Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bike Culture. Yay Or Ney?

I have a family blog that does not get updated enough these days. With three kids, James and I are usually pretty busy, so writing can get shoved to the side. Today I was looking for a picture I knew was on the family blog when I ran across this post from my Hubby the Bike Man. I didn't realize he had posted it (I haven't even looked at the family blog for months!).

James & His Xtracycle

While discussing the topic of American bike culture with our new found friend Geoff, he explained how no such thing existed while he lived in Amsterdam.


How can that be? How can the city where bikes have the privilege of having roads made specifically for them, where every one rides a bicycle, have no bike culture. Further discussion on the matter lead to some enlightening conclusions that come at you like a bus full of Vegas bound retirees. And it seemed so obvious in hind sight, in a way not so unlike the cartoon light bulb going off.

The discussion started with a simple question not unfamiliar to American cyclists: "What kind of cyclist are you?". Most American cyclist will have a natural answer at the ready. The terms "weekend warrior", "roadie", "mountain biker", "downhiller", "BMXer" come to mind. Yet that very same question would perplex someone from Amsterdam. The bicycle is so ingrained into the every life of the Amsterdamer, that they no longer think of it as a facet of their lives.

Suppose I posed to you this multiple choice question: "What kind of driver are you?", with the available answers as "off roader", "race weenie", "mileage counter", etc. It would seem rather absurd wouldn't it? The bicycle is such a large part of the average Amsterdamer's life, just like the automobile is a part of the average American life, that the very idea of "bike culture" just doesn't make sense to them. It's just part of their culture, much the same as American culture is car-centric.

So to have Americans integrate bicycles into their lives, all we need to do is rid ourselves of bike culture, right? Until then... Down with bike culture. Long live the bike.

photo by Iam Sterdam

So, what do you think? Do we need to eliminate "bike culture" or do we need to make it so ubiquitous as to make it unnoticeable?


  1. I really like the perspective of this post - it's so dead on. I would love to have the bicycle so ingrained into our lives that we remove the classifications.

    I've been struggling with the question, "What type of cyclist am I?", and I always come to the conclusion that I'm not in a category. I'm just a bicyclist.

  2. I don't think we need to do away with bike culture per se. The bicycle, however, should be a more ubiquitous fixture in our society. A culture grows around anything people gather to do. In the U.S., that culture can be quite diverse and exciting (as well as frustrating and renegade).

    As your friend said, the bike is just a part of life and getting around in Amsterdam, and much of Europe as well. I spent a month in a little German town on the Kiel canal in '89. I rode a spare bike that my host family had all over town with my host brother and classmates. It wasn't unusual or odd, it was just how things were done. Go to a pub in the evening, hop on the bike...see a movie, hop on the bike...go to the pool, tennis court, school, get the picture.

    Me, I'm the kind of cyclist that puts this contraption of welded steel tubes between my legs and use my feet to turn these cranks to drive the wheels that get this device (and me) to where ever it is that I'm going! ;-)

    Gettin' Around

  3. I guess a bike in Amsterdam is nothing more than a necessary tool to get you from one place to another. Maybe, for them, riding is a chore. Riding for me is a treat, stress relief, something I look forward to. I also really enjoy the simple beauty of the bicycle and communicating with others who feel the same way. I like our bike culture.

  4. I don't think we need to do either - I think there will always be elements of "bike culture" - as there still are elements of "car culture" - the hobbyists, the racers, collectors, etc.

    What we need to do, is simply ride our bikes.

    Slowly, but surely, people will see us, and some of them will think, "oh, that looks nice."

    In 30-50 years, given no major governmental oppression, and some cooperation, we'll be looking back on this period in time thinking, "remember when 'cyclists' were stereotyped and estranged from society?"

    All it takes is more people riding bikes more often. We don't need to spread or eradicate "bike culture" as we know it, just keep riding :)

  5. As you said, it's not as if the Dutch don't have bicycle culture, it's that they aren't aware of having it because it is so prevalent.

    I think cycling in the US must become ubiquitous before it can become unnoticeable; otherwise the unnoticeable would just be obliterated. (Those living in contemporary Russia would also say they have no bicycle culture. And unlike the Dutch, they truly don't.)

  6. It is a very true concept, one I have spoken to friends about quite a bit based from my time in Berlin. Bike simply 'are' here, a standard method of transportation. 'Bike culture' does not need to leave, and I think it will always exist, in Amsterdam, Berlin, and San Francisco. But it is the car culture that exist in place of bicycles in the US. Keep bike culture alive since at times its one of the great things that make cities like San Francisco and its' whole personality so great, but strive to have the bicycle a more prominent item in everyones lifestyle.

  7. "Suppose I posed to you this multiple choice question: "What kind of driver are you?""

    The very question I have been posing to cyclists since the "Bike Boom" era when most of these divisions first settled in. Soon you shall be able to snatch the pebble from my hand, Grasshopper (although I warn you that there are subcultures within the driving culture that can answer that question without skipping a beat).

    "Do we need to eliminate "bike culture" or do we need to make it so ubiquitous as to make it unnoticeable?"

    Is a puzzlement. To PROMOTE bike culture we obviously need to, well, ya know, PROMOTE it. On the other hand in doing so we also promote the idea of the cyclist as "other," but making it unnoticeable, simply part of CULTURE, is the end goal.

    Welcome to the razor's edge.

    I think the best thing we can do is to ride our bikes as if doing so were something unnoticeable, but noticing others who are doing the same and acknowledging them. Create a sense of "group" without creating a sense of "outsider."

    When you have a friend or acquaintance who seems as if they might be amenable to joining the group (perhaps they already ride recreationally) nudge them very gently in that direction by inviting them to come along on a "mission" rather than "go for a ride."

    Show up on a bike and say "Hey, I'm going to the library, wanna come along?" Allow the fact that you're on a bike to do the talking that this is "a ride."

    The cudgel maims, the feather tickles. We're going to need to do an awful lot of feathering our way into the mainstream (albeit while carrying a big frame pump and knowing when and how to use it).

  8. That one, Number Two. I like to think that I'm fighting to destroy "bike culture" every day.

    And there *are* people who get together on weekends and in their spare time to talk about, fix up, drive, race, off-road, photograph, write about, and fetishize their cars. It's "car culture" and it's different from the pathological car addiction and infrastructure nightmare we often complain about.

  9. Naw, we don't need to eliminate "bike culture" altogether.

    Think of it this way, we [i]do[/i] have a car culture in America. I have a couple of friends who are into drag racing. They soup up their cars just for the weekend run. I have other friends who pride themselves in their mechanic abilities and their lives are focused around cars. Just because cars are so centric in America, doesn't mean we don't have a dedicated car culture. To many in America, the car is ubiquitous, to a smaller number, the car is culture.

    I think if you looked at Amsterdam, Copenhagen, etc., you might find the same thing. To most the bike is ubiquitous, but I'm sure there are some avid bike lovers who have their own bike culture.

    Concerning your question, Do we need to eliminate "bike culture?" Naw, let it stand. As bikes become more and more accepted and used, it will become more ubiquitous to the majority, but there will still be some that maintain their bike culture. This is a good thing.

  10. What is bike culture? When I think of car "culture" I think of Route 66 and sex in the back of a Galaxy and drag racing on the Great Highway (SF) and Friday night cruising..... what are the bicycle equivalents of this? Do we have them? Have we reached the point of "culture' yet?

  11. Would 'Bike Sangha' be words more to your liking? The concept of bike consciousness, and community as unifiers... here in our good 'ole USA where CAR culture really does rule.

  12. Here in Miami, except at the beach where tourist rent bicycles, bicycling seems to come in two categories: Lance Armstrong types and poor immigrants without cars. Out in the suburbs, your average everyday person doesn't hop on a bike to go anywhere casually. That needs to change. As much as i love my weekend road warrior friends in their bike shorts and team shirts on $2000+ bikes, I think they also need to get on commuter/cruiser style bikes more often. Otherwise, I think they intimidate others and really what causes the anti-bike attitude that prevails around here.

  13. RP- Bike sangha, of course I love that idea! In some ways, I liken fear of cycling to fear of meditation- both are things that have you spend time with yourself, without pretense, experiencing situations directly. That is a challenge for many people. We live in a culture that insists on smoke and mirrors, so anything that brings us out of that can be daunting.

  14. DickDavid- I am interested in your perspective here, especially as you are as much a "car guy" as you are a "bike guy". Do you think there is something to be learned from the specialty car community by the bike community as a whole?

  15. The term "bike culture" suggests such an otherness that really makes me shudder. I don't want to be among the "others" really. Although, I've always been just a bit out of step with most people I honestly have also always wanted to fit in and be accepted. Isn't that where most of us are, really. Driving a car is just incredibly easy. Community planning has for years catered to the automobile. Only in the last few years have planners and community leaders begun accommodating bike commuter needs. Why is that? Is it because in the long run building more and expanded roads and highways is just too expensive? Is it because car ownership is often a huge financial burden as compared to even the most pricey bike? I don't know. I didn't start bike commuting to gain a cultural identity but to solve some immediate problems in my life and to allow myself more opportunities for fun.

  16. "DickDavid- I am interested in your perspective here, especially as you are as much a "car guy" as you are a "bike guy". Do you think there is something to be learned from the specialty car community by the bike community as a whole?"

    I don't see myself as a "car guy" as much as I see myself as a "MINI Cooper guy." Before discovering the MINI community, I would have considered myself, like most Americans, just a driver - getting from points A to B.

    I think with every category of interest, you'll find a core group of enthusiasts who will make that interest more than ubiquitous.

    If you look at driving cars as a whole, most Americans aren't enthusiasts. It's just a means for transportation.

    However, when you look at the muscle car guys, the "Fast N Furious" modders, the Jeep off-roaders, the low-riders, the monster truck nuts - you start to see folks with common interests building communities based on that interest.

    Personally, like with cars, I think it's great that cycling cultures of like-interest riders (i.e. Sports Bikers, Fixies, Vehicular Cyclists, etc.) have their communities to share common ideas. However, it seems like biking has become just that - pockets of like-minded enthusiasts that fraction and segregate cyclists into specific categories. This becomes further supported by the fact that many bike retailers cater to this separation of cycling categories. I've been 'profiled' a few times going into some bike stores. I don't like to be treated like a rookie if I'm looking at commuter bikes and not the high tech, super light road bikes or the full suspension MTBs.

    This makes it hard for folks who want to start (or get back into) biking to feel comfortable with "fitting in". IMO, this (among many other things) is one of the problems that hinders bicycling from becoming mainstream in the U.S.

    When we were kids, bikes were just bikes, and we just rode to have fun. I'm hoping that more folks can still have that perspective and can pick up riding just to have fun and not feel like they need to belong in a bike culture. Eventually, if want, they'll find their own.