27 February 2009

Ring That Bell!

Copenhagen Bike Bell

One of our readers, Bob Allen, offered us this lovely article for publication here on Copenhagenize.com. It was originally published over at Sustainable Times but it fits perfectly in here. Thanks, Bob. On an editorial note, the bicycle bell is required by law in Denmark.

Bicycling For the Rest of Us - Ring That Bell! by Bob Allen.
There was no pleasing the boss at a bicycle shop I worked for years ago. I could sell one of the most expensive bicycles in the place and come off the sales floor to be greeted by a scowl.

Selling a bicycle, even an expensive one, was never enough. You had failed unless you also made sure the bicycle rolled out of the shop bristling with accessories. “Sell bells!” the shop owner would exhort.

Accessories offer a much better profit margin than bicycles. Bicycles don’t have much markup. After paying shipping costs and investing significant time to properly assemble and adjust a machine, financing overhead expenses and the time spent finding a buyer for the thing, it’s a wonder many bicycle shops can keep their doors open.

Many could not survive without the profit generated by their service departments and accessory sales. And herein lies a conundrum.

Bicycling is inherently simple. All you really need is a bicycle. You don’t need fancy add-ons. You don’t need special clothing. All you need is a bicycle and the will to make it move.

In providing a dazzling array of doodads, the bicycle industry is indeed creating potential profits for local bicycle shops. But it also is making a simple thing seem more complicated than it needs to be.

Does this discourage potential riders? I suspect that anything that makes riding a bicycle seem more out of the ordinary than it already is perceived to be might be counterproductive. If, for example, people feel they need to get fully kitted out in the latest bicycling attire before venturing out, how many actually venture out? How many fewer bicycles get sold if people think buying a bicycle means equipping an entire new lifestyle?

Without question, high tech clothing designed specifically for bicycling can help a serious or competitive rider go faster and farther in greater comfort. But for the rest of us, everyday clothing works just fine.

Civilian clothes are better, in fact, if you are riding someplace where you will end up mingling with non-riders. There’s just something about wandering around in clickity shoes and bright tight Spandex that makes one stand out in a crowd.

There are many useful things that can be added to the basic bicycle. Baskets, racks and bags make it possible to bring home the groceries or carry an extra layer of clothes for changes in weather.
Old Bell
Fenders or mudguards can keep a rider caught in the rain a bit more comfortable while keeping debris off the bicycle. Lights can stretch riding time and are especially useful given the short daylight hours of a Wisconsin winter. A good lock is advisable for any bicycle left exposed to the criminal elements. A few basic tools can help keep you going out on the road.

And bells, ah bells. The old bicycle shop owner was right on this one. But it’s not about ringing cash register bells. A good bell is a civilizing addition to any bicycle. Not necessary, but nice.

None of these add-ons is necessary for traveling around on a bicycle. I just took a perfectly comfortable 20-mile ride with temperatures in the high 30s wearing the kind of plain old clothes that allowed me to blend right into the crowd of bluegrass fans at my destination.

If you have a good coat, or enough layers, and some good gloves or mittens, a warm scarf – essentially what you need to get through a Wisconsin winter anyway – you have all the clothing you need to ride a bicycle in the winter. Summer, of course, is easy. Ride as you are.

Rejection of bicycling-specific clothing is a first step toward reining in the “otherness” of bicycle riders. This simple stance rises to high fashion at the fabulous Danish web site www.copenhagencyclechic.com. The site’s curators have the curious belief that the everyday act of riding a bicycle doesn’t require you to look like a space alien. In fact, they chronicle example after example of ordinary people looking quite marvelous while riding bicycles.

Copenhagen, of course, is a city where bicycles are more ingrained in the culture than here in the upper Middle West. Bicycles seem to move freely throughout Copenhagen without many of the dreary little controversies that stalk two-wheelers here.

Many of these stateside controversies seem to be stoked by an “us versus them” mentality -- drivers versus bicyclists -- bicyclists versus pedestrians. When “us and them” blend, it’s much harder to point fingers.

Of course, it’s not so simple. Some of the finger pointing, even the middle finger, can seem well deserved if you are the offended party.

Some drivers subject riders to needless danger through inattention or malicious intent. These road hogs don’t understand that bicycle riders have an equal right to the road. Likewise, too many bicycle riders don’t realize that along with that right guaranteed by law comes an obligation to follow that law.

And even well intended and otherwise polite riders sometimes seem oblivious to how the simple act of breezing by a pedestrian on a trail can startle the heck of the unsuspecting biped.

And here is where the simple bell saves the day. A bell allows a rider to announce his or her approach in a gracious, non-threatening way. A nice bell gives the kind of cheery warning to a pedestrian that is almost always appreciated. I have a beautiful little brass bell on my three-speed that sustains its note for seven seconds. It could double as a call to meditation. I’ve even had people complement me on the sweet tone of this bell.

Contrast such warmth and appreciation with the reaction of somebody who has just been startled by a bicycle silently swooshing by at speed. The startled pedestrian probably doesn’t feel very warmly toward bicycle riders at that moment.

Communication works wonders, and it is not limited to rider-walker interactions. It is also a common courtesy, though often overlooked, for a faster rider to alert a slower rider who is being overtaken. A bell isn’t necessary for communicating with pedestrians or other riders. A simple announcement of “passing on your left” will do. But there’s something about a bell that makes the interaction sound more pleasant and less like a declaration of dominance.

Communication is not just common courtesy. It’s the basis of safe riding in traffic of any kind. While a little bell won’t help a rider in dealing with motorists, clear hand signals and riding in a predictable straight line – in other words not making the motorist guess -- will make sharing the road much more pleasant for all involved.

A simple bell will not change the world and make lions lie down with lambs. But the courtesy of using a bell -- or hand signals, or the directional signals in your motor vehicle -- surely can’t hurt. It’s a start.

Bob Allen has been riding, working on and advocating bicycles for a long time. He lives in Middleton.

For more bicycle bell photos, have a look at my Flickr photostream here.


Christopher said...

Lovely bell, just like those teapots and other whimsical ones in the photo stream. That's the kind of accessory that makes biking more accessible and fun!

Unfortunately, some kinds of accessories are either not obligatory here in North America, or if they are legally required, a bike still does not have to be sold with them. For example, in Quebec cyclists must by law have a white front light and red rear light when cycling at night, but since bikes may be sold without lights, most night riders you see (one you CAN see them, that is) ride around without lights. (But, to make themselves safe, with helmets.)

Here's an interesting rant about the US Consumer Products Safety Commission that appeared in an email I got just as I was looking at this page:


The fairly completely documented method by which the CPSC managed to
come up with a "reflectivity 'safety' standard" for bicycles is
downright ludicrous, and the fact that cycling organizations have
never, despite several attempts, been able to get this "safety"
organization to mandate lights for night riding, puts the CPSC
beneath contempt. The CPSC was heavily pressured by the bicycle
manufacturing industry to approve a low cost, low impact "safety"
standard, and it did. Thousands of cyclists have been maimed and
killed since in the name of expedience.

It's gotten so bad that almost all mass-market bikes have a decal
that advises that the bike is "not designed for riding at night" -
this is because the manufacturers and importers have come to realize
that standards compliance is *not* an adequate substitute for
reasonable knowledge, and that WallyWorld is *not* providing any
knowledge when Joe & Jane Sixpack walk out the door with their new
"commuter" bikes.

Now if only we could get the CPSC to force a recall of Hummers...

Adrienne Johnson said...

I have a bell similar to the one written about in the article- brass, sounds like a meditation bell. When it is parked, people always come up to my bike and ring my bell. They just can't help themselves. There have been many times when I have arrived at my bike to find someone blushing over the fact that they were completely compelled to ring my bell.

henryinamsterdam said...

At our two shops in Amsterdam the majority of "accessories" are for adapting bikes to carry children of various ages: child seats, windscreens and canopies, infant carriers, foot protectors, buggy carriers etc.

The other substantial category are accessories to carry things: panniers, front carriers and plastic crates.

And almost every bike leaves the shop with a very strong chain lock.

All of our bikes are already equipped with lights, fenders, carriers, parking stand, lock and other standard things that are simply considered part of a bike in the Netherlands.

We sell almost nothing with the sole purpose of personalization or making the more attractive, nor does there seem to be any interest in such accessories.

Just a perspective from your neighbors to the south.

George said...

Why on earth these things (bells, lights, chainguards) are not standard equipment is beyond me. You wouldn't buy a car and then pay extra to install lights, would you?

Kevin Love said...

I lived in Middleton for 12 years as a child. And from the age of 8 onwards rode my bicycle to school. As did most of my classmates. The ones who didn't were close enough to walk. The number that were driven by their parents was zero.

Somewhere I still have my metal "Town of Middleton" bicycle license plate.

Cian said...

close-up shot of my bell...


Bells are required by law here in Ireland too. Our 'Rules of the Road' reads: "Your brakes, tyres, chain, lights, reflector and bell must all be in good working order".

lagatta à montréal said...

I have never understood the number of cyclists (some helmeted) I see after sundown without lights. Especially now that we have the little bur bright so-called "turtle lights" that are so easy to carry about and put on and remove - if not, they do get stolen.

What on earth good is a bicycle that can't be used after dark? I'm not really a night rider, but for much of the year, it gets dark after one's working day.

I bought my bell and my Dutch panniers for a few euros at an Amsterdam street market.