Europeans tend take a more positive view of cycling than their American counterparts. In small, compact settlements in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, often built around walking, the modern bike resurgence is a natural fit. It’s no surprise that a multi-modal approach is baked into those countries’ official transportation programs.
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In the far-flung, automobile-oriented cities of the United States, however, cyclists face an uphill battle for inclusion on roadways.
Unequivocally, the Dutch lead the way in cycling — owed to investments in dedicated travel lanes, bike storage and other programs. Amsterdam may be the mecca for design solutions to cycling issues, but even after borrowing some of those innovations — cities from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine have ponied up funds for new lanes and pathways — American cities have yet to remake that same success at home.
One theory suggests the United States and its cities are too spread out to create the European-like havens for two-wheeled travelers. In rushing to incorporate the automobile, did we in inadvertently break the mold for bicycle-friendly cities?
The real answer may lie in a difference of culture — cycling is embedded in the collective consciousness of Dutch, Danish and German communities. For millions of Americans, it simply isn’t.
That may be changing. For a growing number of Americans, bikes are about more than just getting around. They serve as a convenient lightning rod for modern political ideals — exceedingly green, egalitarian tools, bicycles ooze nostalgia and thrift, and because of their limited range, inherently focus the rider toward a locally sourced economic and cultural community.
Cyclists and cycling are steeped in romanticism, and in many communities, this amorous relationship translates into a thriving subculture — one not so different from the throngs of hot-rodding, milkshake slurping teens of the previous century. Look at any American college campus today and count the number of bike racks and bicycles. While the bicycle may have become passé in the 1960s and 70s, studies indicate today’s technocrat teens may be less infatuated with automobiles — AAA indicates fewer young people are getting behind the wheel before turning 18.
One such sign of the cultural shift is a growing DIY bike movement. Access to self-help tools like Instructables.com and Bicycletutor.com provide users with access to information about how to first maintain, then fix, then build their own bicycles. The truly proficient are engineering new, innovative bicycles that take the tenets of the lifestyle a step further. Two-wheeled lawnmowers, information kiosks and other “frankenbikes” may be one-offs, but they signal new ideas about transport entering the mainstream.
These nontraditional contraptions may, inevitably, move beyond the weekending crowd and into the larger American transportation conversation. This potentiality suggests the current debate over bike lanes, casting spandex-clad warriors against motorists, captures only a fraction of the larger issue. Namely, that roads are the domain not just of automobiles, but bikes, baby strollers, pedestrians, equestrians and other modes of transportation, of all shapes and sizes.
Consider what, for example, the Astroturf-clad platform on wheels, known as a “parkcycle,” presupposes. First, that the streets are open to their bulky, slow-moving presence. Secondly, that the road is in and of itself a form of public space, and that sun-bathing riders, after piloting into place on any bare stretch of pavement, can utilize that space as they see fit. Pop-up parks, in a similar vein, have even occupied parking spaces — temporarily inconveniencing motorists, though not usurping them entirely.
The next generation of Americans may sustain a different relationship with the roadways, and bicycles are a part of that shift in perception.
In spite of the culture clash taking place today, city governments haven’t shied from seeking the potential benefits of a robust cycling community, namely creative class employers and health-conscious urbanites. Case in point: an innovative “Bicycle-Friendly Business District” program in Long Beach, Calif., a culture-focused take on the Business Improvement Districts of the 1970s and 1980s. The idea sprang up as a means to promote two-wheeled transportation modes, and in turn, economic development. Included as part of the program were cargo bikes, designed to give cyclists space to carry newly purchased items.
Investments in cycling acknowledge a cultural shift. But skirting the larger rift between motorists and cyclists, however, may undermine those efforts. Until cyclists and motorists work together, efforts to promote cycling in America’s urban areas may only serve to create pockets of inclusion.Looking for more mobile innovation? Check out Pop-Up City’s look at a multi-story restaurant tooling about the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam.
Cyclists, not content to rely on store-bought Huffy BMXs, have taken to fabricating their own inventive solutions to urban transportation issues. Here we take a look at some of the more creative bike contraptions:
The “Swing Set Bike”
“People’s Cargo” — Deliver a Beer Keg Using a Cargo Bike
The Daredevil’s Bike — No More Flipping Over the Handlebars
Parkcycles — Mobile Green Space, Piloted Into Place by Users
A DIY Cargo Bike — Grocery Shop on Your Trusty Steed
A Bike With Utility AND Speed
Butchers & Bicycles of Copenhagen, Denmark.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.