The first thing visitors saw when they walked into the consumer bike show at Navy Pier last weekend was a display of three gleaming 2003 Subarus. The automaker has been the title sponsor of the annual event--formally known as the Subaru Chicago Bike Show and Family Fitness Expo--for the last two years. On Saturday afternoon a smattering of people were checking out the vehicles, which included a bright yellow Baja with a bike rack built into its rear bed. Nearby, jerseys promoting the Subaru-sponsored Iceman Cometh Challenge mountain bike race were selling well, and the company's free blue bike reflectors were moving even faster. "Subaru vehicles are all about an outdoor lifestyle," a salesperson said. "They're very environmentally friendly, too." He pointed out that Subaru bumpers are made from recycled plastic and that the company supports the U.S. Forest Service's Tread Lightly! program and the U.S. Olympic ski team. "I can't believe anyone's bitching."
But deep within the expo a giant sign reading "Why Are There SUVs at a Bike Show?" hung high above the booth for Chicago Bike Winter, an ad hoc group of cycling enthusiasts who banded together three years ago to promote all-season riding. The table beneath the sign was covered with literature pro-moting Bike Chicago 2003, the Wicker Park Bike Pool, Cycling Sisters (a local group devoted to bridging the "cycling gender gap"), and Chicago Critical Mass, a leaderless group of cycling activists organized around a monthly bike ride. By 1:30 that day the CBW folks had given away their last Day-Glo orange "Cars Stink" sticker.
"We want to have it be very clear that we're advocating bikes as an alternative to driving so much," says cycling activist and former bike messenger John Greenfield, who was running the booth. "We don't like the idea that Subaru is there saying you should throw your bike on the back of an SUV and drive to the mountains and go mountain biking. We're saying there's no reason to have an SUV if you live in the city, and you should try using your bike to get around town."
The Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, a group that provides consultants (including Greenfield) to the Chicago Department of Transportation and is devoted to improving the city's bicycling environment, has boycotted the bike show two years running--ever since Subaru took over as sponsor. "The thing that's puzzling to me is why the irony isn't more obvious to people," says executive director Randy Neufeld. "Our initial response was, this is sort of like Jack Daniel's being the title sponsor of a Mothers Against Drunk Driving event, or Haagen-Dazs sponsoring a Weight Watchers clinic."
Neufeld wrote last year in a letter to members that "almost all of our advocacy challenges, both in the city and the suburbs, are battles between the accommodation of automobiles and bicycles. Whether the fight is over space on the roadway, street design that favors nonmotorized traffic, or funding resources, our message is that bicycle use is a better choice than automobile use--for individuals and society.
"Having a car company in general--and an SUV manufacturer in particular--as title sponsor ruins the image we want a bike show to deliver. How can we tell show-goers they should ride a bike because it improves air quality--when the title of the show endorses a vehicle that doesn't even meet passenger car emissions standards? How can we tell them we're trying to make Chicago's streets safer for bikes when the show pushes a type of vehicle [SUVs] that, when involved in crashes, is more likely to result in the deaths of bicyclists?
"If we endorse an automobile product, our credibility for delivering our core message is lost."
The Subaru Forester gets 23 miles per gallon on average and has an emissions rating closer to that of a station wagon than an SUV, but it's true that it doesn't have the ultralow emissions of, say, a Honda Accord. "As car companies go, Subaru certainly isn't one of the worst ones," says Neufeld. "But we think it would be great if we could have a celebration of cycling that's about cycling."
"How not being here helps his organization I don't know," says expo organizer Jeremy Solomon. "I think it would be better for CBF to come to the show and ask people to join and promote their goals, which is the same thing we're promoting--cycling. We should be working in tandem, and it's really sad that we're not."
In previous years at the expo the federation had staffed a booth and made presentations on everything from bike repair to riding safely in traffic. The show's been going since 1992, and until last year it took place in the suburbs--first at Pheasant Run in Saint Charles and then at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont--and was sponsored by the Chicago Area Bicycle Dealers Association, which also ran the lucrative trade show that made the consumer expo possible. CABDA dissolved in 2001, largely due to changes in the bike industry. "There was a lot of consolidation," says Greg Byron, the association's former executive director. "We had to close the trade show because all of these companies [including Schwinn, GT, Raleigh, and Diamondback] were going bankrupt. There was consolidation at the supplier end as well; the suppliers for the most part had decided to just support one large show that was out in Las Vegas. We decided to sell whatever assets we could so we didn't have to file bankruptcy and stiff people."
CABDA sold the bike expo to Chicago Sports Media, which publishes Chicago Athlete magazine and had produced the trade show and the expo for several years. The company promptly moved the show to bike-friendly Navy Pier and signed Subaru. "We could never have the sort of extensive show we're putting on if it wasn't for the support of Subaru," says Solomon, though he wouldn't say exactly how much money is involved. A record 17,000 people attended this year, he adds, as opposed to around 9,000 at the last CABDA-sponsored expo. "They [Subaru] probably do more to promote environmental issues than any other car company out there. Yes, they're promoting to cyclists, but they're not taking people away from cycling."
Longtime exhibitor Bill Resseguie, who works for the cross-country bike touring company Cycle America, wrote in an E-mail (a version of which is posted on the Chicago Critical Mass Web site, www.chicagocriticalmass.org) that he found the Navy Pier show less "crassly commercial" than the CABDA expos in Rosemont, which "resembled a giant pop-up ad for Bicycling magazine. The show at Navy Pier, although sponsored by a car company, ironically was better. The vast majority of the booths were entrepreneurs, regional bike events and clubs, and many local bike shops as well as tangents such as massage therapists and marathons....Whether the Subaru sponsorship had anything to do with creating a better show, or if it was despite them, I don't know."
"It's frustrating not having the largest bicycling organization in Chicago attend the show," says Chicago Sports Media head Eliot Wineberg. "We open our arms to Randy and offer them a free booth every year."
After the federation declined to participate in last year's show, Wineberg offered their space to Chicago Critical Mass. The booth was run by activist Travis Culley, author of 2001's the Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power, and a carpet bearing the spray-painted message "Bikes Are Beautiful. Cars Are Huge and Stupid" covered its floor. Critical Mass riders handed out flyers, Culley flogged his book, and representatives from Bike Winter and other probike initiatives passed out literature. They also displayed "rat bikes"--choppers made from discarded parts found in alleys--and organized "runt" bike races between adults and children. "We wanted to make the show festive and fun," says Culley. "The table was open, so I could never tell what was going to be there or not....But I don't think Eliot expected the kind of anticar sentiment that we're about. The center of Critical Mass is to make as sustainable and bikable a city as possible. At the same time, the whole point of Critical Mass is that there's no copyright to what it is or isn't. It's just a premise by which people come together under the discipline of bicycle activism. Ultimately there's no entity, no organization."
Early in the 2002 show, orange stickers reading "SUcker Vehicle" appeared tucked into the display vehicles' license plate holders. One Forester was smacked with a fake price tag for the "Deforester" that listed noise pollution, lack of physical activity, greenhouse gases, and 43,000 auto deaths each year as extra features. Wineberg and a representative from Subaru approached the Critical Mass booth to ask about the stickers on Sunday night, just before the show closed.
"The regional manager of a Subaru dealership came up and was pretty stern with me about what we were doing," says Culley. "I said, Critical Mass is not an entity and I'm not its leader, and I'm here in the same spirit as the Chicagoland Bike Federation, protesting the show." No one fessed up to the stickering.
"They said 'You'll hear from me' and threatened to sue," says Culley, but nothing ever came of it. (Subaru declined to comment for this story.) Solomon tried to be as understanding as he could, he says, "but I thought it was insulting to us, who had given them a free booth to promote their cause, and to Subaru, who was helping to put on the show. To some extent I support what they do. But rather than just supporting cycling, they want to promote cycling at the expense of cars. In theory that's probably really nice. In reality most people who ride bikes own cars too. You're not going to drive cars off the street because you want people to ride a bike. I think 95 percent of our attendees would probably agree."
This year activities at the Bike Winter booth started out nonconfron-tational and grew progressively bolder each day. About a dozen activists had chipped in to help Greenfield cover the $295 exhibitor's fee, and at any given time there were several people on duty, many of them wearing orange Critical Mass T-shirts with "One Less Car" emblazoned on the back in big black letters. On Sunday, the third day of the show, the workers hung up a large chart listing ten reasons not to buy an SUV and banners proclaiming "My Bike Is All the Sport Utility Vehicle I Need," "True Patriots Don't Burn Oil," and "Hummer Is Just Another Word for...?" They set out a large notebook with the heading "Bikes Are Better Than Cars, Because..." and solicited contributions from passersby. "We got a lot of responses for that," says Green-field, who noted that the group "started getting a little rowdier" around noon, when they started singing bicycle-themed songs, led by Greenfield on ukulele, and shouting sarcastic thank-yous to Subaru through a megaphone. Eventually some of their neighbors complained, and Solomon asked them to keep it down and stop referencing Subaru, which Greenfield says they did.
Then someone from Subaru found a fake traffic ticket, made out to "SUV Driver," stuck on one of the vehicles. "I'm not sure of the exact order of how things happened, but some of the guys from Subaru came over and started taking pictures of our signs," says Greenfield. "I came up and introduced myself and apologized and made an announcement to the people at the booth that I did not want anybody stickering or putting things on SUVs."
Solomon returned and asked Green-field to take down the "Why Are There SUVs at a Bike Show?" sign; Green-field compromised by tearing off the bottom so that it simply read "Why Are There SUVs?" Later, while Green-field was off getting lunch, another Critical Mass volunteer grabbed the megaphone and started reading off the "Ten Reasons." Solomon returned--again--and took the megaphone away.
At the end of the show, Greenfield tracked down Solomon and gave him a "Depave Lake Shore Drive" T-shirt and a flyer inviting him to the next Critical Mass ride (Friday, March 28, starting at 5:30 at Daley Plaza). The pair ended up shaking hands.
"In all fairness, Subaru is not the worst culprit," Greenfield admits. "They don't make huge SUVs. As far as I know, the Forester doesn't get terrible gas mileage. But they happen to be the sponsor of the bike show, and the whole marketing and tying in of SUVs and bikes is just wrong."
"They seem to be nice guys with good hearts," says Solomon of the Bike Winter people, noting that they have not been barred from returning next year. "They're just overexuberant at certain times."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.