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The Though Kitchen - Dedicated to Stirring the Pot

more bikes!

Posted by Alex | August 10th, 2009 | Filed under Uncategorized

bike2Fresh from our cycling trip around The Netherlands, Rachael and I are realizing that we’ll have to re-adjust to riding back home.

Call it “bike culture shock.” After fourteen days spinning along dedicated bike paths, surrounded by a population for whom riding everywhere is just a matter of course, returning home meant breaking some new-and cherished-habits. Our helmets came out of closet. Our defensive posturing in traffic returned. And the streets of Portland, whose bike-friendly reputation we were happy to crow about just a few weeks ago, seemed to belong more in L.A. than the next great cycling metropolis.

On reflection, what quickly becomes clear is that while Portland has a vibrant bike culture, The Netherlands is a country in which bikes are just a part of the culture. And that distinction highlights real differences in how we approach buying bikes, riding bikes and building bike infrastructure.

Back home in Portland (and in some comments here on The Thought Kitchen), conversations about bicycling often revolve around the sport’s many sub-divisions: road vs. mountain, custom vs. mass produced, fixie vs. commuter. And while these cliques create a lot of texture for American cycling, they’re limiting in their conception of what cycling can be. What’s more, it can be intimidating when fitting in requires spandex or elbow pads, skinny jeans or a team jersey.

bike3In The Netherlands, where everybody rides, these subcultures do exist. But they’re swallowed up by the larger mass culture of the comfortable, understated steel bikes that serve one, utilitarian purpose: transportation. Sure, there are hipsters with short-billed caps and spandex-clad roadies on their race-fietsen. But take a stroll around the three-story bike-only parking garage outside Amsterdam’s central station, or pedal along with the rush-hour traffic in Maastricht, and you’ll see the markers of a bike culture that’s all-inclusive.

As communities search for solutions to their environmental, transportation and public health challenges, there’s a chance to begin reshaping our society and our infrastructure to give cycling more of an everyday role. Thinking this way requires recognizing that there’s room for all the different styles of riding we see on our streets-and many styles we don’t see yet. Fixies and cruisers, customs and mass-produced: we’ll need them all, along with upright steel bikes that your grandmother will love. More bikes means more riders, and that’s what will drive change.

7 Responses to “more bikes!”

  • August 11, 2009 at 4:15 am | Amsterdamize says

    hi Alex, happy to bump into your blog, a great read! When you ever get back here (Amsterdam), drop me a line, happy to ride/drink a beer/show you stuff off the beaten track ;).


  • August 11, 2009 at 12:59 pm | Liz says

    Ah, reminds me of my bicycling years in China….a part of the culutre. My future husband & I loved nothing more than to ride like the locals; he pedaling & I sitting on the rack on the back with legs crossed at the ankles, flexing my abs to balance the bike & riding amidst the throng in the car sized bike lanes of Beijing.

    Enjoyed the blog thoughhts and comments & agree. The Portland Bridge Pedal article in the Oregonian shed light on this too when one interviewee looked down to figure out what brand of bike she was riding. It didn’t matter; it was just great to be out there pedalling where the cars usually rule.

  • August 11, 2009 at 1:39 pm | Ethan says

    I agree that more bikes would be helpful but there are some very real practical issues at stake as well. If you don’t live in large town or city it can be quite hard to get the normal items you need on a day to day basis. This coupled with America’s “car culture” as the car is part of culture in the US. I’m not sure what would cause a sea change in the attitudes of the American people towards cycling but I do think there are changes happening. An increased consciousness of our impact on the environment, an epidemic of obesity, and more people finding the idea of living without the very high expense of a car appealing, is making way for a groundswell of support for cycling. Advocacy is key. People need to get involved and to push for changes to their towns and cities that will make cycling more practical and safe. Bike lanes, trails and other infrastructure need to be put in place. Laws need to be made that eliminate the sometimes fuzzy legal area a cyclist is in when involved in a collision with a motor vehicle. Education of the public and of public servants also needs to take place. In terms of cyclist’s rights and in terms of cycling safely. “More bikes” will sit in people’s garages like so many of them already do, more bike lanes, trails, and education will give people the space and the tools they need to make use of the bikes they already have.

  • August 13, 2009 at 5:30 am | undercover bob says

    okay, I’ve been looking for a place to vent this for some time now.

    I commute almost 80 miles round trip every day in Los Angeles. I’m not a messenger. I’m a filmmaker and I spend long hours in front of a computer during post production. If it wasn’t for my commute, I’d waste away. Of course, this routine started in response to a summer of touring italy by bicycle and refusing to accept the bicycle culture shock I experienced upon my return to the states.

    The clash between car culture and bike culture in this area is far more important than the distinction between different types of cyclists. It is a conflict of one-sided ignorance. A staggering majority of motorists here simply cannot FATHOM the concept of cycling as a mode of transportation. Through many frustrating attempts at conversation on the topic, I’ve found that the biggest problem is the motorists inability to relate to the cyclist. Looking like wannabe superheroes in alien textiles does not promote a healthy foundation of empathy from motorists and that empathy is the very basis of our survival as cyclists on automobile-dominated streets.

    The solution: put their own image on the bicycle. When I dress like a normal person (not cycling-specific), I am afforded more courtesy on the road and motorists tend to communicate with me in a more polite and tolerant manner. Over the past year, my confident shorts and m1 shirt have been worn several days a week and while spandex warriors have trouble taking me seriously (surprisingly not a problem with full-face helmet mountain bikers), the rest of the world has shown me more respect, patience, and appreciation than ever before. This includes everyone from police officers who (suddenly started) coming to my aid during traffic altercations to the guy in front of me in line at starbucks. It’s as if everyone sees me as someone they can relate to as opposed to a fanatical member of one of the branches of the cult of bike.

    Since starting this experiment of being the “everyman cyclist” I’ve singlehandedly converted over 30 people from primary motorists to regular cyclists, 12 of whom are now dedicated commuters. I still can’t do much to make the spandex warriors feel like I’m one of them… but I show up to their cat4 races in my confident shorts and m1 shirt anyway and sometimes I even give them a good whooping to boot.

    Can we please have more merino shorts/pants with gusseted crotch that look like “normal people” clothing? My confident shorts and confident pants are nearly darned to death from so much wear. Oh… and while I’m at it… anybody got a good idea for how to make decent pants that don’t get anywhere near the chain when I’m riding and don’t need to be rolled incessantly? Zip-off shorts never look right and adding a button to secure them sorta ruins the “normal” look. Oh, and thanks NAU for all the awesome multi-purpose, cycle-friendly clothing!

  • August 13, 2009 at 5:16 pm | Amy says

    whoa undercover bob … impressive! thinking in the thought kitchen again are we?

    yay for bikes

  • August 14, 2009 at 9:27 am | Alex says

    Thanks, everyone, for the thoughtful responses. It’s great to see that these ideas tap into so much energy.

    Ethan, I completely agree that more bike lanes, trails and education are key to helping to make cycling mainstream in American culture. But it’s a bit of the chicken and the egg question of which comes first: the infrastructure to make people feel safe and secure biking, or the cyclists to create the political pressure to build that infrastructure? I believe we’ll need more people to start considering cycling as ‘normal’ first, and I think Bob’s comment really points toward what I was getting at.

    Of course it’s not just the bikes. It’s the clothes, the gear, and the overall attitude that every cycling sub-culture projects that creates this disconnect between the mainstream (drivers) and cyclists.(Incidentally, it’s also what makes videos like “Performance” so funny http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vn29DvMITu4). Most folks making Bob’s commute (and plenty of people with much shorter commutes) would get dressed up in the full-on commuter uniform that, to the average person, just looks over the top. I too put an M1 shirt and pair of Confidant Shorts to good use, and on this trip it was a relief to be able to hop off the bike in a city and walk into a museum without being ‘that guy’ in multi-color spandex.

    So I think we all need to do what we can to call for more infrastructure and education (join the BTA! http://www.bta4bikes.org/ write a letter to your mayor/governor/assembly person! get involved!), but we also need to take steps, like Bob, that create a mainstream and relateable cycling culture and which go a long way toward getting more cyclists out on the road.

  • August 18, 2009 at 3:59 pm | brian says

    Amen undercover. Great insight on your experiment. I’m right there with you with and LA to Long Beach commute (75 round trip), but sadly only twice a week. I’ll give this a try and see how it works as I’ve had my share of run ins of the same sort recently.

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