The Quislings of the Bicycle Advocacy Movement

It seems unlikely, but maybe most bicycle advocates are not chained to a desk all day, reading the current popular literature on urban planning issues. Sarah Goodyear’s interview with my guru, Dr. Steven Fleming, showed up on the Citylab website last week, and prompted a set of dismissive comments. Too stark and austere, they cry. No tolerance for other travel modes. Where are the human-scale buildings?

I think these people are missing the point, and I hope, perhaps in vain, that there is someone out there who does, but is just too busy to comment (kudos to my other blogging counterpart, dr2chase, who throws in some sensible comments toward the end).

Here is the point: if you are designing a city so that its citizens can take full advantage of bicycle technique, your designs may not resemble a city that has been designed so that its citizens can take full advantage of foot or horse. This is a feature. Fleming’s Velotopia is designed to take advantage of a bicycle in every aspect, down to having rollup refrigerator doors so you can open one and reach in while standing over a bike’s top tube.

The point of this exercise is to permit bicycle advocates to avoid treading the same ground that has already been trod by urbanists and livable streets advocates. The reductive, unidimensional, “Is this like Holland? Yes? Then do more of it” thinking doesn’t help anyone who would prefer not to consider Dutch cities and towns as the Platonic ideal of urban form. It is my opinion that in the effort to shift the azimuth of city planning away from the suburban ideal of cul-de-sacs and single-family quarter-acre lots, surrounded by arterial roads dotted with strip malls, a variety of different approaches should be considered, not just a simple rubber-stamping of the Delft plan.

And on the demand side, louder and clearer calls for cities to be constructed and expanded on the basis of bicycle transportation will help clarify the lunacy of bicycle advocates supporting city plans in which everyone is riding just a hair faster than walking pace. I doubt the attractiveness of a movement whose idols ride expensive bicycles slowly, and I think bicycle advocacy would be more energized if its adherents took care to appeal to people who choose bicycling because it’s a cheap way to go fast.

Hembrow on velocity

To encourage people to cycle, cycling must be fast. It is important that cycling journeys are made efficient and safe as otherwise cycling does not compete with other modes of transport.…No-one has time to waste on inadequate infrastructure which slows them down. There is no demographic group in this country or any other which wants their journeys to take longer than they have to and no excuse whatsoever for building infrastructure which has that result.

—David Hembrow, A View from the Cycle Path blogger

From the canonical Dutch cycling infrastructure blog, a good reminder that cycling, even in Holland’s bicycling Nirvana, must make sense to people doing it. We are not going to build a new society on bicycles from the efforts of people trying hard to go slowly. In order to make riding a bicycle a realistic choice, we have to use our street grid, not meandering greenways.

Why Dutch women cycle more

In this Guardian blog post by Herbie Huff and Kelcie Ralph the authors find perhaps the least persuasive justification for establishing family friendly policies in our polity: it will encourage more women to bike!

Women in Holland, researchers have learned, are able to bicycle more because they have fewer chores. The three reasons why: childcare responsibilities are more evenly shared, work weeks are shorter, and children and elderly don’t need as much chauffeuring around.

So they use this extra free time to bicycle. Yes, the authors contend, “Reducing total work hours and encouraging more flexible schedules for men and women alike could free up the time necessary to get around by bike.” Or, cynics say, it could free up the time necessary to watch more television.

Yes, Holland has a bicycle culture that makes it easy and accepted for everyone to bicycle. But even if the U.S. enacted all those family-friendly policies, we would still be a different country with a different transportation culture.

To this point, read the Motherlode blog post from today, about a woman traveling to Omaha, Nebraska from Washington, DC, a road journey of 1200 miles, with her husband and two children, in order to give birth. The writer talks about how she prefers the outcomes at the Nebraska hospital, but she curiously omits the risk and ennui of driving for three or four days each way, once while nine months pregnant, once with a newborn (can’t nurse in a moving car). I believe Americans have a cultural blind spot where motor vehicle transport is concerned, with the effect that these kinds of behavioral contortions pass without comment.

Americans perceive time in the car as time to ourselves, in our own personal bubble of control. The trip to Nebraska is not a 24-hour endurance test, with all passengers strapped down tightly for their own safety, unable to move, and the pilot solely responsible for the life and death of his family. It is transformed into an unforgettable four days of family time, with songs and banter, bracketing a joyous life event in the family’s collective timeline.

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.