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.


Another motherist piece here: Grandma can’t work as a babysitter for unborn child, mom cries, writes about it.

The commenters hit all the usual points: it’s unfair to the grandmother to expect this, old people are bad carers, relatives are the best carers, it takes a village, etc. What I found most interesting were the clues in the article that the old lady lived in Staten Island, and the kid lived on Long Island. Perhaps this would be more attractive to her if she didn’t have to drive along I-278 and the Belt Parkway every morning and every afternoon.

Sweet thoughtful reflections on a year bicycle commuting, courtesy Larry Littlefield

I can’t let the week slither by without highlighting this fantastic blog post about bicycle commuting and exercise in general. Usually Larry writes these storm-and-stress pieces about Generation Greed and the systematic evisceration of state and local budgets by older people in their favor, but on his birthday on Monday he dropped this one, which I really like because he’s not writing to persuade anyone that they should bike to work, as well.

Usually writing about bicycling ends up being overly strident and boring, with a save-the-planet message thrown in: “I am more virtuous than you because I’m on two wheels and you’re not,” kind of thing. Larry sounds almost apologetic that he’s not more of a crackerjack cyclist:

What a great deal riding a bicycle to work has been! Until I actually tried it and found a way to work around the usual objections – work clothing, sweat, weather, traffic—it hadn’t seemed practical to me. Now, good health seems impractical without it. How else would it be possible for an overweight, middle-aged non-athlete, with a sedentary office job, a family and other responsibilities, to get that much exercise, nearly an hour per day?

Plus, he drops mention of one of my favorite things about Brooklyn (and Long Island in general), the ridge that runs down the center where the glaciers stopped on their last advance, the “terminal moraine.”

I typically ride at about 12 to 15 miles per hour on flat ground, but intersections and hills bring the average down to about three times the speed of walking. And taking long walks is about what riding a bicycle that way is like, except for the up hill stretches on the bridges in both directions and up the terminal moraine in the afternoon.

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Galway Kinnell, “Why Regret?”

Once again, I’m reminded [follow this link, maybe?] about this fantastic poem, which I first came across cradled in the folds of an excerpt from Nick Hornby’s “About a Boy” within the pages of the December 22 & 29, 1997 New Yorker.

I had memorized the Kinnell poem back when I lived in Greenpoint in the winter and spring of 1998, when I still spent time walking over the Pulaski bridge to get to the subway to get to whatever job I might have had then. This 20-minute exercise afforded me the luxury of spending time memorizing poems off of index cards: I would carry the index card in my jacket pocket, or hold it in my gloved hands (this one is a winter memory, you see), while hustling across the freezing Newtown Creek toward the no. 7 train’s Vernon-Jackson stop.

Memorial Day of that year I bought my first bike and by fall of the next year I had sworn off the pedestrian transit of the bridge in favor of cycling over and taking the Queensboro bridge into Manhattan, one side effect being the loss of poetry-memorizing time. But every once in a while I look around for the Kinnell poem, which has gotten much easier to find since it was published in a book Strong Is Your Hold.

Unfortunately for me, Mr. Kinnell has revised his poem for publication (which is why I’m not putting the whole thing in this blog post; I remember the old poem, not the new one. It would be like showing a picture of a 2008 Jamis Durango and claiming, “This is the bike I bought in 1998, which freed me from the drudgery of walking across the Pulaski Bridge on winter mornings.”) I remember line 17 as being “muck, birdlime, slime, mucus, gleet, ooze,” not “glaim, gleet, birdlime, slime, mucus, muck” as it is in the book.

The Robbins poem, “Alien vs. Predator,” when compared to the Kinnell poem, just seems glitzy and shiny and made of tinfoil. Its delights are insipid compared to the deep wonder and insight of Kinnell’s verses.


“a little foam chiropractor”? Meh. What’s the fun in memorizing a poem like that?

Galway Kinnell, “Why Regret?”