In the middle of August, I was finally able to participate in the World Naked Bike Ride in Chicago. I’d known about it for years, but until recently, I didn’t feel like I was in good enough physical (and mental) shape to be able to handle it. That all changed last year, ironically enough, starting with the global pandemic.
The World Naked Bike Ride, also simply referred to as the “WNBR”, is an event that is held in cities globally to protest the use of fossil fuels and to promote body positivity. The idea is to use “human-powered transport” in order to promote the use of bicycles over the trend for cities to force car dependency. The inclusion of nudity is to show how vulnerable cyclists are in a world designed for cars.
It’s also just really fucking fun.
We took off at 8pm, a sea of naked bodies flooding out onto the streets. I stood on the side in order to put some distance between myself and the front before finally slotting myself into the flow of naked cyclists. As a nudist, I’m more than used to social nudity. However, this was the first time I’d be riding with such a large group of people.
Most nudists/naturists will take any opportunity to rip our clothes off and let our bodies hang free. The obsession with society for us to cover our bodies is not only limiting, but also extremely damaging to our collective mental health. People shouldn’t feel ashamed of who they are and what they look like. They should be free to do whatever we want with their own bodies.
As nudists/naturists, we collectively believe that we should be able to live in a world where clothes aren’t required everyday. Where we’re not scared of our own bodies.
That’s all to say, I felt more than comfortable without my clothes. However, cycling in the city always seemed like such a monumental task, and now I was doing it in a group of at least a thousand.
For the better part of a century, North American city planning has promoted the car as the main mode of travel. If you don’t have access to a car, you’re not the priority; cars are the kings of the North American city centers. Safety for pedestrians and cyclists are a low priority.
If we’re lucky, we’ll get a sliver of the road with a painted on symbol of a bicycle. These “bicycle gutters” offer us no protection from the heavy metal cars that can end our lives at any moment. And these only exist if we’re lucky enough. More often than not, we’re told that we have to share the road with these extremely dangerous machines. By design, we’re told that we don’t matter. That if we want to be safe, we need to join other people by investing tens of thousands of dollars in these large, inefficient, hunks of metal on wheels.
Now, I do own a car. I’m privileged enough to be able to afford one, but it’s also a necessity where I live. I don’t live in Chicago, I live a good hour north of it. I live in an area where we don’t even have sidewalks. Typically, you can find pedestrians walking along the tight shoulders of highways where cars can travel upwards of 60 miles an hour (about 100km/h). This is even more dangerous for cyclists since we require paved roads in order to travel. Frankly, it’s too dangerous to walk and especially to cycle since there’s no space for us. You need a car.
In order to bring my bike places, I had to invest in a bike carrier for my car. I have to drive my car in order to find safe places to cycle.
We’re always the lowest priority. But that changes with the WNBR.
We flooded the full width of the streets. It was our turn to show that we’re here, and that we matter. For once, the cars are forced to stop for us. Chants of “less gas more ass” rang out down the large group of bikers. We shouted at fellow bikers to strip down and join us, and we forced cars to wait for us as we made our way through downtown Chicago and all the surrounding neighborhoods. The road was finally ours.
Now to be fair, Chicago has done a better job accommodating cyclists in recent years. They’ve finally added some protected lanes that shield bikers from cars, but those are still the minority. For many streets, the best it gets is a small narrow bicycle gutter. Or worse, nothing at all. Chicago hasn’t done nearly enough.
With the rise of the automobile supremacy in cities, traffic has risen to extreme levels. It’s not uncommon to hear stories about people stuck in traffic for hours. The issue? Cars are incredibly space inefficient. More often than not, a car that is at least 6ft wide and 15ft long only carries one passenger. Cities try to cram these giant machines down small roads. This leads to space being taken away from cyclists and pedestrians to accommodate these giant metal boxes. Yet traffic still rages on in cities and it’s only getting worse.
With no alternatives, people are forced to use their cars in order to travel even short distances. However, sitting in hours long traffic jams are still preferable to the lack of safety that comes with cycling and walking.
This all contributes to huge amounts of pollution that is leading to health problems and the current climate crisis. Since cars burn so much gas and release so much carbon dioxide, city air is toxic and dangerous for the environment.
Many point to electric cars to solve these issues, but they frankly don’t do enough. Electric cars still lead to massive environmental damage due to the amount of raw materials that need to be mined from the earth in order to produce them. They also get most of their power from less than clean sources of power (coal, natural gas, etc). So while EVs are an improvement, they’re not a solution.
The actual solution? Give the space to cyclists and pedestrians. Make the car the lowest priority and let people who are making a healthier choice for themselves and the planet have the space.
We finished our ride off by occupying a large intersection surrounded by cars waiting for us to move. We claimed their space, and we weren’t going anywhere fast. People cheered around us as we celebrated a successful ride all around the city.
The solution that I want, and the one that seems so outlandish for North American city planners, is what is already working wonders in cities like Amsterdam. Priority is given to cyclists and pedestrians, and their cities are infinitely healthier and safer for everyone. Their air quality far exceeds ours, and biking there is easier than driving a car anywhere in Chicago.
I highly recommend the Youtube channel, Not Just Bikes, which goes into greater detail on what needs to change in North American city design, and what needs to change in order for people like me to stop riding my bike through the city, naked.
No promises, though. Riding naked between skyscrapers is also just too much fun.