Who Is the Marginal Person on a Bike, part 2

Who is the marginal person on a bike? I use the word “marginal” to describe the very next person getting on a bicycle. I want to know who this person is, because as a bicycle advocate, I am hoping that more people get on bicycles, and I would like to know who they are and what their needs are so I can support them with my advocacy.

When I went over this previously, I suggested a couple possible alternatives for occupational or residential criteria to identify the marginal person. I have thought about this a little more since then, and it seems to me that the most intriguing way to look at this person is to ask whether he or she is riding for recreation, or riding for errands and commuting. As I see it, advocacy efforts for each of the two genres of bicycle use are diverging, like Darwin’s finches.

Recreational bicyclists are tiresomely described as riding expensive bicycles and wearing bright, stretchy clothes. Bicyclists who ride to get from place to place many times choose to emulate elderly Northern Europeans, wearing suits, carrying umbrellas, and riding bicycles with 19th-century accouterments like skirt guards and enclosed chains. In terms of advocacy efforts, recreational riding has the three-foot passing rule, which is steadily making its way across the U.S., and transportation bicyclists boast of efforts to create protected bike lanes. Lost in the mix are the so-called invisible cyclists, the immigrants without drivers’ licenses who are bicycling to get to work from home without benefit of lights, reflective uniforms, or rear luggage racks.

Why is this important to determine who is the marginal person on a bike? Because bicycling is a technique, and the people who are on bicycles are using the technique. The marginal person on a bike, in one view, is the person who just learned to ride a bicycle. This is a person who is now riding, who wasn’t riding this morning. To follow through with the argument, in order to get more people on bicycles, it would make sense to teach them to ride.

The flip side of this is that riding a bicycle doesn’t mean that the person is going to be running errands on his or her bicycle. Is that OK? Reading Michael Andersen’s blog post about People For Bikes’ Isabella, the tween whom we envision using our coming-soon bicycle infrastructure, I see her world as described in the blog post to be weirdly utilitarian. It’s full of destinations, but the journeys don’t merit a mention.

I am the father of two small children, and I can confidently aver that the journey is often the most exciting part of the trip. So I’m confused. Isabella needs bicycle infrastructure so she can get from place to place, but not so she can actually enjoy riding a bicycle. As Andersen points out in his blog post, “The ultimate goal of the Green Lane Project — and, we’d argue, of all modern bicycle infrastructure — is to get Isabella where she wants to go.” There’s no mention of active transportation here, so presumably Isabella’s bicycle and her neighborhood’s Modern Bicycle Infrastructure is just a placeholder until we can get the magic-carpet thing worked out.

As I have mentioned before, it is bizarre to discuss bicycle advocacy without the slightest nod toward the joy inherent in bicycle technique. Bicycling, even in a motor-vehicle-free nirvana, can be time-consuming, arduous, and uncomfortably sensitive to weather conditions. When it’s a nice day, however, it’s a joy to be outside, moving, using your body. Bicycle advocates who do not emphasize that more bicycle infrastructure permits joyful bicycle riding at will are like contraception advocates who fail to mention that birth control can enable more joyful sex.

So, as an advocate, I will confess that my ultimate goal is to get more people on bicycles, because it’s fun to ride and I want to share that with others. My goal is greater than providing people with an alternative way to run errands. The whole point of commuting by bicycle, as I see it, is to allow more of that joy into your life, substituting the autonomy and physical pleasure of bicycle riding for either a dull and listless mass-transit journey or an expensive and alienating motor vehicle trip.