Interview with Rafay Alam

By Mariam Iqbal

The following interview was published in Impact SEPLAA Volume II.

critical mass

Q1. What exactly is Critical Mass and what motivated you to start it in Pakistan?

Critical mass is a cycling event that takes place in over 200 cities around the world.  Although Critical Mass started in San Francisco, the idea of a “critical mass” actually comes from China, where there is a long tradition of cycle use.  Critical mass is when there are actually enough cyclists on a road to overcome automobile traffic.  It’s when cycles dominate cars. I remember my wife and I saw a poster for a critical mass event in New Delhi, of all places.  I had been working on urban planning and development issues, especially public transport, at the time, and the notion of critical mass immediately struck a chord.  When my wife and I got back, we bought cycles and started exploring the city on Sunday mornings.  Learning about Lahore while on a cycle has been one of the most satisfying things I’ve done in my adult life.  We had so much fun that, one weekend, we invited some friends.  When they took to it, we invited some more.  Soon, we had enough to have our own Critical Mass Lahore event on 28 December 2008.


Q2. How many cities of Pakistan are currently in involved in the Critical Mass movements and in general, how have people responded to it? Do you think it has been a success?

There are groups of people organizing Critical Mass events in Islamabad, Karachi and Faisalabad.  I must point out that this doesn’t mean that there isn’t any other cycling in the city.  Most trips in the city are on two wheels (less than 20 percent of the population has access or can afford a private automobile).  There are amateur cycling teams that practice on the Canal or near the airport in the mornings.  The cycle track in Gadaffi Stadium is often in use for cycling events.  And I’ve heard that there’s a large group of cyclists that do a “midnight run” of sorts starting from Mozang Chungi on Saturday nights.

Q3. Do you think Critical Mass should be perceived as a protest activity, a social movement, or a celebration?

I think Critical Mass is a bit of all these things, and more.  For example, I participate in Critical Mass because I want to make a strong statement about how economically, socially and environmentally unsafe and unhealthy automobile dependent urban development is.  My wife and many of the other female cyclists come cycling because they want to make a statement about women in public space in our cities.  Many cyclists join us because the group is quite social and it’s something to do on the weekend.  Some cyclists join us because they really believe that driving cars is bad for the environment and that it’s important to show people, especially the class of people who drive in cars in our cities, that cycling is a great way to get around.  Of course, everyone who cycles will tell you just how much fun it is.

Q4. Have you ever felt that travelling on bicycles, especially for the elite and middle class of Pakistan, is considered lowly and is frowned upon in our society?

Of course cycling is loaded with all sorts of class and social issues.  But then again, very little in urban society here isn’t.  A friend of mine sells cement for a living, and he told me that the first thing a man will do when he makes a little money is to make sure his makaan is pucca.  For that he needs cement.  The second thing he does is buy a motorcycle.  A car is the very top of this particular social evolutionary ladder.  A car, to many, symbolizes achievement.  People who have cars have “arrived”; people who don’t have cars are still thought of poor and socially discriminated against.  Personally, I can’t see the logic to this world view.  Driving in a car is probably the most polluting thing anyone does in a day.  Why would anyone want to spend money on a hydrocarbon spewing poison machine that congests roads when cycling is a healthy and environmentally friendly way to get around?

Q5. What message would you like to give to the young Pakistanis out there?

You know, one of the things that always makes me wistful is when I see kids playing cricket on the street.  It means that their neighborhood has got so congested that the only place they can play – where they can be kids – is on a street. I often ask myself what this thing we call “urban development” is if it does nothing but make life so difficult to enjoy. One of the messages of Critical Mass is to highlight the crucial need for safe recreational places in our cities.  I’d like to live in a city where it was perfectly safe for women and children to walk or cycle around and simply enjoy themselves, as equals, with others.  Cars won’t allow cities to do that.  Cars create social distinction and alienate people from one another. Critical Mass is all about empowerment, and if there’s a message for the youth, it’s not to accept an unfriendly city.  The youth mustn’t compromise on this.


Q6. What does the future look like for Critical Mass in Pakistan?

Well next, we plan to take over the world.  Just kidding.  Critical Mass has been campaigning for the last two years for the city of Lahore to announce and hold a “car free day”.  This would be a day where, certain roads of the city would be closed to cars.  Like the part of Mall Road from the Charing Cross to Kim’s Gun.  It wouldn’t be all day: just from 6am to 2pm.  Shops would be encouraged to be open, and a cricket tournament could be organized with teams from nearby neighborhoods.  Families could come and spend a morning walking, shopping and enjoying the day. We’re hoping that, if we keep on trying, that we’ll be able to convince the Lahore administration and traffic police to hold a car free day.  It would be such a great thing for the city to do.  It really would put Lahore on the map.  So many cities around the world are becoming cycle friendly.  And a car-free day in Lahore would be just the first step in a journey to that destination.

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