bike Bloc in Seattle and Occupy Wall Street Bike Coalition. PDX Bike Swarm modeled their own strategy after the work of San Francisco Bike Calvary, which started in 2003 with a protest against the invasion of Iraq. The cavalry worked at the protest as bike messengers, riding around to find where police were staging and then riding around informing protesters of their whereabouts.

PDX Bike Swarm has only two rules: bring a bike and be awesome.

*Bring a Bike* – This one’s a no brainer. You need a bike to swarm. Also, bicycle safety is key in all rides. Make sure your bike works properly, wear a helmet and use bike lights at night.

*Be awesome* – The sky’s the limit on how to be awesome during a bike swarm event. Some cyclists ride wearing crazy outfits with musical instruments in their bicycle baskets or signs. Or whatever else. Be creative. Being awesome also means being ready to join the swarm when needed. Active involvement by group members is necessary for a successful swarm. PDX Bike Swarm has ridden in groups ranging from three cyclists to 100. Several cyclists are needed to form a swarm, especially during a ride where additional cyclists may be called in — from home or wherever else — to assist with a bike swarm event when a situation gets hostile, like during Occupy Portland.

*Strategy Meetings* – In Portland, strategy meetings occur before bike swarm events to discuss the group’s plan of action. Meetings usually occur on a weekly basis, in informal meeting areas like bars or whatever else is suggested. Those interested in getting involved can sign up to join the swarm’s Google group. Meetings and other bicycle-related news and events are constantly posted in the group.

*How to start a swarm*- Anyone can start a bike swarm, anywhere in the world. All you need is a bicycle and a strategy and some members. To start a successful swarm, connecting your bike swarm online is a good idea. Forming a Facebook or Google group is a simple way to meet new members and organize events and meetings online. You could also make fliers for swarm rides and meetings and post them in area around your city frequented by cyclists to attract new bike swarm members. Creating a design or symbol is helpful when promoting your bike swarm online or in your community, and it could also be used to make stickers, buttons and t-shirts.