Dutch Bikes, decline of

At the time of writing this review, I do not think it unfair to say that the Dutch bike craze in North America has come and gone. When the bicycles first appeared on the scene around 2008, they were a source of fascination. The concept of the Dutch bike inspired us with images of carefree, relaxed, un-athletic cycling – of bicycles that allowed the rider to sit bolt-upright, “as if in a chair,” while effortlessly floating along, groceries or toddlers casually in tow. With these machines came the promise of a dignified, utilitarian and (dare I say it?) fashionable means for ordinary people to ride a bicycle for transportation without changing the way they dressed.

But as nice as it all sounded in theory, in practice it didn’t stick. Routinely, those North Americans who had purchased Dutch bikes discovered that conditions where they lived were too hilly to make these lovely machines practical. Or too windy. Or the distances were too long. Or the car traffic called for more nimble and aggressive handling. So they made adjustments to their Dutch bikes, attempting to lighten them, and to install lower gearing, and to lower the handlebars, before – more often than not – ultimately switching to a different style of bicycle. As the transportation cycling culture in the US grew, a preference emerged for machines that – while still relatively upright and fitted with utilitarian accessories – were of a lighter, sportier, more compact nature than the prototypical Dutch bike.

From the estimable Lovely Bicycle blog, the definitive explanation for whatever happened to the Dutch City Bike in the US market.

I bought one from a neighbor. It had one gear, and no front brake, and only a rear coaster brake. I sold it to someone who really wanted it, but it was hell to ride uphill.

Who is the marginal person on a bike?

Looking through the Dill study on the four types of people and their inclination to get on bicycles, it seems as if the respondents were primed to consider safety above other reasons to bicycle. The question I have is whether perception of risk is the most important factor to determine whether people are cycling or not. According to the estimable Hembrow, “If a city makes cycling pleasant, convenient, attractive and safe then more people will cycle, regardless of difficulties…”

Piling on, I question how useful it is to predict the existence of a statistical group that is large and amorphous enough to comprise more than 50% of the population. Remember, the “Interested but Concerned” group in Portland is larger than the entire population of women in that city. Yes, there is value in portraying bicycling just to get around as a practice appealing to a majority of the population, and not just a fringe group. As bicycle advocates, however, we should already believe this.

And further, the study is not longitudinal, to determine whether participants changed their group affiliations over time. Another more general point is that there was no attempt to use factor analysis to break down affiliations in terms of more basic factors (or responses to particular questions).

My question instead is this: Who is the marginal person on a bicycle? What are some of the characteristics of the person who just got in the saddle today?

Thinking about the question of bicycle mode share from this marginal perspective, it occurred to me that Portland’s bike boom might as well be the result of new residents moving in with the intention of moving to a city where they could ride a bicycle every day. This would serve to increase the mode share. After a couple years, I posit, two follow-on effects happened: Portland became more attractive to bohemians of all stripes (credit Portlandia, not just bicycle lovers, reducing the boost to bicycling numbers from new residents, and the people who moved to Portland to ride bikes regressed back to the population mean in terms of their bicycle behavior, getting nicer houses outside of biking distance, or buying automobiles.

Taking the marginal idea further, it would appear from my Portland theory that the marginal bicyclist was for a time most likely to be a new resident. What are some other groups that could become good sources for marginal bicyclists? Off the top of my head, here are a couple possibilities, of varying likelihood.

Parolees and ex-convicts

Senior-center participants

High schoolers

Community college students

New parents

Residents of particular neighborhoods

Workers at certain employers (or city, state employees)

Unemployed people

Library users

Let’s leave the creation and deployment of a marketing campaign to push bicycling to any of these groups for a later time. I believe that readers can visualize the idea of such a campaign and some of its likely results perfectly easily without actually going to the trouble of creating such a campaign.

There is no game but golf and Al-Rahman is its prophet- Kunzru, Transmission

‘Please,’ said Mr. Al-Rahman, when they finally caught up with him, ‘explain to me clearly what you can do for my business.’

‘Right,’ said Guy, trying to concentrate. ‘A question for you, sir. Do you think your employees are living the Al-Rahman brand in a holistic way? What does Al-Rahman actually stand for?’

‘We are a very old family, Mr. Swift.’

‘Sure, sure. But you know, at the moment Al-Rahman stands for—well, for golf. And that’s it. Golf is great, don’t get me wrong. But is it really something your people can get behind? At Tomorrow*, my team came up with a kind of banner heading about where we feel your company is at now. We think of you as “the faithful.” We have this great animation for the concept. You see this guy hitting a hole in one and it says in, like, your traditional Arabic calligraphy style, “There is no game but golf and Al-Rahman is its prophet.” ‘

There was a silence. Guy tried to fill it.

—Hari Kunzru, Transmission, page 171 of 2004 hardcover edition

For a book about failure in multiple dimensions, Transmission is kind of a success to read.

Wisdom Wagon at Trailer Park, directions included

A friend of mine down here got this in the mail. Where else would you
find a psychic but a trailer park? And the name Wisdom Wagon? True
genius in marketing.