Slow Roll is a fun idea. A bunch of people get together and ride bikes through the city, both showcasing our city’s physical and cultural treasures and building community around bicycling, an unfairly-maligned, low-carbon hobby and mode of transportation.
In practice, unfortunately, Slow Roll is an exercise in profound entitlement where people who have the free time in the hours immediately after work on Mondays turn other people’s neighborhoods into their own personal playground during the time that many are trying to get home from work, go to the bank, and pick up their kids from daycare. When confronted with criticism, Slow Roll’s defenders adopt a victimized posture, painting detractors as bitter spoilsports who refuse to share.
Slow Roll is an act of colonialism. A large percentage of of Slow Roll’s riders drive their bikes into the city from the suburbs (this is by the group’s own admission, though they maintain that participation among city residents and non-whites is growing). They proceed to block all traffic, regardless of modality, in the neighborhoods they’re riding through for amounts of time ranging from 15 minutes to close to an hour. Due to the layout of one-way streets in several of the city’s neighborhoods, including the Fruit Belt and the West Side, this can have the effect of blocking all outlets for the people that live there.
Anecdotally, a person who works at Gates Vascular Institute and Buffalo General Hospital, posted an open letter to Slow Roll on Facebook criticizing the group for blocking access to the emergency room during the most recent ride. Personally, when I tried to leave my house I was told by a Slow Roll #SQUAD member to drive the wrong way down my narrow street, where children routinely play, in order to avoid the ride. When I pointed out that this was a one-way street, the flip response offered was “They don’t mind.” The subtext was clear: “This is the West Side, rules don’t apply here.”
By its nature, the ride is confrontational. Slow Roll intentionally obscures their exact route (though they’ve begun posting signs in advance of their ride at certain intersections) and groups its riders into a single pack, ostensibly in the name of safety. They flout traffic laws, cruising through red lights and stop signs, and cause anyone wanting to leave or enter their community to do so as well. It’s a brazen flexing of bourgeois privilege. Slow Rollers behave as if they are entitled not only to everyone else’s space, cruising through the places where people live as if they are a zoo, but to people’s time as well, tying up traffic for anyone who has anything else to do on a Monday evening.
Adding to the aggravation, Slow Roll’s organizers and defenders are utterly nonplussed by criticism of the event. People who express frustration with Slow Roll are shamed as backwards Neanderthals seeking to oppress the marginalized bike community from being able to travel anywhere. This characterization is not only classist in its castigation of critics as insufficiently liberal and unwilling to share, it’s intellectually dishonest on a couple of levels.
Presenting Slow Roll as a direct action about sharing public roadways is a canard. Slow Roll is only about sharing in a perverted sense of the word, born from a feeling of entitlement. Its participants expect the people whose homes they are cruising around to share their neighborhoods with them, by which they mean granting Slow Roll unfettered access not only to the streets they’re riding on, but to all of the streets that intersect the streets they ride on. This is not sharing, this is taking. Slow Rollers do not ask permission from the people they inconvenience, they tell them they will be inconveniencing them by posting (to a limited extent) signs and flyers a couple of days in advance. Then, when people complain, they are chastised. As with the #SQUAD member’s claim that “they don’t care” about drivers going the wrong way down residential streets to make room for the ride, when Slow Rollers say “streets were built for people, not cars,” they are saying “your streets are for us, who have correct attitudes about transportation modalities.”
Further, setting up the question of Slow Roll as a conflict between two camps, the enlightened bicycle community and the benighted motorheads, creates a false dichotomy that unfairly imagines out of existence cycling advocates that disagree with the way Slow Roll operates and vilifies people for whom cycling is a physical or practical impossibility.
By being so sanctimonious in the face of legitimate criticism, Slow Roll actually damages the credibility of the bicycle movement. By helping themselves to people’s space and time and then playing the role of aggrieved activists standing up to motorist aggression when their actions are critiqued, Slow Rollers perpetuate the stereotype of cycling as an activity only for the privileged and arrogant.
It doesn’t have to be this way. By engaging with the communities whose cultural and physical riches they are enjoying, say, by working together to establish predictable routes and ensure people are not trapped inside and outside their blocks, by breaking up the pack of riders to allow traffic of all types to continue moving, and by dropping the pretense that anyone that dares criticize it is an illiberal crank, Slow Roll can mitigate some of its negative impacts and possibly turn itself into a net positive.