The combustion of fossil fuels by automobiles is a major contributor to accelerated climate change. This is not a new revelation, it’s a widely accepted fact by climate scientists, politicians (unless they are paid to believe otherwise) and the majority of the general public (unless they believe the statements of those paid to believe otherwise). The statement that we should be driving fewer cars is one that many will easily agree with, but will also largely ignore in practice. Merely vocalizing this statement does not seem to get the message across. How could we make a louder statement? What ways would be better at grabbing people's attention and making them question their damaging lifestyle choice? How about we get naked, hop on our bikes and ride through several major cities around the world? On June 25, 2016, that is exactly what thousands of people did by taking part in the World Naked Bike Ride in Portland, Oregon; the author of this article included.
To the uninitiated, The World Naked Bike Ride is, at its core, a protest on modern society's dependency on fossil fuels. The bicycles represent an alternative transportation option and the nakedness represents the vulnerability of cyclists to accidents in traditional transportation models. In 2014, automobiles struck and killed 726 cyclists in the United States alone. The official World Naked Bike Ride began in 2004 in Vancouver, British Columbia and now takes place in over 50 cities around the world. It comes as little surprise that the ride in Portland was one of the first and has always been one of the largest and most popular. With an attendance of over 10,000 riders year-after-year, it takes a lot more than a Facebook group to make sure it goes off without a hitch. Extensive planning goes into the process. From finding a starting point, to determining a route, to filling out all of the necessary permits. This is all done by a core group of bicycle advocates who volunteer to put it all together.
“The core group is five or six people,” says Carl Larson, speaking about the Portland group who annually organizes the event. The group works with City Hall and the police to organize the necessary permits needed to make the ride legitimate. In legal terms, the ride is designated as a protest. This allows for certain laws to be ignored, laws such as those governing indecent exposure. Since it is considered a form of protest, the nakedness of the riders is allowed and protected by the First Amendment, however it is not required. There is no pressure to get naked and there is a "bare as you dare" ethos among the riders. About half seem to get completely naked while others simply wear underwear or some form of costume. As the ride progresses, riders who may be skeptical of the idea of public nudity seem to eventually become comfortable and pull over to take off their remaining clothes. There are far more naked riders at the end of the ride than the beginning. Riders becoming more comfortable with their own personal nudity during the ride is indicative of a broader message that arose organically throughout the years of the event. In addition to being a protest against the use of fossil fuels, the ride has also become a protest against body shaming.
There are several more permits involved in order for the ride to run smoothly. Keeping 10,000+ bike riders moving is a daunting task, and there is a specific route planned in advance with the organizers and the city to make sure this happens smoothly. To do this, the organizers obtain a parks permit and a parade permit. The ride always begins and ends in a public park, and the organizers obtain a permit in order to be able to host a gathering that large. Larson acts as a police liaison and handles the parade permit and works with the traffic division of the Portland police department to determine the best route. Throughout the years this route has changed using more knowledge of what works and what does not work. On average the route is five to seven miles and sticks to main roads that could accompany a large number of cyclists. For safety reasons, the route avoids freeway entrances and the local light rail lines since it is common for bicycle wheels to get stuck between the rails. The route is also always a straight line from beginning to end and avoids c-curves or loops. In the past this wasn't the case, and at some points beginning of the ride would run into riders further down in the pack and cause a massive traffic jam. The ride is so large that there are still riders waiting to start while the beginning of the pack is just finishing. The route is also kept secret until the ride is underway. This prevents a large group of onlookers from setting up along the route which could cause traffic problems.
There is no doubt that the ride is a major success in Portland. In 2015 the official count was approximately 10,600 total riders, and it continues growing. This is encouraging to Larson, who thinks the growing popularity is important to the core idea behind the ride. Individuals who participate may initially only do so for the spectacle or the party, but afterwards realize that a seven-mile bike ride is actually fairly easy and be more motivated to use a bicycle for commuting more often. Maybe getting naked and riding bikes is not the ultimate answer to ending our addiction to fossil fuels, but it does certainly make people notice.
Do you believe this is an effective form of protest against fossil fuel consumption? Does your city participate in the World Naked Bike Ride? Would you participate if you had the opportunity? Share your thoughts and your city’s stories in the comments area below.
Credits: Images by Morgan Bradshaw. Quotes from interview with Carl Larson. Data linked to sources.