Alan Durning on whether biking is for children and for losers
You don’t have to go farther than Hollywood to see one reason Bicycle Neglect is so rampant in North America. Consider the 2005 film The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The middle-aged protagonist, obsessed with video games and action figures, seems stuck in early adolescence. The film spends two hours lampooning him for being emasculated, immature — not a real man. His vehicle? A bike. (You can almost hear the schoolyard snickers.)
To be a successful adult, apparently, you have to drive. Cycling is for children; cycling is for losers. In this view, it’s fitting that the pinnacle of the sport of cycling is the Tour de France. (Implied snicker about France as a symbol — unfair, of course — of all that’s cowardly, effeminate, and weak.)
Call this Bicycle Shame.
Oh, one other thing. A variant of Bicycle Shame that’s increasingly heard in Cascadia’s transportation debates is that cycling is elitist. It’s for privileged, overeducated, white people. For urbanites. For intellectuals. (And they probably speak French.)
In the imagery that’s typically invoked, real people — regular people, who work real jobs and raise real families — travel by regular means. They drive. They have no other choice. (See this and a recent example.)
These cultural associations are damnably hard to counteract, because their roots are emotional, even sociological. They have to do with in-groups and out-groups, with status, prestige, and identity. Overcoming them, therefore, is as much about creating new associations — or strengthening alternative ones — as it is about counterargument.
Still, analysis isn’t irrelevant, to which end, a few notes:
Emasculated? Driving a car or truck is about as strenuous as sitting on a couch, while cycling builds cardiovascular fitness and muscle tone with every pedal stroke. The rejoinder to “Tour de France” is “Lance Armstrong.”
Childish? Well, yes, the highest cycling rates in North America are among those under 18 years of age. But the young bike because they’re not allowed to drive, not because there’s anything innately childish about pedaling. Minors are also the most active in team sports, yet we don’t think of professional athletes as childish or immature. This stigma on cycling is just Car-head.
Losers? Elitist? Um. Where to begin?!
How about some data? The good people at the Puget Sound Regional Council shared with me their data on commuting choices by household income. Here’s a table of the breakdown, from the 2000 census, for residents of Washington’s King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties.
|Means of Transportation to Work||Median Household Income, 1999|
|Work at home||$69,000|
|Car, truck, or van||$66,920|
(PSRC also analyzed the 1990 census, which showed a very similar rank-order of median incomes by commuting mode.)
Clearly, on average, cyclists are neither economic overlords nor hard-luck cases. Cycle commuters are poorer than car commuters, but richer than bus commuters and walkers. (The real elite in the greater Seattle area, apparently, work at home or ride ferries, and the only huge divergence from the norm is that people who walk to work have much less money than everyone else.)
Still, these data are only partial. They ignore the massive statistical influence of age: walking and biking commuters tend to be young, so their incomes are nowhere near peak levels. Drivers tend to be older, so their incomes are higher. Furthermore, these data reveal the median income of commuters but not the distribution of incomes that shape those medians. Are cycle commuters clustered around that median or polarized to the extremes?
Cycling for transportation — as opposed to recreation — may, some evidence suggests, concentrate at the two ends of the income ladder, among those with very low incomes and those with high incomes. Cycling also seems to increase with education (as does income): the more degrees you’ve got, the more likely you are to pedal (and have money). (The evidence, such as it is, is here, here, and here [PDF].)
The very poor presumably cycle because it’s affordable: less than one-sixth the cost of driving, according to one reckoning. As incomes rise above the poverty line, cycling plummets, then begins a slow increase as incomes continue to rise. The more educated and richer bike, despite Bicycle Shame. Perhaps they’re better informed of the benefits. Perhaps their social circles don’t stigmatize cycling as much.
But elitist? What an inverted proposition! Private jets and limousines are elitist. Luxury automobiles and yachts are elitist. You need a lot of money to travel these ways. But bicycles?! A few hundred dollars will outfit you with a basic two-wheeler. Even a good bike, plus accessories and maintenance, cost less than a dime a mile, when you average the cost over the vehicle’s useful life. Think about that. Biking is cheaper than bus fare on all but long trips, and most trips are short: half of all U.S. trips are shorter than three miles (30 cents!); more than a quarter are under one mile (see here, slide 28 [large file]).
Biking is the least exclusive form of vehicular transportation there is. It’s not restricted to people with money, or people with drivers’ licenses and insurance. About 30 percent of Cascadians — and 10 percent of Cascadian adults — don’t have a license to drive, by my calculations (drawn partly from here). But cycling isn’t limited in this way: aside from the disabled, almost everyone over the age of six could bike. As I noted previously, there’s no upper age limit on cycling, either.
Biking isn’t just cheap for bikers, it’s cheap for the communities in which people bike. Bikeways and bike racks are inexpensive to build and maintain. Because bikes are light and (relatively) slow, bike facilities don’t need anything like the structural strength of motorways.
Biking is also cheap for nations: they don’t have to import as much oil or defend their access to that oil with billions of dollars and divisions of soldiers. It’s cheap for health-care institutions: they don’t have to treat as many car-crash injuries, as much lung disease, or as many cases of diabetes and others maladies of obesity. It’s cheap for our grandchildren who won’t have to endure as much climate disruption; cheap for polar bears who won’t have to go extinct; cheap for our consciences, our karma, our souls.
Cycling — like walking — is democratic: it’s equally available to all (or all but a very small share of the population). Consequently, a Bicycle-Respecting community is more equitable than a Bicycle-Neglecting one: Bicycle Respect gives independence to young teens and affordable mobility to low-income households and retirees. Like such democratizing social guarantees as public schools and unemployment insurance, Social Security, and national parks, safe, separate, continuous facilities for cycling and walking put a common foundation under us. Such guarantees bind us together as one people, among whom — while many things are distributed by the competitive logic of the marketplace — certain necessities are available to all. We provide these things because we are not simply a collection of consumers who share a currency and a string of freeway exits. We are a community.
Is cycling for children, for losers, for intellectuals? Yes. It’s for them, because it’s for everyone.
Both photos are courtesy of Brian Hansen, City of Copenhagen.