The bicycle utopia of Burning Man returned to the desert this year. Despite the lack of rules in 2021, bicycles still ruled the road and biking at Burning Man was just as fun as usual. The entire playa was a huge Shared Space for people getting around in all sorts of different ways.
What happens when there are no speed limits, no limits on vehicles, and few other transit-related rules? This year proved to be an interesting testing ground for transportation & biking at Burning Man.
But before I get to that, what happened to make this year different from Burning Man pre-covid? You can skip the next section if you already know.
The Unofficial Burn
“Burning Man was cancelled, wasn’t it?”
This is what I hear every time I tell people I went to Burning Man this year in 2021. Well yes, it was and it wasn’t.
The official organization that usually runs Burning Man, gets permits from the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), sets up the streets, registers cars with the Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV 😂), and much more, cancelled the event due to COVID-19 concerns.
However, burners know the time and place where Burning Man happens, and it’s on public BLM land, so if enough people decide they want to make Burning Man happen, they can. And that’s exactly what happened this year.
The renegade burn, the rogue burn, the cancelled burn, the free burn (since there were no tickets and it was totally free!), the unofficial burn, plan B, people had lots of different names for it. But in the end it was Burning Man. Or droning man perhaps 😉
I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew no matter what happened I’d want to be riding my bike, so I made sure to prepare my bike for Burning Man.
More or Less Bikes at Burning Man in 2021?
Since there was no official event, the playa would be open to any kind of vehicle people so desired with no restrictions. I was concerned this meant we’d have people driving fast and fewer bicycles riding around on the playa. I was worried that no restrictions meant people would choose the easy and cushy car transport while throwing the bicycle to the wayside.
Fortunately, I was wrong. As I was driving towards Burning Man, I saw many cars and RVs going both ways with dusty bikes in tow and I had hope. Turns out I’m not the only one who likes to park the vehicle and enjoy places on foot and by bicycle.
Once I arrived, the scene was not the crowded and cramped nightmare I imagined, but plenty of space with people setting up camps wherever they pleased, and no more cars than usual.
More importantly, I saw lots of bicycles. Overall there may have been less bicycles than a normal year, but that was replaced mostly by walking, not by driving.
I was also worried the loose rules would mean people camping farther away from each other and the distances may require car transport to be convenient. That was also incorrect. People did camp with more space in between, but these distances were still the perfect easy bike rides I’d known to expect at Burning Man. In fact, Burning Man this year felt smaller and even easier to walk and bike around than usual.
Estimates for the 2021 Black Rock City population have come in around ~20,000 people, which is significantly less than the ~80,000 people who normally come. This likely contributed to the ease of walking and biking since being “far out” wasn’t actually that far.
Shared Spaces Primarily for People
The lawless Renegade Burning Man of 2021 was a great example for the concept of Shared Spaces. Without any restrictions, people were using all forms of transit. Even without any signs, rules, or limitations of any sort, everyone knew that this was a city for people, not cars.
Since everyone spends time walking around and most people are riding bikes, people who were driving would drive slow and yield to any people they saw. If I was biking with a car nearby, they would change course to avoid me or slow down and wait for me to pass.
If people were driving somewhere and parked, they parked farther back or out of the way, leaving space for the bicycles to park right in front.
Why can’t our regular cities be like this? Well, it’s because many streets and roads are designed to carry cars as quickly as possible to their destination, not for people to enjoy the places themselves. When streets and roads are just a place to pass through, drivers care little about people enjoying the space. Why would they?
What About the lack of Streets?
Turns out that streets are just a convenience. They definitely make it easier to find people and know where you are, but instead people just followed landmarks (of which there were plenty) and used the What3Words app (which provides addresses for every 3×3 meter square and can help you get home on an expansive desert like the playa).
Streets naturally occurred with lots of twists, turns, and dead ends (but you can sometimes sneak through a dead end on foot or bicycle). I enjoyed the exploration aspect of the disorganized streets.
I will say there was some unofficial organization for people to generally place their camps in a big circle and share What3Words locations beforehand, so this helped to create a few main streets like the 6 o’clock street coming up through to the center.
One thing about the 2021 Free Burn was that there were lots of places with “soft playa” as I called it. These are places on the playa where it’s more soft and sandy and harder to bike through than the hardened, cracking playa you see. I don’t recall if it was worse in years past, but I believe one thing the Burning Man org does usually is to lightly wet the ground which keeps the sand hardened and easier to bike on.
Unfortunately, cars turning too abruptly can also tear up the hard surface revealing the softness underneath. So more faster cars could’ve also made the playa a bit softer in some areas.
What About the lack of Speed Limits?
The official Burning Man has a speed limit of 5mph for all vehicles. This technically includes e-bikes and e-scooters too, which seems a bit harsh.
Without these rules, everyone was zipping around and it was generally fine. E-bikes and e-scooters weren’t going super fast, and most people were on normal bikes anyway. The danger from e-bikes comes mostly from small spaces where faster moving bikes are squeezing by normal speed bikes. With the expansive playa this wasn’t an issue.
Cars were also driving around on the playa, and usually faster than 5 mph, but usually slow enough for me to not really care. The biggest issue from a faster moving vehicle was all the dust it kicked up into the air. The air quality was bad enough already!!
Art cars and other large vehicles that have loads of people on them still were driving 5mph or so…since any faster and it can get pretty dangerous for occupants that are all standing and whatnot. I heard of a few cars getting warnings from Nevada rangers for going too fast, but it was usually a slap on the wrist and no one seemed angry…they should’ve been driving slower.
Once outside the city ring, people would naturally drive faster as far as there’s little around. That’s where you could do those donuts.
Were There Too Many Vehicles?
The official Burning Man allows people to drive to their camp only. The only cars that can roam around the playa are Art Cars, of which there are a limited number of permits given out by the Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV).
This year, anyone could drive anything as much as they wanted, and it was fine. People came to Burning Man not to drive in their cars, but to experience the playa and all it had to offer to people. This meant people weren’t in the cars that much, and most people were walking and biking.
In fact, fewer rules allowed there to be more interesting small cars instead of just the big monster bus art cars. You might have a decorated 2 or 4 seater that is still driving slow and interesting to see out on the playa.
Bike Repair – My Gift to the Playa
I decided to come to Black Rock City’s 2021 Rogue Burn with all my bike repair gear in tow, and set up a bike maintenance station for people to discover in their time of need. Unfortunately, I was too busy fixing bikes to remember to take a picture of my setup, but it was all there behind the van.
I didn’t see any other bike repair on the playa, but I definitely heard of some camps doing it on the Esplanade near the center.
If you don’t know much about burning man, there is no money or bartering. There are values of Gifting and Decommodification, hence I offered my services for free and do not advertise about Bike to Everything or ask for anything else in return. I still sometimes mentioned my Bike to Everything project, but it’s not the primary purpose of what I’m doing offering bike repair.
Burning Man Next Year
The Rogue Burn of 2021 was truly a unique year, and I don’t think we’ll see anything like this ever again. But assuming the official Burning Man is back next year, is there anything from 2021 I would like to see more or less of regarding transit?
I think there are only 2 things I’d want to change:
- Allow e-bikes and e-scooters. I think these don’t limit the experience of other road users and are fine. Right now they are technically “allowed” but are still bound to the 5mph speed limit like vehicles…even though I have never seen this enforced.
- Allow more smaller art cars. These were cool and didn’t seem like too many cars on the playa. But maybe with smaller roads and more people I am mistaken…
Otherwise, I’m looking forward to higher quality playa surface, organized streets, and fewer cars in general. If you haven’t yet, check out my tips for bringing a bike to the playa!
See you next year in the dust!