The Bike Lane Bandits: An Exclusive Interview

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We’d actually been planning to run a cover story about Cleveland’s bike infrastructure before the events of last weekend. But when a team of “renegade bike enthusiasts,” or “guerilla stripers” — so dubbed by the PD’s Steven Litt — installed an unauthorized bike lane on Detroit Ave. from W. 29th to W.32nd, (a distance of about 1,000 feet) we were especially delighted to contribute to this ongoing conversation.

Our feature by Lee Chilcote paints a broad picture of commuter cyclists frustrated with the city’s sluggishness when it comes to creating and improving bike facilities. The city lays out roughly 6 miles of new bike lanes per year. That figure invites an involuntary “pssshhaw” from those even remotely acquainted with urban progress, and is in fact substantially fewer than even impoverished cities like Memphis and Detroit).

Detroit Ave. — not the city — is a striking example of the ineptitude: At a community meeting many moons ago, concerned Cleveland cyclists were assured that the 1.7 mile bike lane on Detroit from W. 29th to Lake Road would be installed by the fall of 2012. Spring of 2013 was considered the absolute latest it might appear, given the obstacles represented by foul weather and the filming of Captain America.

But as of last weekend, the bike lane still wasn’t there. Guerilla stripers used duct tape and spray chalk to send a message: We’re tired of waiting.

With predictably ironic expediency, a Cleveland work crew removed the guerillas’ handiwork in a matter of days. Maureen Harper, Cleveland’s Director of Communications, told Steven Litt that the city was worried about safety.

Scene was looking for more than canned remarks. And because we’re staffed with young indie upstarts who have neighborhood (if not necessarily romantic) ties to militant transportation advocates, we managed to secure an interview with the guerilla stripers themselves.

The renegades agreed to reveal their tactics under the condition of total anonymity. Here is what they said:

“It took us an hour and cost us sixty dollars,” said one guerilla.

“I think we should be known as the bike lane bandits,” said another. “It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life.”

“A cop drove by while we were doing it and he didn’t give a hoot,” said a guerilla striper whilst daintily gesticulating.

“I don’t use this word lightly, but I’d say it’s bordering on pathetic that we’re still waiting for it,” said one pissed-off guerilla.

There were five guerilla stripers in all — four who’d planned the striping and one who just sort of happened upon them and joined in — and they’d always interpreted their actions as political.

“It wasn’t like an art piece, but we never intended for it to be permanent,” said a guerilla striper who also mentioned that, had it not been power washed away, the spray chalk would have lasted no longer than 30 days. “It was meant to draw attention to the fact that the city has done jackshit. And we’re just fed up with the lack of action. They’re moving at a glacial pace.”

“And I don’t buy the safety argument,” said another guerilla, emerging from what sure looked like a deep thought. “It’s widely accepted that the more cyclists you have on the road, the safer it is for everybody. And having a bike lane is really encouraging to those who may be teetering on the edge of using their bikes more.”

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The guerilla stripers described themselves as “urban enthusiasts,” a group of engaged residents who embrace and are interested in improving life in the city. In this instance, all it meant was crafting a “sharrow” stencil from a yoga mat, and laying down duct tape a few feet from the Detroit Ave. curb.

“The lane wasn’t super straight, but it’s essentially what the city would do,” said a guerilla striper. “I mean it’s almost identical.”

The guerilla stripers were quick to point out, though, that they view this as a justice issue.

“It wasn’t a selfish thing,” said one. “Cleveland.com commenters would like to think that everyone who bikes is either wearing spandex or a hipster. It’s even been a thing where some east side councilman have opposed bike infrastructure because they perceive it as a white person thing, but if you look, for every one hipster there are five homeless or low income guys riding beater bikes up and down the street.”

Another guerilla nodded. “There’s just a massive imbalance in how we spend our transportation dollars. And it’s really important to be investing in bike infrastructure when 36 percent of Cleveland doesn’t drive.”

In Steven Litt’s article about the stripers, Jacob Van Sickle, President of Bike Cleveland, said that city officials have indicated that the estimated $72,000 project has been funded and has received bids.

According to Maureen Harper, there’s a pre-bid meeting scheduled for next week, but bids won’t be opened until September 20.

After that time, it could take three weeks to three months for the project to be completed, according to councilman Joe Cimperman. In the meantime, he'll remain a fan of the guerilla stripers.

“This is huge,” he said in a phone interview. “Yesterday, we celebrated one of the greatest acts of civil disobedience ever. And I’m a big believer in civic disobedience. The guerilla stripers are taking things into their own hands and that should be applauded. This is the opposite of Seymour Avenue; this is when people refuse to look the other way. I think it’s fantastic.”

Cimperman said that he shares in the stripers’ urgency and is glad that their actions are instigating issue-driven conversations.

“It’s working toward a greater good,” he said.

The guerilla stripers have certainly entertained the idea of doing more “strategic interventions” when and if they deem them appropriate — a stretch of E. 93rd in Glenville might be the next target — but Detroit Ave. was important, said one striper, because it was so visible.

“Honestly, it was more of a statement than anything. And Detroit was really kind of in-your-face. But when I was riding it the next day, it was like, this really gives you the feeling of being welcome.”

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