18 November 2010
What Can I Do to Put You on this Bike Today?
I hate the notion of a "cycling community". People never speak about a "motoring community" or a "bus riding community", yet the idea that by hoisting yourself up onto two wheels makes you part of a confederacy. A subculture, where you're either one of the rare few who "really gets it" and was doing it "before it was cool", or one of the mass of poseurs just following the crowd. A face in a sea of tickets.
This recently manifested itself in a comment (which I replied a bit snarkily to) on a story Huffington Post Chicago ran on my friend Martha's photoblog Bike Fancy. Now, I don't mean to call out Mr. or Ms. Randomphantom (if that IS their real name) individually, this is an all-too-common attitude. Essentially, "You're not doing it right". That's pretty much how all subcultures operate, but as for me, the bike that I ride is not my identity. It's transportation, pure and simple. It's the same if I drive a car or take the El, I'm just trying to get somewhere, and to look like a normal person in the process.
Personally, I don't really care what kind of bike you want to ride, or what you want to wear when you're doing it, or how fast you want to go. If you've found what's comfortable for you, that's fantastic. I'm much more interested in the people who would ride a bike but presently do not. I have quite a number of friends who fall into this category and when asked, will invariably give one of two responses.
The number one answer is "safety". Most normal people simply do not want to ride a bike in car traffic. I am among them, I'm pretty used to it by now but some days it just sucks. Any city that is serious about increasing mode share has to install segregated cycletracks. That'll upset the vehicular cycling champions out there, but so what? That tactic will only ever appeal to a small minority of cyclists anyhow, if the goal is to get people onto bikes in the first place you have to give them a place of perceived safety. If this was pure conjecture, and the Dutch and the Danes hadn't already proven how to do it, I would say, "Well, maybe". It'll take a city leadership with a clear commitment and political will to make such a drastic infrastructural shift to disprove any naysayers, but it's the only real way. When I visit the Lakefront Trail in Chicago, I'm usually astonished by the sheer numbers of cyclists who use it for their commutes. For me, it's a destination since it's too far out of the way to make sense for commuting, and it makes me wonder how many would be lured out if the proposed trail along the North Branch of the Chicago River or the Bloomingdale Trail were ever built.
The second has to do with the bikes themselves. I've had several people tell me (especially women--an "indicator species" as I've mentioned before) that they would prefer to ride a bike which gives them an upright position on the saddle. When most of the bikes that people see on the roads are racers of one sort or another with somebody hunched over the handlebars, that alone is enough to turn many people off. Of course there are many upright bicycles on the market, but novices are usually not well-informed enough to understand the different styles of bikes, let alone the pros and cons of each. Myself, I know a thing or two, but when folks start talking about forks or cranks or the Tour d'France, I tune out. I know that I am hardly alone in this regard.
Mikael Colville-Andersen and others have written at length about the importance of normalizing bicycling, and I would firmly place myself into their camp. As much as we may hate to admit it, the United States is a solidly consumerist nation, and as such people are highly susceptible to marketing and image. And face it, the image of the self-righteous cyclist in bright safety gear and spandex will never be "cool". The proponents of vehicular cycling strike me as essentially making the argument that if more cyclists "take the road", drivers will eventually leave their cars at home out of some odd sense of self-interest. When neoclassical economists made the same assumption about consumers in our capitalist system, it more or less led to our current morass. It may be a strained analogy, but just as we need new thinking to dig us out of our economic hole, we need new thinking on how to solve the problem of getting people onto bikes.