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.

Bicycling in the Secret City

To the question of to what degree safety improvements can trigger a rise in bicycling, I would like to add these thoughts based on my experience at the Secret City.

I spent nearly a year among 15,000 other people, mostly servicemembers, in a desert location. I went out every other afternoon to bicycle around the back of the airfield, fighting the north wind constantly. I would race the jets taking off on the runway just a couple hundred meters off to my left. Parking was a dream, with wooden racks placed in front of every destination. I even used a cable lock!

Bicycles were plentiful, mostly department-store mountain-bike models. Private motor vehicles were forbidden. All drivers needed additional layers of certification beyond a traditional US drivers’ license before they could get out on the road. Crashes were investigated thoroughly and those at fault were held accountable. It sounds like an idyllic paradise for bicycling, and in many respects, it was, except for mode share: there were never more than 5% of the people bicycling.

I think this can be largely explained by noncommissioned officers’ reluctance to let servicemembers move around without accountability, and part in the servicemembers’ reluctance to move around without being correctly accounted for. There was no command emphasis on bicycling as an alternative to being driven around in motor vehicles. But in the real world, outside the Secret City, where do the authorities actually promote bicycling instead of other means of transportation?