Matt Yglesias makes an interesting observation in this post about the normality of biking in Copenhagen.
Thirty-seven percent of Copenhagen commuters use bikes. And given that presumably some people are walking to work, some people are using the bus, some people are using the Metro, and some people are using the S-Tog the resulting situation is one in which cyclists and drivers are really equals.
It’s actually impressive to a degree that’s somewhat unsettling. Regular bicycle commuting in the United States is, among other things, a somewhat meaningful identity category. Initially it’s thrilling to see so many of “your people” everywhere. But looking closer you start to see exactly what was explained to me—the whole reason you have so many people biking around is that cycling is totally mainstream in Copenhagen and doesn’t constitute an identity at all.
I think this constitutes an obstacle for becoming a bike commuter in America, over and above all the infrastructure obstacles and the safety issues. Biking in the U.S.—much like, for example, shopping at farmer’s markets—constitutes an identity many people want no part of even though it offers an ostensibly healthier and/or saner way to live. You have to become one of “those people”; you enter a peculiar spotlight and invite all sorts of assumptions about what you are like. People may treat you as though you have a Greenpeace sticker pasted on your forehead. They may assume you are some sort of free-range zealot brimming with judgmental self-righteousness when all you are is someone who doesn’t drive a car. When I bike, I’m not doing it for attention, but the thought that someone might reasonably draw that conclusion inhibits me. I don’t want to involuntarily be attributed to belonging to anyone’s “people.” Maybe I am too sensitive.
I wonder if at any point it would have been possible to arrest this development of biking into a lifestyle—is anything “nonconformist” doomed to be seen as an attempt to self-promote? Or is that the fault of hipsterization? Of social media?
As I was writing this, I came across a timely Metafilter link to Copenhagenize, a blog devoted to replicating Copenhagen’s success in encouraging biking commuters, and to this essay by sociologist Dave Horton about cycling fears. What I thought was interesting is the way he shows how ostensibly bike-friendly promotional campaigns may actually serve to dissuade would-be riders—much as efforts to make biking cool turn it into a dubious lifestyle.
Horton contends that the fear of cycling is deliberately produced, with safety lessons and helmet-wearing campaigns tending to increase a potential rider’s sense of vulnerability. “Danger comes not from cycling, but from cars,” he says, but this notion is systematically suppressed. Similarly the creation of safe spaces for bikes reinforces the notion that bike-riding is an exceptional activity to be set off from the spaces of routine life. “‘Normal’ roads are no place to cycle; they are to be feared.” He also attempts to show “how the identity of ‘the cyclist’ tends to invoke fear,” arguing that cyclists have been culturally marginalized and stigmatized, becoming gutter trash since they have been forced to ride in the gutters on the side of the road. Cyclists have become “strangers”—which now, I think, makes cycling seductive to certain identity questers seeking activities that can typecast them. So though I think this is true:
People’s fears of cycling will become more real and powerful as the prospects of their cycling grow greater. And people will feel and fear the loss of a way of life as it has come to be lived, as automobilised. When these anxieties become intense and the calls that cycling is too dangerous become really vociferous, we should I think take them as a sign that - as a culture - we are getting really serious about once more getting on our bikes.
I disagree completely with this:
Many people who cycle today - racing cyclists, touring cyclists, cycle campaigners, bike messengers - belong to cycling cultures which produce and reproduce positive experiences and representations of cycling.
No they don’t—they make biking seem weird and aggressive and annoying. And I can’t think of anyone who has has a “positive experience” with those douchebag bike messengers in New York; it’s far more likely that they have run you over as a pedestrian or yelled for you to get out of the way while they were blazing through a crosswalk while running through a red light.
We don’t need “positive representations of cycling”—we need cycling to seem inevitable and inescapable, as normal and boring a part of our environment as cars and advertising.
UPDATE: Yglesias links to a site called Copenhagen Cycle Chic, which has made me much more afraid. The campaign to make cycling boring must begin.