The solution was heavy-duty, but it was effective – and outrageous. In the end, it took less than 20 seconds for an enraged city mayor to permanently immobilize a Mercedes S-class parked illegally in a city cycle lane. It was, perhaps, one of his most memorable political moments.
Tensions between drivers and cyclists are inevitable in a busy urban environment. Cyclists can zip through stuck traffic, but drivers don’t necessarily see them coming – or respect their space. On the other hand, some cyclists don’t always obey the rules. They might jump traffic lights, ride on sidewalks, fail to signal properly, ride the wrong way up a one-way street, or completely ignore pedestrian crossings.
Indeed, both motorists and cyclists can be selfish. Both can be overly aggressive. And sometimes that aggression can descend into open warfare. In May 2013, for example, a British motorist boasted about hitting a cyclist with her vehicle. “Definitely knocked a cyclist off his bike earlier,” she tweeted. “I have right of way – he doesn’t even pay road tax!”
So in the interests of peace and public safety, it is best that cyclists and motorists have separate designated spaces. That is logic behind cycle lanes. And indeed, cities all over the world have appointed sections of roadway where only bicycles are permitted to travel. Among them is the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius.
Vilnius is best known for its historic Old Town, which was awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO in 1994. Covering around 1.4 square miles, the district is home to some 1,500 historical buildings. The streets there are narrow, winding, and punctuated with courtyards, and so it makes sense to limit motorized traffic.
That, at least, appears to have been the thinking of Arturas Zuokas, who served as the mayor of the city from 2000 to 2007 and from 2011 to 2015. Zuokas is the head of a political party called the Lithuanian Freedom Union. However, his professional background is in journalism, specifically in war reporting.
During his first term as mayor, Zuokas installed a network of cycle lanes throughout Vilnius, encouraging residents to ditch their cars for bicycles. However, when he returned to office in 2011 he discovered a big problem. In the Old Town, cars were parking illegally in the cycle lanes.
“In the past few days, expensive cars have been illegally parked in almost this exact place – a Rolls Royce and a Ferrari,” said Zuokas in a video posted to his YouTube channel in August 2011. “What should the city do about drivers who think that they are above the law?”
It was a pressing question. Regular politicians might attempt to answer it conventionally – perhaps with a promise to tow offending vehicles. But Zuokas was neither regular nor conventional. He was a former war reporter. And his solution to the problem of illegal parking was combative in the extreme. “It seems,” said Zuokas in his YouTube video, “that a tank is the best solution.”
Technically, Zuokas didn’t have a tank. He had a BTR-60 Russian armored personnel carrier. But this distinction is academic. Tank or personnel carrier, the result is the same – obliteration. For when Zuokas drove the carrier into an illegally-parked Mercedes, it completely crushed the vehicle on one side. The car was ruined.
“That’s what will happen if you park your car illegally!” shouted Zuokas to the camera. Later, he explained his actions to The Daily Mail. “I wanted to send a clear message that people with big and expensive cars can’t park wherever they feel like and ignore the rights of pedestrians and bike riders,” he said. “It shows a lack of respect and won’t be tolerated.”
Shortly after Zuokas destroyed the car, its supposed owner emerged from a nearby building in an apparent state of shock. Zuokas, dressed in a dark blue suit, approached him and shook his hand. “Next time,” he told him, “park your car legally.” The man nodded submissively.
After that, the wrecked car was loaded onto a truck and towed away. Zuokas, meanwhile, displayed his sense of civic duty by sweeping up the broken glass in the street. And after that, he climbed on his bike and rode off into the city streets. Job done.
Speaking to The Guardian in August 2011 Zuokas’s spokesperson, Irma Juskenaite reiterated the mayor’s “zero tolerance” stance. “Mayor Zuokas wanted his message to be loud and clear,” she said. “[The] city will not tolerate brazen and disrespectful behavior by drivers who disobey parking rules. The mayor hopes that he will not have to repeat his performance… although he says that he is prepared to do so.”
Of course, the whole scene was a staged publicity stunt. In fact, it was filmed in collaboration with a Swedish TV series called 99 Things You Should Do Before You Die. The Swedish hosts Mackan Edlund and Erik Ekstrand rode with the mayor in the personnel carrier and the ill-fated Mercedes was acquired specifically for the event.
“Of course, you have to have a sense of humor in my line of work,” said Zuokas to The Daily Mail. “I thought this would be a way of drawing attention to the fact that the city intends to be proactive in its fight against illegal parking.”
In that respect, the stunt was certainly successful. Not only was it reported in a slew of international newspapers, but it earned Zuokas the Ig Nobel Peace Prize – a Nobel Prize parody award given to “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” The satirical award’s name is derived from the word “ignoble.”
Meanwhile, the city of Vilnius continues to promote cycling. Its self-service CycloCity bike rental service offers cyclists 300 bikes from some 37 stations. And the tourist office promotes self-guided cycling tours with a map of some 52 points of interest.
Of course, Vilnius is just one of many cities around the world actively promoting cycling as a solution to pollution and traffic problems. Indeed, cycling appears to be growing in popularity. There are nearly 1,000 bike-sharing schemes in the world today, compared to just four in 2003.
But as cycling grows in popularity, so too do problems associated with it, such as providing adequate parking spaces and cycle lanes. With any luck, however, city planners won’t have to resort to drastic measures. That said, riding over parked cars with a tank or armored personnel carrier does look like a lot of fun.