Friday, July 11, 2008

what is 'bike culture"? (part two in an occasional series)

While I was out of town on vacation this week, there was an incident between a bicycle rider and a car driver in southeast Portland. It got ugly and nasty. Alcohol was involved. So, apparently, was a lack of good judgment on the part of several individuals at the scene. Since I don't know the full story, I suggest you check out the details at the Oregonian newspaper:

and perhaps also at the website Bike Portland:

I have taken some time to read these articles and a host of comments that were typed in response to each, and I am struck by one thing. Many of the comments made by folks who identified themselves as being staunchly "pro-bike" referred to the "bicycle community". Until tonight I used to think along those lines myself, without question or deeper thought. But tonight, I remembered a comment my friend made a couple of weeks ago. In a brilliant flash of serious forward thinking, my friend Ian said that he looked forward to a time when Portland -- and other US cities -- would be so bike-friendly that the very idea of a bicycle culture would be redundant. "It'd be like Amsterdam", he said, and they don't really have a 'bike culture'. All they have is a town that was designed so that a whole bunch of people could ride bicycles as transportation. And that's it. That's all."

What great event, what momentous agent of change will be required for enough bicycle riders and pedestrians to rise up in anger at the sheer stupidity, wastefulness and unfairness of our present oil-fueled, freeway-ribboned, car-centric landscape and say, enough is enough? What will be the tipping point that leads us to an age where we no longer identify ourselves as a "bicycle community", where lots of people just ride bikes because it's the easiest and cheapest way to get somewhere?

The thing is, there are times and places in the here and now where many bicycle riders feel a need to identify themselves as being part of a "bicycle community". There are lots of places where it is simply scary to ride a bike for transportation, and simply moving to another, supposedly safer city is not an option. So people naturally band together. Portland is an insane, ridiculous example of a town with so much Bicycle Culture (capitalized and on display in bright neon in every bike shop and bike planning bureau office window!) that it's crazy. People move to Portland and tell me that they did it "for the bike culture, for the bike community". And that's great. Welcome to Portland! (I hope you can afford the rent here.) Go and enjoy the bike polo, the Sprockettes bike-ballet shows and the bike-art installations, the Multnomah County Bike Fair and everything else. I know that lots of people -- especially older adults -- don't feel welcome at those events, which are staffed and organized primarily by the under-thirty set and take place on city streets where most inexperienced riders don't feel safe riding a bicycle. Then whose bicycle community is it?

Or what happens if the most extreme car drivers, already angry at having to share the road with anyone else (whatever vehicle they're operating, frankly) and getting frustrated with the rising cost of gasm see an adult pass them on a bike looking calm, mellow, even happy? Might we see some road rage incidents based simply on drivers' growing anger at The Way Things Might Become? How might a "bicycle community" respond?

Finally, what about the very poor, who have ridden cheap bikes for years because that is all they can afford? What about the homeless man who is dirty, who smells bad and acts worse and tows a shopping cart behind a cobbled-together Magna mountain bike that's five sizes too small for him? Would the hip, self-proclaimed "bicycle community", the raison d'etre for many in Portland, accept him? Would they accept him as warmly as they accept me on my nice bike, with my helmet and the whole aura of One Who Is Employed And Housed And Otherwise Normal? Would they? Honestly? REALLY?

Where's the place in our highly-touted "bike culture" for those who don't see themselves as being part of one?

And what about those in the landscape who cannot ride, either because they are infirm or too old, or because they simply prefer to walk or take the bus? Almost everybody walks somewhere, sometime. And the busses are packed with folks of many different stripes now that gas is over four bucks a gallon. Is there a self-proclaimed "bus community"? Is there a self-proclaimed "pedestrian community?" Do we see "bus culture" or "pedestrian culture"? Not really. The very idea seems almost silly.

Lately I find that the very term "bicycle community" has as much potential to divide as it does to unite, and I find myself wondering about whether it's a label I would like to continue to use. I have no easy answers as yet, but perhaps my friend was onto something.


Anonymous said...

Humans are herd animals. There is a basic instinct to identify with a tribe, profession, nation, or other arbitrary grouping.

On a foreign trip one time, someone in my group asked a local what he did. The answer was eye opening. He said, "That's a typical American question. Why does it matter what I do?" Americans like to identify themselves by profession, hobby, or other type of grouping. Being a "cyclist" is just one more such grouping.

I ride a bike most places that I go. I've been harangued by "cyclists" because I wasn't dressed to the standard they felt necessary. Bike culture is nothing more than a divisive notion that in the minds of those in it, excludes all others regardless of their chosen method of transportation.

Jason Nunemaker: said...

I have mixed feelings about our "community". On the one hand, it's nice to know that despite all the things we might not have in common, that person up ahead on a bike shares my perspective in one small way: We're both looking at the world from two wheels.

Still, I probably won't wave to him, not because I'm aloof (though I often am )... I'd just rather think of the world as a place where other cyclists are so common that they're no longer noteworthy. A guy can dream, right?

Steve said...

It seems we have become a society of "cultures." As anonymous said. we are herd animals. Except the rhino herds don't have the ACLU or the Republican Party or any lawyer "representing" them. They exist on their own. We human animals need to learn that concept.

I agree with your friend, we need to not be a bike culture, just a human culture.

And maybe the tipping point is Exxon Mobil recording record profits each of the last two quarters--one half of a year. $11.7 billion is the last three months. No OPEC to blame for that.