Ode to the Bicycle

Close your eyes for a moment and think back to your childhood.  You may nostalgically feel the wind whipping through your hair as you race down old neighborhood streets with your buddies, see the ribbons fluttering tantalizingly on your handlebars, feel the triumph of taking the training wheels off for the first time. Memories like these represent those first forays onto the road of independence, out of the immediate control of your parents and into a world of autonomy; the bicycle is the vehicle for those initial voyages. The bicycle's role in discovering independence is an important one, but its place as a symbol of adolescent freedom is not what I'm here to talk about today. The bicycle's potential does not end with the acquisition of a drivers license. Shift gears briefly and consider the bicycle beyond its use as childhood toy.

Over the summer I took a class at the University of Vermont titled, "Bicycles, Globalization, and Sustainability." While the class made me fall in love with bike culture and policy, that's not the reason I found this class so moving, or why I feel compelled to write an article about it. I loved the class because it took an everyday item that we interact with and have interacted with our whole lives and made it a lens through which we reexamined culture, values, our own country's history, and its future. My hope for this article is not to turn all you CMCers into diehard cyclists, but rather to urge you to see how everyday objects can help us understand why we do what we do.

Cities across the globe, from Amsterdam to Bogota, have adopted the bicycle as a cultural symbol. The bike is a versatile symbol because there is no status associated with it; cycling is a genderless, classless, and ageless form of transportation. The bicycle can serve as a concrete statement of one’s values. It takes one from supporting causes in the abstract to supporting causes in a more real, tangible, and individual way. For environmentalists, using a bike states, “I reject the use of fossil fuels and a lifestyle of excess."  For hipsters it proclaims “I'm trendy and alternative.”  The counterculture message is “I don’t need society’s norms.”  Health nuts say “I bike because it’s good for me,” and bike-based businesses advertise, “I'm quirky, progressive, and fun.”

Lingo like “complete streets,” “social space” and “active mobility” get thrown around within the biking activist community. These are popular buzzwords, but they also prompt one to rethink generally accepted notions of mobility and our conception of "place". The first question raised is, what is your goal as you move from point A to point B? Getting there as fast as possible is the normative answer. Pause, and ask: should speed be the only goal in transportation? Could your choice to ride your bike serve other needs? What are those needs?

There are benefits to moving at a more human pace: on a bike you have time to process your surroundings.  The entire experience of your journey is transformed; suddenly, your whole body and each of your senses are engaged. You notice places and things you might otherwise miss--the smell outside a bakery, the architecture of a building, birds singing.  You see people on the road and have time to greet them with a passing hello.

Using a bicycle makes one question road ownership and transportation planning. The majority of public space in the United States is made up of public streets. This space is completely given over to the automobile, and the answer to congestion buildup is all too often to simply build another freeway or add another lane. This solution is not sustainable. Where are the bike-lanes? If they exist are they safe enough for an 8 year old, or only for brave and suicidal souls? Is there a cohesive sidewalk and bikepath network, or just disjointed chunks of paths here and there?

Cities around the world, including some in the U.S., have started to view transportation through a more social and active lens.  These cities have utilized public space in a way that enhances the atmosphere of the community. They plan their cities with pedestrians and community in mind; creating a wide array of aesthetic auto-free social spaces in city centers. Portland, Oregon for example, has seen vehicle miles traveled decrease and transit ridership grow faster than both auto use and population--statistics that both contradict the national trend--due to transportation planning done in the 70s.

Now don't be discouraged: physically rebuilding a city is not the only way to enhance “community.” Other cities use policy to promote active mobility. Some create pedestrian streets by closing a road to cars once a week, or month, allowing the streets to temporarily transform into a social space for cyclists and pedestrians. This idea, known as a "Ciclovia" started in Bogota, Columbia and has been implemented in cities around the world. Some cities enact policies that promote cycling without even directly addressing bikes; London uses tolls during periods of peak congestion to promote non-private automobile transportation.  Another effective move--and the number one way to encourage alternative transportation--is to simply reduce the availability of parking.  (Fun fact: all parking lots in the U.S. combined take up an area the equivalent of Connecticut!)

I could continue to ramble about bike policy and different global approaches, but I think I've given you enough to think about for now. So, again, what’s my point? To transform you all into bikers? To hate on the private automobile?  No, not really.  Biking only makes up about 1% of all transportation activity in the United States; Choosing to bike is a unique and personal action, and will hardly solve any of our congestion or environmental problems unless it’s part of a much broader and more comprehensive plan.  My point is that everyday objects, like the bicycle, can be a used as a lens to reexamine broader topics like globalization, sustainability, activism, efficiency, municipal policy, and industrialization. The bike is just one object that, with deeper consideration, allows you to question your environment and habits, and the reason why things are how they are today.

You can get info and directions to local bike trails here from the Claremont College Cycling team.  Keep in mind the Wohlford basement has a bike shop where you can rent bikes every day for free.

Want more from Ellie Beckett? Check out her great article on the 10 classes you have to take before graduation, her article challenging us to say hello to each other or her article urging us to take a leap of faith.