21 July 2009

Surprisingly Positive

It's safe to say that the bicycle has been back on the media radar in many countries for a year or so. Invariably this simple transport form is subject to endless whippings due to misconceptions. Safety fanatics babble on, wishing we were all just as afraid as they are. Motorists rant about cyclists in letters to the editors and in comment columns. You often get the feeling that cycling is the nigga' of the transport world in many peoples eyes. Four decades of oppression... let my people go...

Generally, the journalists who write about the bicycle don't appear to have a clue what they're writing about, choosing often to portray the bicycle as the domain of "enthusiasts" or "hobby cyclists", because that's what they're used to seeing when they look out their windows. The growing numbers of regular citizens using the bicycle to get around their cities are often referred to as 'newbies' or 'amateurs'.

How condescending. How ridiculous. It's just riding a bicycle. The fine athletes riding in the Tour de France these days are no better at riding a bicycle than you or I. They're better at propelling them at speed in race conditions, sure, but I can't see how they're better at the simple act of riding a bike.

We're all equal. I used to see former racing cyclist, Brian Holm, every day. His son attended the same kindergarten as my boy and he would either roll up on the family's Nihola cargo bike or on his own basic city bike when delivering his son. Although he did drive the boy quite often, too. Anyway, Brian Holm is now the director for Team Columbia, currently enjoying success in the Tour.

I'd lose a race against a former pro if we were on racing bikes :-) but that's about it. On the bike lanes or streets we're equals. We can all watch out for traffic, assess risk, turn left and right. It's not a competition, it's interaction with our city. Although a pro may not fare so well in a 'urban bike transport competition' against a Copenhagen supermum - cycling with kid on the back seat, two bags of groceries dangling on the handlebars and dressed in heels and a mini-skirt.

I love watching cycle sport and a summer without the Tour on the telly is unimaginable. I had posters of Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon on my walls as a boy and tried to emulate them when I was racing. The Tour is the world's hardest sports event and the athleticism and drama are awe-inspiring. But it's not about the bicycle, it's the sportsmen. A carpenter with crappy tools can build just as fantastic a house than one with a full arsenal of expensive tools. The Tour is human drama.

Everyday cycling is human, too. It is public domain. It belongs to each and every one of us. Just as the cities in which we live do. Encouraging people to ride bicycles in the city, to work or the supermarket, should be a priority.

Funny thing is, it's not all about the bicycle, to be honest. The gearheads wish it were, but it's not. The bicycle - and bicycle infrastructure - is merely a fantastic tool for creating more liveable cities.

If you put in bicycle lanes, the number of pedestrians increases along that stretch. The lanes not only benefit those citizens who wish to cycle but they act as traffic calming. More cyclists and pedestrians on a stretch of street increase the attractiveness of the stretch. Property values rise. Businesses flourish. What a fantastic tool indeed.

I wasn't actually planning to write all this. The point was that after reading negative or uninformed media coverage about the bicycle for over a year it was refreshing, shocking, amazing to read this piece in The Irish Times by John Gibbons:

Cyclists Unite - You have nothing to lose but your chains.

It was such a suprising piece that I had to re-read it twice to make sure there wasn't any of the usual negativity. There wasn't.

"The seemingly irreversible long-term decline of the bicycle may at last have been arrested.

Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey clearly thinks so. His department published the first ever National Cycle Framework Policy (NCFP) earlier this year. Dempsey aims to have 10 per cent of all commuting done by bike in 2020. What’s equally clear is that a multiplicity of factors killed off the bike, and only what the NCFP calls “strong interventions” can reverse these.

A major roadblock is the persistent notion that cycling is dangerous. The British Medical Association calculates that its health benefits far outweigh any hazards cyclists face on the road.

A Danish study found 40 per cent lower premature mortality rates among adult cyclists than their car-bound counterparts.

Read it for yourself. It's refreshing. It's true. It's the way forward.


Just a cyclist said...

Everyday utility cyclists will always beat hardcore cycling athletes in one area: considering the bicycle to be a practical means of transport.

Erik Sandblom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Erik Sandblom said...

I was just thinking about how now might be the first time in recent history that governments and individuals alike see bicycling as desirable, even in places where there is a lot of cycling. Portland bike shop owner Todd Fahrner was in Beijing, China in 2006 and noted zillions of cyclists, but just a single one that took "joy or pride in bicycles or bicycling".

It seems to me that even in Europe, many towns have high cycling levels but still don't promote it as consistently as Amsterdam or Copenhagen do. Maybe you need a big city for people to grasp what a great tool bicycling is to combat problems like congestion, noise, health, etc.

I'd even call it bicycle illiteracy. Years ago I made friends with another guy who gets around by bike, and he suggested we bike to Ikea. I thought he was nuts, it was way too far -- all those knee-jerk reactions many people have to cycling for transport. It turned out to be a lovely ride on side roads, a fine day out and a nice contrast to the idle consumption of suburban mall life.

So even if the bicycle traffic is right there in front of you, it's not certain people will "get it". Even I didn't get it without a little push in the right direction.

Niall said...

missed that article when it was out, thanks for the reminder,

as one of the 23,600 kids who cycled to school in eighties, it brings back great memories.
however i agree with your comments about 'amateur' cycling, no one ever calls people amateur motorists, but few could give Michael Schumacher a run for their money

Anonymous said...

Good post but I do have to disagree with you on one point:"The fine athletes riding in the Tour de France these days are no better at riding a bicycle than you or I". There are not many people that can hurtle down a mountain pass at speed, even a copenhagen mother ;-).


Mikael said...

I actually wrote "They're better at propelling them at speed in race conditions, sure, "

Anonymous said...

Ah yes but if I had put in the full quote I would not have been able to give a good enough reason to put a link in for a fantastic example of bike handling :-)

Anonymous said...

"You often get the feeling that cycling is the nigga' of the transport world in many peoples eyes. Four decades of oppression... let my people go..."

Wait a second... Am I seriously the only person who finds this kind of problematic?

BG said...

Anonymous 17:41, yes, it's problematic, but forgive the Alberto-Danes -- they know not what they do.

One thing they _do_ know, though -- but they just keep denying -- is that outside of those 15 bike-friendly cities, riding a bike in traffic _does_ take some skill. No more nor less skill than driving a car, mind you -- but most cities do not have biking schools, bikers' ed classes in high school, or biking licenses. Most people in my town can't figure out how to change lanes for a left turn. Seriously. They need some training, but it's mostly unavailable.

Mikael said...

Fortunately, many people in Emerging Bicycle Cultures have driving licences, so they are not completely lost.

It may take more skill to speed recklessly through traffic giving the finger to cars than to do what most people do - ride at normal speeds, taking it easy and taking care.

lagatta à montréal said...

Your post is wonderful. The Irish Times comment piece is almost so, but it has a serious shortcoming towards the end - the writer seems influenced by those baneful "vehicular cycling" types who seem common in some parts of the English-speaking world.

Quote: "The other great enemy of road safety is speed. In order for cyclists to use roads safely (many, including Road Safety Authority chairman Gay Byrne, object to cycle lanes, which are often badly designed and maintained) we need to reduce the urban speed limit to 30km/h".

I agree with him about traffic-calming, and our residential street speed limits have been reduced to 30km/h. But I agree with the worlds's top cycling cities, and with your blog, that the development of a well-designed and well-integrated network of bicycle lanes is key to the tipping point of bicycle use.

Rachel S said...

Here in Derby I'm involved in extending and improving our cycling infrastructure in the hope of increasing cycling journeys. We're aiming our efforts at the utility and emerging cyclist and trying to provide cycle links between suburbs and to amenities like schools, parks, shops as well as routes along arterial routes into/out of the city centre.

I would love to be in the same league as York and Cambridge.

On a more personal level, my husband is a racing cyclist and a commuting cyclist often doing both elements in the one day. Yes, he does both in lycra but he's out there come rain or shine. He does this for the environment, his health (he has a rheumatic condition and cycling keeps him well) but mainly because he loves cycling

Mikael said...

When the citizens of Copenhagen are asked why they choose the bicycle, 54% say they do it because it's easy and fast.
19% say they do it because it's good exercise.
1% say that do it for environmental reasons.

If you want activate the masses, make it safe with bike lanes, and easy and fast by making those lanes actually go places that people go.

Kim said...


In the city I live in, which hasn't even got a cycling culture yet (although we are working on it), we teach children in primary school how to cycle on the roads...

Melbourne Cyclist said...

That's a great article, thanks for posting, has improved my day!

Anonymous said...

@ JaC

As the hard core motor sports enthusiasts do not consider the automobile to be a practical means of transport.


Anonymous said...

"They're better at propelling them at speed in race conditions, sure, but I can't see how they're better at the simple act of riding a bike."

Hilarious. Get out of the world of copenhaganize and ride some alpine roads. You'll know where the "betterness" comes from.

Ron said...

Not sure what your rant is about. You contrast vehicles to cars, then you saw Copenhagen moms can beat Tour de France pro's in riding on the streets out there. You need soem sleep bro. Leave the blog for a min.

Mikael said...

I used to race alpine roads. Loved it.

Rant? You're calling this a rant? That's great. Did you actually read the post?

Try and pay attention people. Or maybe I should post more photos to make it easier for some readers.

BG said...

Oh come on, Mikael -- you know very well that I'm not talking about anything involving weaving, reckless speed, or erect digits. And sure, it would be great to Copenhagenize the planet. I'm working on it at least as hard as you are. But until that happens, the reality most people face will be different from yours. You shouldn't criticize them for describing the real conditions of their communities, rather than pretending that they're in Copenhagen when they're not.

Kim: sounds like you're far ahead. Here, they take primary-school kids out into a parking lot and tell them _not_ to cycle on the roads.