No Reserve Army of Bicyclists

I doubt that there is a reserve army of bicyclists ready to hit the streets, awaiting some particular intervention. By “reserve army,” I refer to a mass of potential bicyclists whose role in society is to keep bicycle-focused interventions coming. We advocates are constantly being told that one thing is standing in the way of mass cycling. Whether that one thing be the rolling Idaho stop, or a protected bike lane, or a strict liability law, or peak oil, or bikes in buildings, or showers at work, or a bike valet, or that self-driving wheel, I don’t think any single intervention is going to make that much difference in getting people into the saddle. I believe however that interventions like those I mentioned do have value in communicating the value of the bicycle to the culture at large.

I arrive at this conclusion following my two posts (1, 2) on “Who is the Marginal Person on a Bike.” If I cannot easily identify a single kind of person who is the marginal person on a bike, how can I blithely assume that there is, in hiding, an entire battalion of them?

As usual, I am merely extending the insights of Dr. Adonia Lugo. In this post she elaborates on the gap between normal and normative when it comes to bicycle riding. She points out that each of us approach culture and transportation differently, and my extension of her statement is that it each of us will require different prerequisites in order to feel comfortable with getting into the bicycle saddle.

I have believed for a long time that people will get in the bicycle saddle when it makes sense for them to do so. This also contributes to my notion that there is no reserve army of bicyclists, as each person’s sense of when it is a good idea to get in the bicycle saddle is different. As advocates for bicycling and generally empathetic people, we have to engage with individuals as individuals, and avoid assuming that they are all equally ready to get on the bicycle.

Another way to think about the reserve-army concept is that it ignores the role of culture in promoting bicycling. Perhaps as Dr. Lugo suggests, people who have been to Copenhagen and Holland return with the idea that bicycling can (and ought) be normative. I’ve previously identified this as the vacuum-cleaner approach, the point being that the bicycle can be just another household appliance like the vacuum cleaner, which is used regularly but doesn’t inspire a lot of devotion or the wearing of special uniforms.

My own experience at the Secret City suggests that the bicycle is not exactly normative for Americans and that young, healthy people, in an environment with bicycles and without privately owned motor vehicles, do not jump into the bicycle saddle in large numbers.

What does this matter? What are the consequences? If there is no reserve army of potential bicyclists, why should you care?

One, advocates can move toward a multifocal approach that empowers individual people on bicycles and away from the single-intervention model of advocacy; two, advocates can engage with bicyclists who are actually bicycling instead of the shadowy reserve army of potential bicyclists; and three, advocates can begin to celebrate bicycling for the joyful activity it can be, instead of regarding it as a transportation chore that needs to be made routine.

The fallacy of the mainstream

Invariably when people volunteer reasons why they are not cycling regularly, they say they cannot show up at work in a sweat. The traditional cycling advocate, schooled in Northern European culture, explains that cycling need be no more strenuous than walking, and that it’s possible to get somewhere on a bike without being sweaty.

I need not point out to careful readers of my last post the importance of basing bicycle advocacy in bicycle technique, not in imported habits from Northern Europe. Yes, you can bicycle at 15 km per hour (9 mph) and use the same amount of energy you are using when walking. You can also bicycle at 15 km per hour with an extra 20 kg (44 lbs) of cargo and use a lot less energy than it would take to walk with that extra 20 kg in bags. Because of wheels, it is a lot easier to go a little bit faster on a bicycle than on foot.

It is certainly true that people in Holland and Denmark often bicycle slowly, and without exertion. But why are we scared of exertion? Why are we scared of sweat? This is the fallacy of the mainstream; just because something is mainstream doesn’t mean that it has to be supported. The U.S. mainstream involves going everywhere in an automobile. The automobile is the default mode of transport. In most of the U.S., nobody will ever be questioned skeptically for using an automobile. One of the great things about the automobile is that it helps people get places without mussing their hair or clothes.

It seems to me, however, that the biggest reason for encouraging bicycling, as opposed to motor vehicling, is to encourage active transportation. People should move themselves in order to get exercise and stay healthy. Same reason why the Department of Health encourages subway riders to get off one stop early and walk the rest of the way, because exercise is good for you.

If would-be bicycle riders can’t get any exercise on the way to work because they will show up sweaty, it’s time to change the mainstream to support active transportation. This makes more sense to me than advocating for a pinched and inefficient bicycle technique derived from Northern European customs in order to help people avoid getting exercise.