13 December 2010

Bicycle Commuting or Bicycle Culture?

Halmtorvet - Wheelspin Barcelona Red on Red 2
Unless you've been living in a shoebox (or Prague) for the past three or so years you've probably noticed that cycling levels have been rising in cities all over the world.

This is a good thing.

Through this blog and through numerous journeys I've done to four continents over the past two years I've seen in great detail how various people in various countries and cultures are working to promote urban cycling.

One thing I've noticed by haven't really commented on at length is how cycling promotion is largely divided into two schools. Two genres, if you like. For the purpose of this article I'm not going to get into how far too much bicycle advocacy leans up against environmentalism with its preachy, jehovas witness messages about health and saving the planet and fun.

We're here to talk about these two aforementioned genres. They are:

Bicycle Commuting.

Bicycle Culture.

To many they may sound like the same thing, pedalling hand in hand down the cycle track. Unfortunately, there appears to be a clear-cut division. It seems more often than not to be a regional or even cultural divide.

Bicycle Commuting
I've determined that the majority of bicycle advocacy in the Anglo-Saxon New World (and to some extent the UK) is focused on this thing called Bicycle Commuting.

As though the main purpose of owning a bicycle is to get to and from work. This commuting angle really dominates the advocacy.

There are many volumes written about the influence of protestant immigrants on the work ethic prevalent in North America and Australasia, every bit of written by people who know more about it than I. I think what finally made me try to get this into words is a used book I bought last week. One I've read before, many years ago. The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, based on a series of articles by Max Weber in 1904-05 and published in book form in 1920.

I sure as hell won't be getting into this subject, but it certainly seems to have left it's mark on modern bicycle advocacy in these Anglo-Saxon New World countries. The bicycle is for getting to and from work. Period. (or maybe Comma, since you can also use it for 'fun' on the weekends when you're not working)

If we look at this from an 'overcomplication of a simple thing' point-of-view, this Bicycle Commuting angle is hardly cycling simplified. It is primarily advocated by 'avid cyclists' who happily commute long distances to get to work. Which is great for them. Unfortunately, it sends signals to the population at large that Bicycle Commuting is a hard slog, a work-out, a sacrifice - however rewarding. It paints a picture of long commutes, even though 50% of Americans, for example, live within 8 km of their workplace.

I often look at urban cycling as a product and then look at how we're selling it, comparing it to most other marketing. Bicycle Commuting isn't really effective as mainstream marketing. It's sub-cultural. It involves a massive financial investment. Just look at this "Guide to Cycling in Winter" from the Toronto Star. It's so very silly, but I'm sure that it gives the sporting goods industry a hard on.

Then there's the focus on having showers at work. Something that people in established bicycle cultures find to be rather odd. Not having showers at work - I know many people here in Copenhagen who ride long distances and who have showers and changing rooms at work - but it really is a tiny minority.

The primary advocates of Bicycle Commuting like gear and showers at work. They like the hard-core aspect of cycling. The sportif aspect. They're 'cyclists' and that's great.

I am merely questioning the wisdom of focusing on Bicycle Commuting as the be all, end all of urban cycling. Especially when the voices who speak for this form of advocacy are largely sub-cultural. Never a good way to sell a product. Nor is only presenting The Bicycle has a way to get to work and not much else.

Bicycle Culture
So what is this Bicycle Culture genre?

It's something we're seeing blossom in many cities around the world. By saying "Bicycle Culture" I mean creating a culture of the bicycle where it becomes an inseparable part of daily life for regular citizens. Instead of something unique that stands out on the urban landscape.

I wrote about Behavourial Challenges regarding promoting urban cycling a while back and highlighted the massive growth in a city, for example, like Paris compared to cities where strong bicycle sub-cultures rule the debate.

Paris is only one positive example of emerging bicycle cities. I often point to Barcelona as another prime example. They've gone from basically 0% modal split for bicycles to 5% in about three years. Bordeaux has recently reached 10% modal split for bicycles in the city centre. Up from 1 or 2% three years ago. All over France, cities are increasing their bicycle traffic. Over 25 cities have bike share systems. Then there is Spain. Barcelona, San Sebastian, Seville, Zaragoza. Dublin springs to mind, too. Booming. Booming more than any city in North America or Australasia.

Bicycle Culture is planting seeds in a garden. Cultivating a bicycle orchard. Bicycle Commuting is a spear-headed "do it like we do, exactly like this" approach and the plethora of how-to guides splattered across the internet is a testament to that.

Bicycle Culture, on the other hand, lets people, as the seed metaphor suggests, grow their own foliage. Individual bushes and trees and orchids (uh oh... I can see I'm running out of vocabulary if I keep this flora theme up...) that all contribute to a greater garden.

Cities that are working towards cultivating a Bicycle Culture provide the necessary tools; safe, bicycle infrastructure, a good bike-share system, lower speed limits, flexible and favourable traffic laws for bicycles. But there is no real focus on "this is how to do it". In a Bicycle Culture the head gardeners figure that people already know how to ride a bicycle, are equipped with their own built-in risk perception and will figure out the rest. Even in cities with chaotic traffic culture.

(By the way, regarding traffic, I've driven (and cycled) in scores of European cities as well as scores of North American and Australian cities and I have always preferred driving in cities in North America or Australia than in the witches cauldrons of traffic that are the big cities of Europe. Oh, and while we're on an aside, isn't it interesting that there is no bicycle helmet promotion in these booming cities?)

In Bicycle Culture the bicycle is used to get to the shops, the café, the supermarket, the cinema. As well as to work. Just look at Paris. The pioneers who first embraced the Vélib' bike-share system came to the bicycle from the Metro. Following that typical human desire for the quickest way to get there. The Vélib' beat the Metro and, with accompanying infrastructure, it boomed. I've read that 2 million private bicycles have been sold in Paris since Vélib started. Just visit the city and see bicycles everywhere. See the future.

So. Which genre is most effective? You can probably figure out where I'm headed already. Without a doubt there are many people who have taken up urban cycling because of the Bicycle Commuting approach. Absolutely true. This NPR article is positive, for example. But if you didn't know anything about this funky cycling thing, the article would certainly give you a very narrow-minded impression of what cycling to work is or could be. Especially the "just try to hide the bike grease on your calf at meetings" remark near the end. Buy a chainguard, for god's sake. Or a more functional, comfortable bicycle. They're just as fast anyway.

If, on the other hand, we look at what cities are really booming - it is the cities that are planting gardens of Bicycle Culture. Keeping a simple idea simple, providing the basic tools and letting people do the rest. And within... let's say... five years... these cities will be light years ahead of the rest. Embarassingly so.

Like everything else, it's all about effective, mainstream marketing.


BG said...

Oh, boy -- this again. Now, listen: as with the VC debate, there's no need to be so divisive. Most "bicycle commuters" in the Anglo countries are simply doing what works best right now, in the physical and cultural environment they've got. That does not mean that they're opposed to changes that could bring about a bicycle culture. Bicycle culture, as you define it, is a good goal. I'm working for it. But I don't see why that should prevent the geeky hobbyists from enjoying their geeky hobby.

As for showers: yeah, I'm sure in Copenhagen it's no big deal, but here in the eastern swamps of North Carolina, for at least four months of the year, average high temperatures are over 30 degrees celsius and humidity over 70%. Commutes of less than 2km are doable without a shower, but once you're out there for any longer than that -- even less than 8km, even in the morning -- you'll be way too soaked to conduct a business meeting. As you know, most of the worst sprawl in North America is (not coincidentally) in the southern tier, where people live in air-conditioned bubbles for most of the year.

BG said...

...which is to say: the only real solution is to shorten the commutes, by building denser and more connected cities. That's a very slow process, and there's lots of resistance from the proponents of sprawling development, but really, it's the only way.

Steve L (A Bristol Traffic team member) said...

I think a focus on "adults commuting" comes from that being where a lot of the town planners come from: they know that congestion comes from drivers commuting, so assume that bicycle commuting is the one to give priority. It's also in theory easier: adults don't benefit from segregation as much as kids, so paint a few strips on the road, give out the hi-viz tops and you can declare victory. Oh, and you do routes that go from the suburbs to near the middle of the city, but in the inner city where resource conflict is highest, make some excuse like "there's no single destination" to justify just abandoning the cyclist just when it gets scary.

A cycle culture would imply
-making it safe and enjoyable for kids to cycle to school, which means making it hard and upleasant to drive the kids there.
-easy to do your shopping by bike, which implies adding more than four bike racks in the distant corner of the 600 space car park, but instead a giant covered hanger for bikes, security. etc.
-integrating cycling with rail transport, which implies fixing the bike on train problem, and providing decent parking at railway stations.
-making cycling -even commuting- pleasant. That's green segregated routes, its cyclists feeling welcome in society, it's a city that doesn't go out of its way to make you feel unwelcome.

You see, that's why there's a focus on commuting. It avoids the big cultural shifts in city designs and how people get round. But at the same time, by avoiding those features, it avoids having the effects.

dr2chase said...

@BG - or let the trees grow large again -- when I was in Houston long ago, bike commuting in record-breaking heat (short commute, thankfully) it was a matter of coasting from shade puddle to shade puddle, letting the weight of my leg carry the pedal down and the bike forward.

Live oaks are good for that.

The other choice, might be to build some of the highways underground, and take advantage of the lower temperatures there. In downtown Houston they have underground walkways between buildings for just this reason.

@Mikael, I think part of what you are seeing, is the most that people think they can pitch in the US. I just attended a local planning meeting, and the conservative-voices-O-reason(TM) went on and one about parking -- because who would ever go shopping on a bicycle? We've also got the problem that the vehicular cyclists have made things very inflexible with the whole bikes-are-vehicles schtick; we may not get treated equally on the roads, but it has forced everyone to officially pretend that bikes can't ride on sidewalks when the roads are terrible.

Also, where do you get your 8km median-distance figure? Smallest estimate I have seen is that the median one-way commute is 10 miles, or 16km.

And you know, some of us are trying. I've pretty much quit using cleats, after using them for 20 years. I'm a tireless proponent of the fattest possible tires for anyone who doesn't race. The bicycle industry here is 90% brain-dead, and it is an uphill battle, and the 10% sensible part, because it is a niche, is kinda expensive, which does not help.

Anonymous said...

"Buy a chainguard"?

They don't work with derailleur-based bikes, which are the most common bikes in the English-speaking world. They only work with bikes that have a fixed chainline: single-speeds, fixies, and hub-gear bikes. Hub-gear bikes are somewhat of a niche market in the English-speaking world, and consequently are usually rather expensive.

Tucking your trousers into your socks works ok though.

Taliesin said...

I've done both types. Cycling on a bike with change guard, flat pedals and an upright position in my day clothes (no more than about 6km one way), as well as on a drop bar touring bike with cleats and a shower and change at work (20km one way).

I find the former much easier to maintain, I actually prefer to ride over the bus, whereas when I rode the longer distance it was hard to maintain motivation not to just take the bus where I could read/doze.

It has to be noted that mass cycling does seem to follow your "bicycle culture" model and not the "bicycle commuting" model perhaps because people like things kept simple and the "commuting" model doesn't really keep things simple.

nathan_h said...

I agree that a cultural approach will be more effective for promoting cycling but I think this post is slightly misreading the messages from anglo-land. Our bureaucrats are really and truly trying to promote bicycle commuting, per se. Americans are OBSESSED with commuting. It's a huge source of entitlement for motorists in particular. It's natural that transportation planners who finally realize that the scalability problem of motor-commuting can never actually be solved have become cheerleaders for bicycle commuting. The virtues of using a bicycle to go to a cafe simply would not occur to them.

I take advantage of any opportunity I can to promote bicycle culture. But the "bicycle commuting" dorks are acting in my interest too, and with a fair bit of success.

Neil said...

Y'know, you're a pretty divisive guy, making big deals over small differences.

I'm on the board of a bike advocacy group. And yeah, we mostly talk commuting. It's even in our name, which goes back a good 30 years. Call it a gateway drug. People start biking to work, then they start making pit stops on the way home. Then they start running other errands on their bikes. Eventually, it's their primary mode of transportation.

We've never once called for showers anywhere, though, I've never really understood that. And mostly we've focused our efforts on getting better infrastructure to get around the city wherever you're going. We've had some successes, and things are slowly changing for the better. And we've finally been getting some traction...bikes are popping up everywhere.

Something to think about, though:
I've driven (and cycled) in scores of European cities as well as scores of North American and Australian cities and I have always preferred driving in cities in North America or Australia than in the witches cauldrons of traffic that are the big cities of Europe.

This is, perhaps, the problem. Traffic isn't as bad in North America, because our cities were built from the ground up for the automobile. So situations where the bike is faster and more convenient than driving are few. Rush hour traffic is pretty much the only exception. Perhaps the reason for the focus on commuting?

Taliesin said...


""Buy a chainguard"?

They don't work with derailleur-based bikes,"

That isn't really true, look at this.. It is true that chain cases won't work with the derailleurs, but the chain case is more about keeping crud off the chain than off the rider, which is where a guard is adequate.

Kim said...

Looking at your examples there is another major difference, the places Mikael describes as having a "Bicycle Culture" have gotten there through large investment in infrastructure and changes to the traffic laws (such as lower speed limits, etc.). To get those things requires political will (it also helps to have a functioning democracy, rather than an elected oligarchy), in many Anglo Saxon countries lack that (just remind me where did those Angles and Saxons come from again?).

Bicycle Commuting, has developed in place where there is no investment in infrastructure and changes to the traffic laws, where people have continued to despite pressure not to. More recently interest in sport has triggered a boom in those seeking an "adventure sport" why isn't really dangerous, but can be made to look like it by playing with the big boys.

However, these place can not really expand the modal share, until some politician sees an advantage to doing so. There is no great desire among the masses, to ride with the other traffic. The big problem is that in these paces while you might get the odd politician who likes the idea of using bicycle as transport to reduce congestion, they are allergic to spending real money on it. For that to happen you need a real democracy, rather than an elected oligarchy, as there is nothing in it for the oligarchs.

Brent said...

"Bicycle commuting" advocacy is targeted towards individuals to start cycling. "Bicycle culture" advocacy is targeted towards government in hopes of improving infrastructure.

It's pretty clear that until we get substantial numbers of cyclists, the governments of English-speaking countries have no interest in building out bicycle infrastructure. The hope is that commuting will lead to culture.

But, frankly, we're fighting for scraps here -- things like "three-foot laws" and whether sidewalk riding should be legal. It's rather hard to hope for culture in a desert.

Daniel Sparing said...

a little bit about how easy or hard it is to drive in Europe or North America -

i believe that to make cycling the fastest and easiest, you also have to make driving relatively inconvenient.

Compare Rotterdam to Amsterdam - R'dam, rebuilt completely after WWII, has cycle infrastructure totally compliant to Dutch standards, most often bi-directional cycle paths on both sides of main roads (!). It is _also_ an easy city to drive in, however.

A'dam, on the other hand, has some narrow bike lanes, shared roads, etc, due to narrow historic streets - but because of exactly that, too, it is "a hell to drive in".

So Rotterdam has a little bit lower cycling levels, and I argue that that should be because it is too easy to drive there, and certainly not because of lacking infrastructure (although there are always ideas in where to improve).

Daniel Sparing said...

btw, if i remember correctly, Copenhagen also likes the idea of "commuting", to calculate cycle modal share - i.e. the % of commuters (not all trips) by bike is often referred to.

vrataf said...

Oh, our poor Prague, black hole of European urban cycling ( see this rather sad picture ). However I must stand for the city a little...

There is about 30% rise in cycling during last year, so at least something. But too little, I know.

We (in meaning "various groups with common interest") are trying to push both ways of promotion here - Focus on commuting seems reasonable where conditions are evil. And simultaneously trying to turn the actual bike culture from tourism and mountainbiking into something more urban-like.

Nobody can create bike culture without people using bicycles, so we need at least measurable amounts of commuters (like 2-3% of modal share) first.

Of course the far-plan is to have city generally usable for people on bicycles. But there is such disdain among politicians and traffic engineers that we must use step-by step and disguise techniques to pro push trough particular solutions for cyclists.

Sue 'sans' helmet said...

'culture' v 'commuting' - splitting hairs - all you need is a bike - period

Nate said...

You dismiss geography. The urban commuting as you define it, only exists in the small regional communities of Europe - primarily the low lands.

Bicycling advocacy, if that what you propose, should focus on the use of the bicycle. Your website continues to be both a great asset to bicycling and yet polarize those of us in the bicycling community. Spandex is appropriate as are woolies and dungarees. It's all in the context, and it's usually driven by geography.

Pete from Baltimore said...

I think that there are several reasons that many americans dont consider using a bicycle.

One is that often they think that its a case of "All or nothing". As if you cant own both a car and a bike . I have a rather sensible couple living next door to me.They both have very long commutes .So they drive thier cars.When they are going to a nearby bar/restraunt/shop in the evening or weekend ,they bike there.

I myself dont own a car.But i often have friends express surprise at seeing me ride a city bus.They ask me why im not riding my bike. Its because it all depends on where im going and what the circumstances are. i dont feel the need to ride in terrible weather.nor do i want to ride through very rough neighborhoods[i live in Baltimore].

Since i work construcion, my jobsite changes almost every week. So one week it may be convenient to ride my bike. The next week it may be more convenient to ride the bus. Sometimes i just decide to walk to work for no other reason then i feel like walking instead of bicycling

Another thing is that many people think that you HAVE to spend over $800 for a good bike. They are shocked when they find out that i bought my Raliegh Bike brand new for $180.

Many people also seem to think that you HAVE to wear spandex when riding a bike.

Sadly , most of these misconceptions have been spread by some bicyclists. There is a tendency among some people to make thier favorite activity seem "exclusive".

dominic said...

Bike culture is very regional in the US. The bike industry is out of touch with promoting something that is homegrown. For instance New Orleans is an old city with parking at a premium and a history of single speed crusiers. Another example is Minneapolis that has an abundance of 70's and 80's ten speeds that are riden year long because they are relevant to loner rides and can be easily converted to single speeds by hipsters. With that said bike culture is the future in any town or city in America. I cannot defend the "commuter crowd" as I've defected long ago. domotion2011.wordpress

Will said...

I agree that ultimately Bike Culture is more powerful than Bike Commuting. But Bike Commuting can be a great gateway drug. It gives folks a chance to regularly get out in the neighborhoods they live and work in on their bike. Eventually they have to come to see that riding a bike is wonderful when compared with being in a car.

That's exactly what happened to me - started as a commuter for various reasons and then realized that if a bike was better to commute on it was also better to grocery shop, go to the movies, go on dates with my wife, go to the bar (but then walk home if I'm intoxicated), go to the library, etc, etc.

Once enough people see how wonderful bikes are for nearly all things, they will start demanding reasonable transportation infrastructure, slower traffic speeds, and logical laws to protect cyclists and pedestrians.

Etienne de Briquenell said...

Interesting that the worst people I come across on bikes are the morning and afternoon commuters. That's where you see all the over-the-top cycle- and saftey-wear, faster speeds and unfriendly demeanours. The bicycle advocacy groups are definitely big on the "ride to work" theme.

During the day it's much more pleasant. People riding to cafes, to the shops, to the movies, etc. Normal clothes, slower speeds and a lot more people with easygoing attitudes.

As for showers, last year I rode to work in my corporate attire through three consecutive days of 44C heat (that's around 111F for our American friends). Just pace yourself, stop off for a cold drink along the way, and you won't get much sweat.

Drunk Engineer said...

A very similar problem exists for transit projects: planners think bus and rail can only be used for going to work. All transit funding, scheduling, and even the ticketing, is devoted to this one, and only one, trip destination.

In the USA, many rail and bus services don't run at all on weekends, and have maybe a single mid-day run. And when mode share statistics are published, they are only for work trips, not total trips.

iswas said...

I don't think the difference between these two cultures are as trivial as some people are claiming.

A focus on "fast commuting" over practicality is the reason why the vast majority of bikes sold in the UK have no stand, no mudguards, no chain-guard, no dynamo-powered lights, no rack... you can't really go shopping on them even if you want to!

Further, the number of "commuter types" complaining about slower cyclists, being opposed to segregated lanes because they won't be able to overtake etc is very high.

There are often fundamental differences in attitude and a lack of respect from a large chunk of old-school commuters towards what I would call "normal people on bikes". It's simply wrong to believe that this doesn't exist, in the UK at least.

Etienne de Briquenell said...

Agree entirely Iswas. As I mentioned previously, there does seem to be a fundamental difference between these two cultures in Australia as well. It's a moot point, but I think Mikael is onto something here.

Anonymous said...


Bike culture in the USA typically means lycra, competitive group "fun" rides, etc. which creates an image with the general public of Lance-wannabes. The largest share of potential cyclists are given minimal or zero consideration.

Advocates brag about how many more cycle each year but modal share continues to languish in single digits. Travelers in the USA have learned through emulation that "safe" surroundings means large soft seat cushions, AC, and stereo sounds to cushion their unbearable commutes. Death, personal injuries, property and livability destruction are acceptable costs of "progress".


Doug said...

I also think that the more one uses the word "commute" when discussing bike lanes or infrastructure, the more open one is to criticism from people who can not or simple would not bike to work.

There are neighborhoods in Brooklyn, where I live, that are simply too far from Manhattan, making biking to work impractical for a large percentage of the population. Tell them that you're putting in bike lanes so that people can bike to work and they instantly think, "That's ridiculous." This then puts you on the defensive from the start.

(Never mind that some people in those neighborhoods don't work in Manhattan and could use bike lanes to commute a mile or two; many people still associate commuting with a trip into midtown Manhattan.)

If instead you focus on biking as a means of getting around locally, of building a bike culture and options for those who wish to live their life with a little more biking in it, then you have to do less defensive explaining.

Eventually, you get an extensive bike lane network so that those who want to bike locally can do so, but those who wish to take longer trips can do so as well.

Beany said...

An excellent piece as always. I had the opportunity to meet with two Danish women recently who came to San Diego to study our bicycle culture and talking to them I realized how much I missed being around normal people who use a bicycle as a tool just as I do. I really hate being seen as some sort of super hero because I ride everywhere. I hate getting comments because I decide to wear a skirt sometimes and ride my bike that has a diamond frame - why is that strange or weird or even praiseworthy? I think it is normal and something I do because it saves me a ton of money and that is really all I focus on. All the additional benefits is incidental and welcome. The sad thing is San Diego is in the stone age when it comes to creating the environment for a bike culture to flourish...I can only hope that it changes soon and they join forces with the citizens and business owners who currently are trying to change things here.

Alistair said...

Talking about gateway drugs, I've been watching kids in my neighborhood migrate from skateboards to fixies as thier getabout, playabout, be cool wheels. That seems like a great gateway to biking.

In Portland there's a been a program promoting bike-to-school as an entry. A bike convey of kids and parents pass my house each morning.

1/3 the bikes have pink tassels streaming from their handlebars.

That's what I take from the bicycle culture perspective: bikes as play, bikes as transport, bikes as sport, bikes as fashion, bikes as cheap, bikes as tools, bikes as status, bikes as rebellion.

So beautiful ...

dothebart said...

I don't buy your commuter vs. culture thing.
If a bike is a car replacement, it justifies purchising more expensive bikes.
More expensive bikes mean more room for technological advances.
These advantages in the end will be found on cheap entry level bikes too.
Some examples: Alloy wheels, Puncture safe tires, better (more) gears, V-Brakes, and maybe some time in the future disc brakes of accepteable quality.

I also don't buy your sole claim for 'culture' to people that ride their bike in stylish clothes. There are several subcultures woven around bikes; If you ride an RTF in Germany, you will for example find a culture woven around roadbikes thats been here for 40 years and more and most probably has not much in common with your definitions.
You shouldn't judge people riding bikes depending on their clothes or the amount of money they spend on bikes.
You should rather search for a way to join them up and use them to become a key factor we all want for a society where bikes have their place at least as important as cars.

ZA said...

As Sue said, splitting hairs.

I default to the pragmatic. So long as more people are bicycling and enjoying it, producing growth pressure to improve facilities, then who cares how that is communicated to their respective cultural audience? Do what works.

Since a strong vein of US culture is 'keeping up with the Joneses,' having more people on bikes during the work commute *is* "planting seeds of bicycle culture" as you put it.

Step-Through said...

I'm not sure that the citizens of the US view bicycling this way, but politicians and planners sure seem to. Nearly all of the bicycle infrastructure planning I hear about is aimed at creating long-haul bicycle lanes or paths along major roads leading from the suburbs to the city center. That will be nice, if done right, but I doubt many people will suddenly decide to bike their 20 mile commute. We need more focus on those short trips (60% of trips in the US are under 3 miles, sprawl or no sprawl). Most people are comfortable riding a bike around their neighborhood, even with their kids, but can they get to the neighborhood half a mile away? The corner store? The pub? That is where I think we will see the most potential for shifting trips from car to bicycle.

Anonymous said...

I think these video illustrate the differences pretty clearly. Which would you prefer?



Of course most Americans reside too far from where they live and work, hence the auto dependency.


DC said...


I'm more of the opinion that the reason most bikes in the UK sold in recent years have been sans mudguards, sans lights etc, is that until very recently most manufacturers, retailers, politicians, planners and the media have viewed cycling here as a leisure activity ONLY. Hence you won't want cycle routes that go anywhere useful, you won't need secure bike parking, you won't need mudguards because you won't want to ride in the wet, and so on. It also very neatly brackets the mindset / attitude of many drivers to cyclists - "WTF are you doing on my road - get on the pavement!"

@ Mikael

There are many of us in the UK and other places who have been 'Bicycle Commuting' for many years who would love to see the infrastructure and attitudes that 'Bicycle Culture' would bring to our streets, but the political will has not been present in the mainstream to allow this to occur. Hence we have had to, and still have to, fight for our share of the space on the roads, and make the best of the situation with a ‘vehicular cycling’ approach. Protestant work ethic it’s not, nor is it about a sect - it’s all about survival. We have crappy infrastructure. We have a new transport minister who is quite upfront about the fact that he hasn’t had, or doesn’t really have, an interest in cycling, rail or buses as he’s more of car person. We have a new government that has decided our national cycling body is surplus to requirements.

And yet we ride on, and in spite of all the knocks and problems, those of us who remember the really bad old days have started to witness a gradual shift in perceptions. There are now more people cycling daily in London than for many years. We have a bicycle hire scheme in the capital which is viewed as part of the larger transport infrastructure - it’s still pretty crappy but small steps come before big leaps. We are seeing more bike shops, both the big chains and the independents, and many of these are now selling practical, even heavy, bikes. Even the Evening Standard, traditionally the rag of London cabbie/white van man, has started being gently positive about cyclists.

We know life isn’t perfect here. We know attitudes in and to cycling could be better both in the cycling community and in society at large. We are still fighting the good fight against the scare culture. We’ve got some way to go but we’re working on it. So please, please, please, lay off the ‘my bicycle culture is better than your bicycle culture’ stuff, and give us more of your support and expertise.

didrik said...

Too bad I didn't read this post earlier. I don't expect anyone to read this at this point but here goes anyway:

I don’t think Mikael is being divisive or making mountains out of molehills. I believe he is spot on in his observations.

The bike commuter approach doesn’t really increase bike usage very much if at all in my part of the world—SF Bay area USA. The bike commute advocates believe in things like “end of ride facilities”, a.k.a. showers. Dr. Paul Martin was just recently verbally abused on another blog by someone fanatically advocating for showers. I’ve worked for several companies here and each has had showers. I have myself made use of these over the years and I can say that they do absolutely nothing to promote or encourage bicycle use. This “solution” to get people to cycle at most just enables a few more roadies to get their daily miles in before work instead of after. I’m not trying to knock showers, I use them at my workplaces. The reason they don’t entice people to cycle to work is that most people don’t want to show up to work looking less than professional. They don’t want to be seen without makeup. They don’t want to see their co-workers naked in the shower room. They don’t want to walk into the office in spandex or gym clothes. They don’t want to get ready for their day twice—once for the ride in, and once for the days work. People don’t want to feel odd or stupid and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s just humans 101.

Also, showers are not scalable. Let’s just assume that a person can shower and get dressed in 15 minutes—that’s really fast for most but let’ use it as an example. That means if you have one shower, like my current workplace, you can handle 4 cyclist per hour. The floor of my building has about 150 people. If 50 of them cycled to work, we would have to arrive at work by 9pm the night before if we are to guarantee that all of us can make a 9am meeting. Add more showers you say. Ok, let’s up it to 5. Now we only have to get to work by 6:30am to ensure that we all get cleaned up by 9am. Another way to look at that is if all 50 came in a 9am and there were 5 showers, then we would all be guaranteed to be cleaned up by lunchtime. But some of use would be attending morning meetings in spandex or gym clothes.

Another Bike Commute Culture artifact that isn’t actually effective in promoting the use of the bicycle is our annual Bike To Work Day. I used to think this was great until I realized that it a tremendous energy drain on the organizers (usually bike advocacy organizations) and for what? So that roadies can dress up and ride their bike to work that ONE day out of the year while trying to pass as many energizer stations as possible to collect free food and swag. Then they would jam the “end of ride facilities” at work. That was it. They would not ride there bike to work again until the next Tour de Work day. This “event” is supposed to encourage people to try cycling and hopefully they will stick with it. I have never know a single person to continue on after Bike To Work Day in the 10 years I have experienced it—and I have mapped dozens of routes for fellow employees so I know if they keep with it. The whole day makes cycling look like not only do you need special gear to cycle to work but also hundreds of volunteers to staff energizer stations to hand out water, cookies, Cliff bars, and all other items needed to participate in the arduous sport of riding a bicycle to work. When I have tried to coax a few non-athletes to try riding to work on this auspicious occasion, you hear the mindset that Mikael describes: “oh, I’m not in shape, I’m not ready, I have an old, heavy bike, I’d never be able to keep up, I’d slow you down.” These concerns reflect a belief that cycling must be trained for and has a minimum standard of performance that must be met before you can participate.

kfg said...

@Didrik - You have been read.

Daniel Sparing said...

Another thing might be interesting for you guys:

recently there has been some attention and investment in the Netherlands specifically for commuting. see here:

why? well, because everything else is sorted out already :), you do your groceries and errands, have a beer or take kids to school on the bike, but your work is often in another city and then you drive.

note: in the Netherlands, when they think of commuting then they build wide, smooth asphalt, separated cycle roads with priority all the way. maybe showers too, dunno.

dr2chase said...

I think everything Didrik says is unfortunately true.

And the SF Bay area, especially Silicon Valley, is extremely well suited to bike commuting; most people live where it is flat, most people work where it is flat, there's a decent network of paths (could be better, but relative to the US in general, pretty good). And the climate could not be better. It rains almost not at all between about April and October, and doesn't rain that hard when it does rain. It almost never snows at ground level. It's rarely very hot, and even when it is, it's a dry heat.

And, along the peninsula, is about the only place on the continent where the commuter rail includes a train car with lots of space expressly reserved for bicycles (and that car runs pretty full, I have used it when visiting friends on vacation).

Silicon Valley could have serious bike culture.

Panglott said...

I've long thought that "bike to work" is way overhyped here in the U.S. Cycling advocates usually point out the high number of trips taken by car that are 2 miles or less...but many of these are not to work, and many people live more than about 5 miles from work. I've always thought that "Bike to the Grocery Store" is more plausible for many people.

I cycle to work every day, and it's fun! Maybe what we need is a "Bike for Fun" day.

But cycling for fun reinforces a weird but longstanding idea in America: that bicycles are toys, not valid transportation options. People ride their bicycles in the neighborhood, or drive them to a local park to go around in circles. But not to go to get ice cream or to a coffeeshop or a grocery store.

That's what bicycle commuting is trying to counteract. We have plenty of bicycle culture, but little of it is focused on using bicycles to get from one place to another.