Justice, revolution and bicycling

I envy the Portlanders in this BikePortland post for their charming assumptions that bicycles are key to livability and that Portland somehow holds the record for livability. I guess livability is the secret to Brooklyn; even though it’s more expensive than where I live, it’s got the livability rep going.

And I think what charms people about bicycling is the illusion that it is somehow a more sane, more basic, more elemental way to get around than motor vehicle or mass transit. As this Brooklyn Spoke post demonstrates, however, bicycles are caught up in the same politico-cultural milieu as every other form of transportation. It is fairly obvious to me that motor vehicle operation, as the default mode of choice, comes with the privilege (for privileged people) of never having to answer the question, “Why are you driving?” Mass transit, as New York’s people’s mode of transport, comes with the privilege of oblivion—nobody will pay any attention to you while riding the bus or subway.

There are no half measures. We can remake society to place bicycling as the default mode of travel, but why remake society if it is still as unjust and unequal as it is today? More precisely, I commute through the Bronx. I don’t see bicycling improvements being made along my route. Bike Snob, another Bronx commuter, has the right idea, often titling his posts “The indignity of commuting by bicycle.” What I see is that everyone in the Bronx should be indignant about their commute. Yes, bicycles could help, but we won’t get bicycles, because to shift to a bicycle-focused society, the perceived costs of getting the current motoring class around by bicycle will overpower all other considerations. The kind of socially promoted bicycling we would get would be so riddled with exceptions as to make it impossible to actually use a bicycle to get anywhere.

The ultimate urban utility bike?

I am not going to presume that I am in the same league as Bike Snob when it comes to snarky putdowns of bicycle designs, and his analysis of the Oregon Manifest utility-bike competition is spot on.

Assume nevertheless that all entrants in the competition are functionally identical in bringing a “design-y” aesthetic to bicycle construction, as demanded by the rules of entry. The bikes all look kind of modishly similar, with subdued, metallic finishes, no derailleur, narrow saddles, flat bars to encourage hunching over, and a prescriptive set of angles, which make the bikes look as if they urge the rider to conform to them, instead of vice versa.

My version of the ultimate utility bike would have (just as a start):

  • A double kickstand for stability
  • A café lock for the rear wheel, mounted on the seat stay
  • A step-over frame like a mixte (in case I’m carrying a kid in a rear seat)
  • Easy-to-replace parts, like rim brakes, 26″ wheels with Schraeder valves, and derailleurs
  • A permanent rear rack with a mount for a rear light
  • Room for a U-lock bracket on the seatpost
  • Fenders front and rear
  • Trailer hitchings on the rear axle
  • Two-sided pedals so I can use cleated shoes when I want

Manufacturing and distributing a bike that is designed intentionally not to meet the utilitarian needs of a broad section of consumers is perfectly reasonable as a business strategy, but I wouldn’t call such a product a “utility” bike. I’m wary of bikes with too many custom parts; when one breaks, the whole assemblage might need to be replaced because it’s impossible to find a replacement for the broken part that is compatible with its complement. This is perilously close to the “bicycle-shaped object” conundrum that is found at the other end of bicycle marketing. In that case, the bicycle is so poorly designed, quality replacement parts cannot make up for the poor quality of the existing parts that they are being bolted on to.