The Myth of “Bike Culture”

One of the more presvasive and annoying notions is that in certain European cultures, there’s a “bike culture” where people like bikes due to their upbringing. The implication is that Americans, who do not have a bike culture, will not ride bicycles even if we get the infrastructure.

While this is a nice fairy tale, it does not match my experience.

I, for one, was raised in car culture, and now I do not own a car; I ride my bicycle everywhere.

How did this amazing experience happen? Mainly, I was in the right place at the right time. Parking and other fees were too high to make a motor vehicle practical for me at the time. Destinations were close enough so that riding a bicycle made the most sense. That’s it.

Let’s look at a bike culture person, someone from Denmark who I met while she was researching here master’s thesis on bicycles. She told me that if she moved to San Diego, she would not ride a bicycle anywhere because it made no sense.

So there you go, Ms. Bike culture is not on a bicycle, while Mr. Car culture is.

Sure, this is isolated to two people. Except that it isn’t. If you go out and ask people, they know how to ride bicycles in the United States. This means that they rode a bike in the past. In fact, I think that if you ask, you’ll find that the vast majority of Americans have spent some time on bicycles. Thus, we have a “bike culture”, too. In fact, I suggest that the next person who says, “we don’t need to waste government money for your hobby”, offer to teach him how to ride a bicycle. I bet nine times out of ten, he’ll admit to all ready knowing and thus admitting that he, too, is a “cyclist”.

Now that we have debunk the notion that there’s this monolithic “culture” that each person has that solely controls all of their decisions, the critics will start to get desparate, like they always do, and they will start to break things down in to little categories and try to win that category. (This is the next predicatable fall back position).

They will admit that there are many Americans who cycle for fun or for fitness, but how many of them will ride their bicycles to Costco. My answer, I don’t care. If we make it possible for people to ride bicycles for fun then they will get fitter. Happiness and better health are enough for me. If you look at other things that are supposed to provide happiness and health and the amount of money that people spend in only ONE category, you’ll find that cycling infrastructure is an amazing bargain. For the price of a few dozen parking spots and a few million dollars, you can give the benefit of cycling for HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF TRIPS over the lifetime of that cyclist.

For example, we are considering eliminating seventy or so parking spots in a dense area of San Diego for cycling. This seems like a lot, in a given day, won’t more than seventy cyclists ride down that street? I think so. If photos of places where there are good cycling facilities are to be believed such as the board walk in San Diego, you’ll find far more than seventy people rolling down a given area per minute. Thus, if we are going to roll with “everyone needs parking” standard which means that we must provide things for what everyone needs. And we all ready have a glut of parking, but that’s beyond the scope of this discussion.

The point is that when conditions are right, there are a lot of people who will bicycle if they are given the right conditions. In fact, I’d go as far to say that _any_ able bodied person will ride given the right incentive. This is easier than one might think. In fact, I have found that those who speak out the loudest against bicycles are the ones who most want to ride. Again for the skim trolls, THE LOUDEST CYCLING CRITICS ARE THE MOST BIKE CURIOUS. I feel that this includes even Dorthy Rubinowitz.

That’s because those people who whine about bicycling are thinking about it all the time. You can’t bitch about something without putting that very thing you bitch about in your mind. Not only that, but in my experience, I have seen people who came off, initially, as super-anti-cycling to consider riding very easily. And it wasn’t me convincing them because I don’t believe in doing that. If people don’t want to ride, I respect that and don’t try to change people. These people changed over time.

One person constantly talked about how dangerous cycling was and how I put his wife in danger when I rode my bicycle because she might hit me with her car. He also mocked me in the generic Hollywood, anti-cycling way. A few weeks later, he comes back and asks me for suggestions on riding. He mentions that he wants to ride for fitness but he’s too scared. Critic to bike curious number 1.

Next person tells me that she’s super happy sitting in traffic and that she will NEVER ride to a club or to work because of her hair. A few weeks later, she’s asking for route information to work. She drops the whole thing when she realizes how hard it would be, but this is still a total reversal in attitude. She also mentions that she has a girl friend who rides bikes with her boyfriend and she wants to join them on a bicycle. Critic to bike curious two.

Another person, when she found out that I found out that I rode to work would inflict me with stories of bicycle accidents. Now she wants to get in on our weekend rides to the beach. Critic to bike curious three.

I could go on. Anyone who says negative things, initially, ultimately comes around, with no prompting from me to give me some positive connection that they have around bicycles as well as future plans that they have for riding.

Thus, the take home message is that not only do Americans like to ride bicycles, when they are not constantly bombarded by anti-cycling messages in the media, but we shouldn’t take seriously the initial anti-cycling responses that we get for people. That is, AMERICANS ACTUALLY LIKE RIDING BICYCLES THAN THEY WOULD ADMIT.

Thus, in America, we have a bike culture which, despite massive spending and coercion to the contrary, is quite healthy. This culture is underground and people are often not totally open about how much they actually do like bicycles because it’s not socially acceptable to do so. Thus I’d like to stop hearing from self-appointed bike xperts how much Americans don’t have a “bike culture”. You’re just perpetuating the problem.


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