Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Are We Cultured?

I started writing this terribly long post awhile ago. I have decided to leave it as is, unedited and rambling. Read it and continue the conversation in the comments, should you chose to accept the challenge. I am sure that you all have more to say that makes sense than I do!

I think it is time that we all started talking about "bicycle culture". It is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but I am not sure that anyone could actually define what it is if asked. Can you? I can't. There is a lot out there about adding to bicycle culture and creating bicycle culture and defending bicycle culture. There are whole blogs about it : ) but what do we mean when we say these things?

So today I thought about it. Having lived in San Francisco for the vast majority of my life I have been able to see what bicycling in the City has been like for the last few decades. When I was a kid in the 70's and early 80's it was just what everyone did in my little beach community. We all got around by bike or train or Mustang GT. We didn't think about it, we just did it. The bicycles were just part of the landscape, and unless they were 10 speed road bikes (which were sooooo cool) they were just bikes. We parked them outside of the corner store to get a soda, we rode them to the other end of the beach so our parents wouldn't see us smoking, we took them to the park to play ball. We only thought about them when they were stolen. Our parents used them as a means of not having to pick us up from anything.

By the time the mid-80's came around, something started to change. It became strange to ride a bicycle for any other purpose than competitive racing or to storm the dirt trails of any planted area you could find. This was the beginning of bicyclists as a fringe element. Whereas just 5 years before when you got on your old Schwinn to go to the library, now there was neon, lycra clothing and knobby tires and flat handle bars and a horror of anything practical like fenders or baskets or kickstands. We started wearing helmets that looked like toddler training potties. Of course, if all the riding we did was jumping over logs, then this wasn't so strange, but there was still that trip to the Park & Rec that needed to happen to take a cooking class. The only way to do it by bicycle had become a lycra, chamois, helmet experience and if we tried to do otherwise we were ridiculed and driven off the road.

This was the beginning of "bicycle culture". When we allowed ourselves to be easily pegged, and thus, marginalized by donning more gear than the guys on the Tour de France did just so we could ride along the beach in the summer. Those who rode a bicycle became a deliberately visible group, defined by the activity of riding and the accouterments that we put with it. We came to a collective agreement that unless you walked away from your bicycle dirty and exhausted that you were not a legitimate bicycle rider. We read magazines with articles about maximizing pedal stroke and how to shave grams and most of all, we became afraid of our bicycles.

By the early 90's we were all convinced that our bicycles would kill us if given half a chance. If we rode on a city street, we would be immediately struck down by a car. If we rode on the sidewalk we would get hit by a car pulling out of a driveway. It was indisputable. If we rode on a trail we would get thrown by every pothole or stick in the forest. If we did not wear a helmet, Satan would find us and it would be our own fault that we were dead. In response we became one of three types of riders- non-riders who looked at their bicycles in the garage and thought "I would ride it to the beach but...", weekend sport riders who drove their bikes to points of embarkation away from the crazy streets of death, or urban street warriors who would "live free or die". That was the next step of "bicycle culture". Those who didn't disappear became almost superhuman in the eyes of the non-cycling world (whether that was super-humanly stupid or super-humanly strong was up to the changing interpretation of society at the time).

The 90's were also the beginning of what we see in San Francisco, today. The 90's were the time of the bicycle messenger and the beginning of Critical Mass. While both were, and continue to be, somewhat controversial, they were nonetheless, the only non-sports related bicyclists any of us saw in San Francisco for a whole lotta years. They were almost all male, almost all young, almost all completely broke, and many of them were drawn to the drama of the daily fight for survival in streets that no longer welcomed any thing with less than 4 wheels and 150 horsepower. They looked nothing like the Bicycle Girls of Copenhagen. Hell, they didn't look like the Office Girls of the Financial District (remember the big hair and the skirt suits?). They were brash, confrontational, brave and fast and the people of San Francisco could only ever see them through the haze of bicycle fear that had engulfed the nation.

Until recently, this was the status quo of San Francisco. That has changed quite a bit. The people on the bikes look like the people walking on the sidewalk. The bicycles are no longer of the mountain type. More than that, there are lots of them. Everywhere. And they are all going to work or shopping or lunch or school...

Still, what is our current "culture"? I am not sure there is an answer to this question. There are so many different kinds of people riding and so many different kinds of groups that they could fit into that I do not think that there is a way to define it simply. Nor do I think it would be good to be able to do so. Back when just about every cyclist on the street was a kamikaze messenger we could define the culture very easily, and subsequently, very few people wanted to join in. Without firm definitions anyone can find a place.


  1. Good question.I think it's just swings and roundabouts and a growing realisation that the old way of doing things was probably the best. Lets hope it stays that way.



  2. Please for Christ sake help this poor boy from Haiti.

  3. Despite Portland being held up as the bicycle capital of the United States, bicycles are a hugely polarizing issue here. Just mention how bicyclists don't pay for roads, and you practically have online riots on the news sites, with people expressing how much they hope they have a chance to run over someone.

    We're still blaming people for not protecting themselves enough, and frankly, that might be getting worse.

    I hear people describe both Portland and Amsterdam as traffic anarchy - the difference is, in Amsterdam nobody follows the rules, they just make their way by watching out for everyone else. In Portland, nobody follows the rules or pays attention to anyone else.

    The so-called "bike community" spends a lot of time vilifying anyone who doesn't fit into it, fighting against road improvements, and killing a lot of the political momentum that would lead to improved conditions, along with politicians who love talking about bikes, and hate actually doing anything for them.

    The reality on most of our streets in the central city is that it's safe and easy to ride a bike, and a lot of people are doing it in normal clothes, on normal bikes, etc. But if we want to talk about culture as a whole, Portland is a mess, I think. Especially if you ever set foot in the political or media sphere. It can be very vitriolic.

    In my opinion, your description of your small town in childhood is what a "bicycle culture" is, if it is anything. A culture in which bicycles are used without being thought of. So, in essence, it really isn't anything. It's the absence of a culture, you might say.

  4. I should clarify that the comments about the "bike community" don't, of course, refer to everyone who is interested in bikes, but just the set who consider themselves "part of the posse" in a sense. There is a very inclusive set of kind of hard-core folks who want to make sure things turn out a certain way. Unfortunately, they talk loudly.

  5. er... exclusive, not inclusive - sorry, rough day for language :)

  6. Dave- I do not like to hear this! Do you think that some of it is about the growing pains of any movement that hasn't learned how to temper it's reactions yet?

    I think San Francisco benefitted in one very specific way from the injunction that prevented us from improving the infrastructure for bicycling here. Because all of us were forcibly kept out, there seems to be a very concerted effort to now bring everyone in. Will it stay this way? Hopefully! There is still a great deal of chatter in the "bikes don't pay their way, wear a helmet, stupid bunch of hipsters" community, and with the increase of younger riders who have never learned how to drive we get a lot of "cars suck and there is nothing good about them" junk. So far, in SF, we seem to be avoiding the worst of it.

  7. King County just raised the car tabs $20.00 to perserve transit, in Seattle, and the way people re-acted you would have thought someone murdered their dog. For whatever bizarre reason, a lot of people assume that if you are on a bicycle, you don't own a car. Well I have a car,( so my tabs went up $20, also) I just choose not to use it. btw I'm in my 50's and commute by bicycle to work and just about everywhere else.

  8. Whenever I find myself referring to "bike culture" in my blog I quickly delete it. I don't know that I want to be part of any special culture. I like the idea of being about to get on my bike to go where I want to go, wearing my regular clothes without anyone blinking an eye. It would be great if the majority of drivers anticipated that bicyclists would also be on the road and attend to everyone's safety. The Arizona Republic just published a back-to-school article about biking to school that I found particularly annoying. The writer seemed to perseverate on the dangers of biking and putting to owness on cyclist to be alert for "distracted drivers"! I'm not sure how defining bike culture does anything to lessen the hazards posed by drivers who are texting, putting on makeup, reading the newspaper, yelling at rowdy children or just speeding/driving recklessly. I think if I had to be a part of any culture it would be within a larger culture rooted in cooperation and respect for others. My brief bike experience in Portland actually seemed pretty nice. As it is, I live in Arizona . . . . (heavy sigh)

  9. Marge- we kicked a Governor out of office in California for messing with car fees. That's how we got Arnold! When I tell people I do not drive they think it means I can't. Not many people are able to independently envision a life where they are not dominated by cars (which sounds an awful lot like an abusive relationship to me).

    SRAB- They love to go after the fear factor with kids in the media! That is certainly part of an anti-bicycle culture which is just a sub-set of current car/dependence culture. Being in SF, where it is not abnormal to not own a car because of out transit system and small size, we don't have quite the level of anti-bicycle crap to deal with, but I sure have seen it in places like Arizona and it is ugly!

  10. It's iffy to analyze any culture from within, but man this is irresistable.
    My bicycle culture is that I get as excited seeing a 5% bodyfat dude on a 16 lb carbon fiber rocket, as I do seeing a middle aged guy in a tank top on a mtn bike dodering around the city, as I do seeing a nicely dressed woman getting around on a comfort bike, as I do seeing a grubby messenger on a fixie coming into my office building. I get excited when my kids putter endlessly looping up and down the driveway, and that I have enough random bikes around the house that when their friends come over, there's always something they can grab and join in. I get excited about salvaged trash night bikes that get wired and taped together and put on the road. I get excited when I see my neighbor lady heading out with the bike on the car to hit the bike trail, when I see a Latino dude heading to work on a bike, and when I see a guy delivering Chinese food downtown. When several of these folks occasionally intersect and ride together, and check out each others rides, and the lycra guy slows down a little to ride with the comfort bike lady, who pushes it a little faster than usual, mmm, mm. And when we all stop at a light and chat for a moment with an old black man who thinks that he might have to get himself a bike, that's my bike culture.

  11. BILL E - I'm with you man. I've been riding bikes since I was a few years old, and I've been through every derivation of "cyclist" since then. I just love bikes. I ride to work in my street clothes, on the road in lycra, and strap them to my car to hit the trails on the weekend. I go out for hours with a picnic and a camera. I just ride as much as possible - not because I'm trying to be a part of any certain niche within the "cycling community", but because I like to ride bikes. I need a few more :)

  12. Bill E: Well said! I know exactly what you mean: It's good to see bikes being used by people from all over. This morning, on my cycle in, I saw: An old guy cycling along the canal tow-path, a child (+ mum) on their way to school, a couple of whizzing lycra people, several people like me heading into work and three people cycling together, with bikes laden with rucksacks and tents, off to the hills.

    Edinburgh's "bike cultures" are booming, and it's only going to get better: Last summer's rise in cyclists didn't dwindle so much during the winter, and this spring it grew even further.

    Thanks for the blog and the thoughts!

    Happy cycling :)


  13. Great post, thoughtful. Cycling is making a comeback but it's not like the seventies-style bike culture you describe. Helmets and special bikeways are seen as a prerequisite. I think there's a tinge of panic to that. Or even morality, because people think that bikes simply don't belong on the road, as if the road really were a high-speed rail line or a landing strip at the airport.

    Sometimes I wonder why we can't just lower speed limits, remove some traffic lights and maybe put in some speedbumps. Raise the age limit for drivers' licenses. Relax the traffic and just get on with cycling.

    I'm not against bike lanes or anything, I just think the separation mantra has a tinge of panic to it. It's as if people won't think of cycling unless you put in a big lane or sidepath that says CYCLE LANE in big letters. That's a shame.