23 March 2010

Down With "Avid Cyclists"

Red Light Moments
This is an article by a Guest Writer, invited to post here on Copenhagenize.com. Michael Druker has a great blog entitled Psystenance - Sustainability through the mind's eye and he wrote this article a few days ago. I fancied inviting him to allow me to post it here, and he kindly obliged.

Down With "Avid Cyclists"
As if it wasn’t enough that we scare people away from cycling with our exclusively car-oriented infrastructure and even a socially constructed fear of cycling, we also do it by marginalizing cycling as something done only by the kind of people who cycle. Make a mental count of how often you’ve seen news reports or commentary refer to “avid cyclists”, and the number of times you might have used this term yourself.

Banish “avid cyclist” from your vocabulary. Self-marginalizing language like this is why we can’t have nice infrastructure.

By using and condoning the use of this term, we help reinforce our tendency to neglect the impact of the situation and over-attribute behavior to characteristics of the person. In other words, labelling those who willingly cycle as “avid cyclists” is a way of setting aside the difficult and interesting problem of how to make our cities conducive to cycling — in favor of the easy story of cycling as something “other”, as something done by people who aren’t normal. Why bother making the city a better place to cycle if the only people who will do it are the ones who are already cyclists? Why waste city money on them?

Note the division into us (normal people) and them (avid cyclists). Never the twain shall meet. Is that true? No, it is not.

I claim that in most North American cities, while you will find many people riding a bicycle for utility/transportation, most people who cycle are hardly avid. Do they cycle in the dark? Do they always cycle on the road? Do they cycle in any part of the city? At any time of year? The answers are an emphatic no. And the reason is that the majority are cycling when the situation makes it easy and attractive for the person who considers the possibility. Avid cyclists should be resilient cyclists, but actual North American cyclists are fickle. With their recreational bikes and the poor infrastructure they have access to, they are fair-weather, back-roads cyclists.

Some places seem so far into the motor kingdom that cycling as transportation appears patently absurd to many. Thus, to brave the unfriendly conditions, cyclists must be avid — doing it as a sport, as exercise, to prove a point. Yet this describes fewer places than you think. I know it absolutely doesn’t describe Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, however “avid cyclist” still seems to be the mindset here.

There is a poignant irony in the number of obituaries a search for “avid cyclist” turns up. If instead of marginalizing cycling, we facilitate it through infrastructure and encourage regular people to ride, fewer people will die on the roads and those who cycle will be healthier for doing so. We need to free cycling from the shackles of recreation. We need to get utility bicycles into our bike stores. And instead of the conversation being about cyclists, we need to make it about regular people taking advantage of the two-wheel mobility available to them — because it is effective and enjoyable.


James D. Schwartz said...

Nice to see a Canadian perspective on here Mikael. Canada is one place that could use a little bit of Copenhagenizing... and soon!

Thanks for the great write-up Michael!

Over the last 3 or so years here in Toronto, I have seen a shift from commuter cycling being more of an "avid cyclist" activity, to being a normal "average Joe" activity.

We still have a long way to go, but things are definitely changing.

Last week I worked from home one day and saw dozens of helmet-less "Cycle Chic" style women on the popular cruiser bikes that have become ever so popular here in Toronto.

Adrienne Johnson said...

I have found that the term "avid cyclist" is usually used in the same way people will say "I have black friends". It is usually embedded in a statement that goes-

Don't get me wrong. I am an avid cyclist, but I don't think we should have bike lanes there. I drive there all the time and bikes would just get in the way.

Jimm said...

Great article! Now I have another blog to keep track of! :)

Borntoolate said...

I think the trade has a lot to answer for here, and to contribute to the solutions too.
When a regular guy or gal has a fancy to get a bike, they go take a look in their local bike shop. What do they see? @Avid cyclists' showing them that they need to transmogrify themselves into some alien creature in order even to think about participating in 'our sport'. instead of convenient, user-friendly transportation, they encounter impractical race or offroad bikes, which are difficult to ride comfortably, have nowhere to carry stuff, and of course, look like 'sports equipment'. The staff are often condescending, target-driven, and too much into their own egos to be of any help. In fact many people wishing for a practical bike are made to feel ingnorant, as though all this stuff they have read on the net, is just ridiculous 'green-hippy' nonsense. This, translated, means that they havcent got what the customer wants so they will force upon them what they do have, and what they do have is based upon the shop's image of itself, not on the customers' needs.
As long as potential cyclists (by which I mean almost everyone) are given the impression that cycling is a 'sport' for 'sports people', they will remain in their cars, and the infrastructure will remain dangerous and inhospitable.

BikeBike said...

Things are changing in other Canadian cities besides Toronto. And to be fair, there are bike shops across the land that are focused (or focusing) on utilty bikes. A partial list for ya -

Winnipeg - Natural Cycle
Saskatoon - City Park Cycle
Edmonton - Redbike
Calgary - BikeBike
Vancouver - Rain City

...Canadian cities are seeing increasing numbers of casual cyclists and more will come as conditions permit. Having a LBS that has transportation bikes/gear is definitely part of the equation.

Borntoolate said...

That's great for Canada (I subscribe to Momentum, so I've seen the culture developing) but here in the UK, we are still stick in the late 20th century.
You might thing, being only a ferry-ride from Holland, that we would have a European cyclin culture here, but sadly that only exists in niches, cites like York and Cambridge, and trendy patches of London.
We are slowly getting some, mostly badley-designed, bits of infrastructure in the UK, but even our National Cycle Network is appalling, with access barriers forbidding entry to all but solo, trailerless bicycles.
Still, my wife is from Mexico City, which could be cyclists paradise, but is one of the most terrifying places to cycle, so we are not too badly off by comparison!

kfg said...

"Note the division into us (normal people) and them (avid cyclists). Never the twain shall meet. Is that true? No, it is not."

You are correct, it is not. As illustration go to any magazine stand and move on over to the car section and note the many, many publications aimed at - avid drivers.

And it is these avid drivers who have always been in the forefront of promoting, even demanding, a motoring culture.

I understand the point you are trying to make and don't entirely disagree with it, but I do not entirely agree with the way you said it either.

However, I'll make an interesting observation that is supportive of your point anyway:

Avid drivers in North America almost all read Car & Driver on a fairly regular basis (as well as some other magazine that specializes in their particular niche automotive enthusiasm).

Back in the day avid cyclists in North America all read Bicycling magazine. In fact, nearly all of them were subscribers.

Now I do not know a SINGLE person who I would personally call an "avid" cyclist who reads Bicycling, except, perhaps, as an occasional exercise in deriding it.

So SOMETHING has definitely gone wrong 'round these parts.

Herzog said...

Amusingly, I ride a bike exclusively, don't own a car, don't plan to own a car, but I read Car and Driver religiously!

Grant said...

Mr. Drucker's point that we should not be needlessly alienating potential bike riders with labels is well taken. Be careful, though, that you don't in turn alienate those who choose to label themselves as "avid cyclists." The dictionary defines avid as "marked by keen interest and enthusiasm." In the U.S. we can use all of the enthusiasm we can muster. After all, it was "avid motorists" who have demanded changes to infrastructure and vehicle codes to create our car-centric culture. To see avidity in action, attend a meeting of your local advocacy organization, or municipal planning board. The people willing to devote their energy and resources into making bikes more acceptable are likely "enthusiasts" or even "avid." Their efforts pave the way, often literally, for our success.

The last thing that the cycling movement in the U.S. needs is factions. We should strive to be inclusive at both ends of the riding spectrum, from neophytes to casual riders to commuters and, yes, enthusiasts.

Anonymous said...

Oh Borntoolate - you couldn't be more right about the bike shops! Before I knew about utility bikes, just two years ago, I tried to explain to my bike shop that I disliked derailleur gears (or 'gears' as I called them without knowing any other kind), when I was informed my problem was just 'user error' and that I should look at the size of his calves (apparently evidence of his bike knowledge) and buy the road bike with clipless pedals he was trying to sell me. So glad I waited and learned - and ultimately bought a dutch bike. While I love that bike, who knows where I would have landed with a varied selection of utility bikes . . . Mod Squad bikes here in New York is the closest I've seen since, but I don't know of a true utility bike shop here.

Borntoolate said...

Ahh, I'm so glad to hear that you waited. For North Americans, Momentum magazine is a good starter and reference, and the advertisers are worth a look, and also worth supporting too.

chris said...

Don't you think the "eco friendly and green" tags often associated with cycling also have the same marginalizing effect? Cycling should be done for cyclings sake and not tied to some cause or other as justification.
I ride almost every day either pootling to the shops on my Dutch bike or having a longer blast on my race bike. I don't ride to save the planet or to spread the word, I do it because it makes me smile.

Glenn Trimblke said...

I've never heard of someone who drives to work every day being described as an "avid motorist".

Green Idea Factory said...

I would think that the overwhelming majority of people who mostly use "cars" (inappropriately-used automobiles) for transport are "passive drivers": The infrastructure, peer-pressure, spatial situation etc. makes alternatives difficult.

For me the definition depends on the context: For a presentation I gave at Velo-City in 2007 I said "I am not a cyclist. I am an intermodalist" but mostly I would say I am a person, and if someone asks.. yes I have (use of)a bike.

(I have suggested to their board president that the European Cyclists Federation split their urban and tourism-oriented things into two things.)

BUT also the vast majority of people who get around town without a private car are simply "angels".

I worked for the United States Census in 2000: We filled in answers based on self-identification.

Kaid@NRDC said...

Thank you, Grant. I've been thinking the same thing. I am both a professional advocate for the same things Druker seeks, *and* an avid cyclist who rides (a lot) for fitness and sport. The post annoyed the hell out of me.

His heart is unquestionably in the right place, but that particular phrase is hardly the problem. Don't ban it; just use it properly, OK?

psystenance said...

It's worth repeating part of a reply I wrote in my blog to a self-identified "avid cyclist":

I don’t wish to demonize legitimate cycling enthusiasts. My point is that people who cycle are not “avid” by default, and should not be assumed to be such; this assumption is the target of my post. The reason to try to change the perception of cycling away from something done only by the devoted is that it makes it seem much more accessible as a mode of transportation to the regular person. And that is important for large-scale shifts in modal choice, particularly away from the car.

-Michael D

Anonymous said...

Even more insidious in the US is the fact that a lot of people who complain about urban cyclists preface their comments by saying that they too are 'avid cyclists'.

I understand this to mean that they are weekend recreational cyclists who during the week are conducting such important business by motor vehicle that it infuriates them to be slowed down for a fraction of a second by a person who has the temerity to cycle in the city.

MrRevolution said...

If folks are serious about moving away from the pigeonhole of cycling as "recreation", then why don't they take a deeper look at local logistics and see how pedal power, paired with freight rail, can address commercial, retail, and industrial requirements, as well? Revolution Rickshaws in NYC revrickshaws.com works with companies to optimize their local logistics requirements. The more people invest in pedal power, rail power, horse power, and people power - including hidden supply chain investment, where gas guzzling is most insidious - the more we will take back our homes, towns, and states.

Becky T said...

I thought I was an avid cyclist, too. But to call myself one, rather than simply 'a cyclist' is nothing more than creating a sense of smug superiority. We're all cyclists -- people who like the freedom and flexibility of a bike -- we only exist in different flavours. But even that isn't enough: 'I don't always want to look like a cyclist' I'll bleat, but that is one phrase I imagine is seldom heard in Copenhagen. In a city or a country where just about everyone is a cyclist at one time or another, it simply doesn't matter.