Near the conclusion of his outstanding book, entitled In the City of Bikes; The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist, author Pete Jordan reveals an unknown [at least to me], yet significant part of bicycling history – the birth of the bike sharing movement. Referred to as the White Bicycles Plan and fostered/advocated by the spirited anarchist group PROVO, Amsterdam’s bike sharing program began as an act of civil disobedience against recently adopted policies which favored more cars on the city’s narrow streets.
PROVO’s goal was to place free and unlocked bicycles at various points across the center city so that anyone who wished to use one could. Initially, each bike would be donated and then painted white for visibility – painting them white also could be interpreted as a way to promote a people-powered product that is completely and humorously contrarian to the traditional black bicycle utilized throughout the Netherlands. Later, PROVO advocated that Amsterdam provide the necessary bikes, free of charge out of the city budget.
If the city’s police force had simply allowed the initial PROVO protests to take place unencumbered, the bike sharing movement may have germinated elsewhere, but they didn’t. As a result, history was made in Amsterdam. Here’s a brief chronology of the events as presented in Mr. Jordan’s book:
- Tuesday, July 27, 1965 – Two members of PROVO are arrested while posting flyers promoting the following day’s event on a wall. (page 296)
- Wednesday, July 28, 1965 – The White Bicycles Plan is announced by artist Robert Jasper Grootveld to approximately two-dozen people gathered to watch as they painted three old bikes white. All three bikes were confiscated by the police after being set out for public use by PROVO. (pages 300-302)
- Saturday, July 31, 1965 – Several hundred people gather at the Amsterdam’s Het Lieverdje (the Amsterdam Rascal) statue in Spui Square to witness the whitewashing of another bicycle. Amsterdam Police responded by batoning PROVO member Roel van Duijin. (page 303)
- Saturday, August 7, 1965 – 200 people again gather in Spui Square, as bikes were painted white and white paint was dumped over the head of the Het Lieverdje statue. Police confiscate one of the white bikes and during the ensuing raucous, seven people are arrested.(pages 303-304)
- Saturday, August 14, 1965 – more than 2,000 people look on as police forcibly stop members of PROVO from laying flowers at the feet of the Het Lieverdje statue. (pages 304-305)
- Tuesday, August 17, 1965 – Luud Schimmelpennick‘s “White Bicycles” manifesto is released in PROVO magazine. (page 306)
- May-June 1966 – PROVO member Duco van Weerlee publishes a book entitled, What Provos Want. The number one item was adoption of the White Bicycles Plan, “for the communal possession of all Amsterdammers who want the tin-canned status symbol [cars] out of the city center.” (page 308)
- June 1966 – PROVO member Bernhard de Vries elected to Amsterdam City Council, taking the seat previously held by the “pro-car” party. (page 308)
- March 1967 – Duc van Weerlee replaced on Council by fellow PROVO member Luud Schimmelpennink. (page 310)
- October 4, 1967 – The White Bicycle Plan presented to Amsterdam City Council by Luud Schimmelpinnink. It called for three actions:
“Banning cars from the city center;”
“Increasing the frequency of public transit;”
“The purchase and maintenance of 2,000 white-painted bicycles of a distinct model that will be made available for general usage in the city center…, particularly as supplementary transport for users of tram, bus, taxi, and train.” (pages 311-312)
While the White Bicycle Plan was never adopted, the actions of PROVO successfully planted the seed of an idea that germinated and fully blossoms today – bike sharing. Myths about the success and/or reach of the White Bicycles Plan grew in subsequent years following its defeat at Amsterdam City Council. Even though it never was formally implemented beyond the initial protest efforts of 1965, the urban legend about the success of the plan continued.
Despite the defeat of the White Bicycles Plan in 1967, its influence on cycling history continued to grow. Its impact expanded exponentially in 1994 when cycling advocates Tom O’Keefe and Joe Keating initiated the Yellow Bike Project in Portland, Oregon based on the principles of the White Bicycles Plan. They learned of the plan from watching a brief scene in the movie Sex, Drugs, and Democracy. Similar bike sharing programs sprang up in other North American cities based on the Portland model.
The anarchist group’s name, PROVO, is short for the term “provoke.” And whether or not you agree with their beliefs and/or methodology, PROVO must be credited with giving birth to the concept of bike sharing, which has spread to cities worldwide. Granted, most modern bike share programs are not free, as PROVO advocated for, but they have become an integral part of the urban cycling infrastructure. In 2014, it may not take acts of civil disobedience to get bike sharing established in one’s community, but it was those initial actions in 1965 that have allowed the rest of us to reap the benefits today. For that alone, we all should be thankful.
In many ways, “PROVO-esque” campaigns continue to take place in communities around the world.
- If you have ever participated in a Ride of Silence, you are solemnly provoking action towards safer streets for bicyclists.
- If you have ever been part of a Critical Mass cycling event, that is a method of provoking change.
- If you have ever placed a ghost bike at the scene of a rider’s death, laid flowers there, or paused to reflect at one, you are provoking change.
- If you have ever advocated to local, state, or federal legislators for bicycling projects, safety improvements, and/or infrastructure improvements, you are seeking to provoke action on the part of elected officials.
Granted, you may never feel the painful sting of a police baton or participate in whitewashing a bike or statue, but that doesn’t mean your impact on society isn’t being felt. Sometimes, accomplishing big improvements in cycling advocacy first require us to undertake a wobbly ride with training wheels. Thanks to our predecessors at PROVO, bike sharing has graduated from its symbolic training wheels to toddling tricycles to mature urban utilitarian bicycles. I for one, greatly appreciate and salute their efforts to effect change for social equity, for social justice, and for the overall social good.