Reclaiming the Streets? Get on yer bike!

Is that the answer to the pollution problems that have grown substantially in the big smoke that we call London? On May 1st it was. Hoards of people, from all ages, acquired a vehicle with wheels and no engine and utilised their environmentally free energy to travel over ten miles into the centre of London. Critical Mass, who organise a cycle ride every month, rounded up the people of London, including a few plain clothed policemen I'm sure, and encouraged them to cycle, or roller blade from either North or South London and rendezvous in Hyde Park.

As usual, the police were on guard, all of them expecting something to erupt from the great 'unwashed,' a hostile term used by the taxi drivers; desperately attempting to discourage the cyclists that ceased their daily burn of fossil fuels. But can we blame them? There they were trying to do their job and were prevented by bicycles, what can I say, they should get out and walk! However, although the cyclists handed out leaflets of encouragement while the irate drivers waited for a 15-minute inconvenience, no one bothered to get out of their cars. Instead, loud beeps of the horn were made, which made a pleasant accompaniment to the whistles and cheers made by the cyclists. Bemused pedestrians were allowed to continue walking, and so were the buses of the capital, as they slowly made their way through the sea of cyclists.

The cycle ride was due to begin at 7.30 in the morning. Camberwell Green was one starting point and Camden Town tube was the other, both groups planning to meet at around 10am at Grosvenor Square. Approximately 400 people were gathered at Camberwell as well as numerous reporters, cameramen and a hefty section of the Metropolitan police squad. Starting time was delayed, due to the small number of cyclists that turned up, like me, perhaps the early morning start was the cause. The hyped up media event drew in cyclists of all abilities and dress, some donned lycra, while others opted for a red wig. I made the unfortunate mistake of wearing jeans that to my disadvantage, were slightly too flared and were beginning to rip in the cycling process. Many of the vehicles themselves were decorated with tinsel, flowers, flags, and much to my delight, a bicycle made for two with a sound system, playing the obligatory reggae.

By 9am, around 500 cyclists that had rode in from the south were in the city of London, having stopped prior traffic at Elephant and Castle, and some were congregating outside the Bank of England. A carnival atmosphere had begun as we rode into Trafalgar Square, and promptly rode around a few times, which aggravated the drivers even more. Commuters on their way to work seemed rather put off by this public display of nuisance, however, as we rode into Piccadilly Circus, throngs of people, mostly tourists were cheering and clapping. I'm sure I saw a momentary glimpse of a smile on a policeman's face as he reprimanded an angry taxi driver who had been penned in by the cyclists. As I looked into the sky, past all the grey buildings with cameras strategically placed on them, a few helicopters droned by, monitoring the situation that they presumed would be more volatile. However, today's cycle event was a non-violent protest, with only a few people getting a bit carried away. I witnessed two men walking through the cyclists with a huge banner protesting against George Bush's 'crimes against the world.' But no one wanted a repeat of last year's protests, and I don't think the police did either. Extra precautions were taken to guarantee that, with concrete blockades erected outside the American Embassy and many more shops had decided to board up for the day.

Oxford Street, normally a bustling street full of consumerism, was bleak in terms of any possible profits. A game of football was being played and it seemed at last that many of the cyclists had met up, after the police had sectioned them off. Many shoppers still tried to shop, indifferent of the protest that was going on in front of them. Oxford Circus certainly became more of an apt name, as many sectors of the media were there, hoping to interview some of the cyclists. There seemed to be a lot of waiting around, and then we were off to Hyde Park. Cycling through Marble Arch felt like the finishing line as fists were swung in the air. Today could have been blown out of proportion, instead, through cohesive co-operation, only a handful of people were arrested, and much fun, not forgetting exercise, was had amongst all. Reclaiming the Streets? Get on yer bike!

L. Woodall ( lizziejw 'at' )

Elephant and Castle 1st May 02