While car culture isn’t quite dead yet, bicycle culture is taking hold as more of us are reducing our carbon footprints, saving money, getting fit, and becoming serious about cycling.
By Wendy Priesnitz
Bikes are no longer just for kids: we’re using them for commuting, vacationing, hauling and delivering goods, and more types of basic transportation.
Most of us grew up riding bicycles for fun, and many kids use their bikes for transportation. However, in North America, the idea of adults using pedal power for purposes like commuting or even hauling goods is a relatively recent phenomenon. Not so in other places, though. Bicycles have long been one of the world’s most popular forms of transport. They’re inexpensive; convenient; lightweight; don’t take up much space, either to store or on congested roads; are energy efficient, non-polluting, and healthy.
The annual global production of bicycles is estimated to be twice that of cars. It is thought that there are more than a billion bicycles in the world, with nearly half of them in China. That’s quite something when it feels like cars have won the hearts and minds of most people!
However, increasing numbers of us are getting out of our cars and onto bikes in a serious way. And the benefits are huge, both personally and environmentally. In fact, in 2010, researchers affiliated with the University of Central Florida’s Bike Path Project cited twenty-eight reasons to become part of the new bicycle culture. Among them are better physical and emotional health for people of all ages, improved personal finances and more equitable living for low income earners, improved municipal finances as less public money is required for transportation systems, increase in local property values, greater mobility, increased sense of community, less congested roads, safer and quieter neighborhoods, better air quality, cleaner surface and ground water, and greater sustainability including slowed pace of global warming.
Realizing the benefits of a strong cycling culture, many cities have created special bike committees and task forces made up of environmentally-conscious cycling advocates. The purpose of such groups is to find ways to facilitate bike travel and decrease car use. These solutions include dedicated bike lanes on main streets, expressways exclusively for public transit and cyclists, cyclist-activated lights at key intersections, buses equipped with bike carriers, improved sewer grates that don’t trap bike wheels, secure bike parking, special city maps for cycling commuters, cycling courses that teach you how to ride in heavy traffic, and “share-the-space” programs to educate motorists.
Even with all the challenges, riding a bike is an easy way to increase your health and fitness level, as well as helping to reduce traffic congestion and the production of additional global warming pollutants.
Commuting to Work
Corporations are starting to pay attention to cyclists on staff, and to actually encourage employees to commute to work by bike. Many companies have installed change rooms, showers and bike parking facilities to encourage their employees to cycle commute to work. Some of the reasons cited for encouraging employees to cycle to work include cost (showers and bike lockers end up being cheaper than creating an on-site fitness facility), employee health (cycling results in fitness and stress reduction, which leads to healthier, more productive employees), and an increase in the company’s green credentials.
If you’re a cyclist who is not commuting by bike, maybe you have a pet “reason,” like it’s too far, it takes too long, or you can’t afford to buy a special bike. But you don’t need a special bike – that old “beater” in your garage can be tuned up and ready to go, and won’t be as attractive to thieves as a fancy new bike. For short trips (five miles or less), cycling often takes the same amount or less time than driving; for longer trips, consider that you’re combining your daily exercise program with your commute. You can also choose a “hybrid commute,” such as this article describes, where you drive part of the way and bike the rest; this works well if you live in the country or suburbs and work in town.
Other issues like clothing and the inevitable sweatiness can be worked out too. If you ride slowly and skip the really hot, humid days, you might be able to ride in your business clothes…some commuters say they seem to command more respect when they leave the spandex at home. If you can’t convince your employer to install showers, maybe there’s a gym nearby where you can clean up and change.
For some people, the excuse involves their need to carry around a bunch of stuff. There are a variety of solutions for that too. The simplest is a backpack or messenger bag, which slips diagonally across your body and carries a variety of light-weight gear like a wallet, cellphone, towel, even a change of clothes. However, if you’re riding in the summer, bags on your body can make you hot and sweaty.
To solve that problem, you could install a rack over the back fender. There are closed containers available that fasten to the rack. Or there’s the old bungy cord and milk carton trick. Bicycle racks, both rear and front, also enable you to carry panniers on your bike, which are great for heavier loads like groceries and books. Be sure the hardware is permanently attached to your frame and get the right size panniers for the task – their weight capacity can vary greatly.
Another solution is the front basket, which can be sturdy wire or funky wicker. However, if you’re an inexperienced bike handler, too heavy a load up front can impact your steering.
If you want to be part of the bicycle culture but you’re carrying big loads, pets, or kids around on a regular basis, you might want to invest in a bike trailer. There are one- and two-wheel bike trailers. One-wheel trailers are narrow, making them great for trail riding, but they don’t hold much weight or volume (although more than panniers). They tend to be stable while in motion because they lean with the bike, but will tip easily while loading. Two-wheel trailers have much greater potential cargo capacity and are stable when loading and unloading. But they can have a tendency to roll over if you take corners too quickly. And their low profile leads to controversy, even among cyclists, as whether or not trailers are safe to carry young children. A solution to parenting in the new bicycle culture may be a cargo bike (see the next section, as well as this article).
Beyond encouraging bicycle commuting, both business and government sectors are seeing the possibilities of a bicycle culture and beginning to use bikes in the workforce. In summer in big cities, the police patrol on bikes and paramedics are using bikes to traverse gridlocked downtown streets.
The delivery of small packages by bicycle has a history as old as the bicycle itself. But over the past half century, the role played by bicycles in delivering cargo has been eroded by motor vehicles. However, delivery of letters and other small packages is now faster by bicycle in most cities, due to ease of maneuverability around traffic and the obvious lack of parking issues. Using a bike for deliveries also opens up a much wider range of possible routes using bike paths, narrow alleyways, etc., some of which are often much shorter than those available to motor vehicles.
These “shortcuts” often make transporting cargo by bike or tricycle as fast or faster than using an automobile or truck. So bike messengers have made a come-back and are now part of the urban landscape, complete with their own unique culture.
Increasingly, enterprising cyclists are hauling bigger loads using trailers and specially designed cargo bikes. There is an ongoing debate about whether it’s better to haul large loads using a tricycle (or even quad bike) or a trailer. Multi-wheel bike advocates point to the greater stability and braking performance of their vehicles, while trailer fans like how they can quickly detach the extra wheels when a small delivery is called for.
Cargo bikes have a long history in other countries. Until recently, the few in use in North America have been imported from Europe. There are a variety of makes and designs, and some custom manufacturers. There are even some tinkers who have made their own from used bike parts.
Aside from trikes, the cargo bike style that seems to have become the most popular is called a “long john,” thought to have originated in the 1920s in Denmark and The Netherlands. This two-wheeled load bike with a low cargo area between the steering pole and the front wheel can carry a lot of weight, is quite stable, and can be easy to drive once you get the feel of it.
We should also mention the Xtracycle LongTail innovation (left). It’s a bike rack, bike bag (or pannier or basket), bike trailer, passenger seat, and baby seat plus a cargo bike or sport utility bicycle system. The company has been offering a kit for the last decade that extends an existing bike’s wheelbase into something resembling a hitchless trailer, resulting in a balanced center of gravity and versatile carrying capacity. As a service to the cycling community, they have taken from the computer industry’s open source philosophy of sharing application design and posted the basics of their LongTail design on their website for anyone to use for free.
As part of this bicycle culture, there are bicycle moving companies, pizza and organic food deliverers, general haulers, landscapers, flower delivery services, bicycle wedding limos, mobile billboards, bike mechanics (obviously), the world’s smallest cinema, a brew pub’s mobile bar (complete with kegs), and, of course, ice cream and other street food carts (see photo below).
Across North America – and especially in warmer climates – small businesses are now part of bicycle culture too, using bikes for a variety of purposes. In addition to the messengers, there are bicycle moving companies, pizza and organic food deliverers, general haulers, landscapers, flower delivery services, bicycle wedding limos, mobile billboards, bike mechanics (obviously), the world’s smallest cinema, a brew pub’s mobile bar (complete with kegs), and, of course, ice cream and other street food carts.
Businesses also offer bike-powered people transport for a fee – often in tourist areas, as an open-air alternative to taxis. Pedicabs – or cycle rickshaws as they’re also known – are three-wheeled bikes with a sofa-like seat in back. They are common in major cities around the world, and ubiquitous in cities of South, Southeast, and East Asia. There are an estimated eight million human-powered pedicabs and motor-driven auto-rickshaws in India alone. And India is where the latest innovation in this ancient business is happening.
A solar rickshaw project put one thousand human-electric hybrids on the streets of Delhi for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The Soleckshaws, as they’re called, can carry two passengers at nine miles per hour for about twenty-five miles per charge. When batteries run out, the solar-powered pedicab driver will swap the exhausted cells for fully-charged ones at solar-powered charging stations, which are being installed in major transport hubs.
These are just a few examples of how bicycle culture is slowly but surely eroding the hold that car culture has on the developed and developing world. Low-carbon, healthy, and inexpensive: what’s not to love?
Learn More about Bicycle Culture
The Bike to Work Guide: What You Need to Know to Save Gas, Go Green, Get Fit by Roni Sarig and Paul Dorn (Adams Media, 2008)
The Art of Cycling: A Guide to Bicycling in 21st-Century America by Robert Hurst (Falcon, 2006)
Bicycling Magazine’s New Cyclist Handbook by Ben Hewitt (Rodale Press, 2005)
Atomic Zombie’s Bicycle Builder’s Bonanza by Brad Graham and Kathy McGowan (McGraw Hill, 2004)
Cycling for Profit: How to Make a Living With Your Bike by Jim Gregory (Cycle Publishing, 1999)
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Tips for Bicycle Commuters
- Always wear a helmet, even if not required by law.
- Obey all traffic signs and lights.
- Ride in the appropriate lane, identifying hazards and
adjusting your position on the roadway accordingly.
- When passing parked cars, watch for doors opening.
- Be visible and predictable; wear bright clothing and
reflectors, and always signal turns.
- Use a bell or horn to alert pedestrians to your presence.
- Take a course to learn to ride in heavy traffic.
- Ride confidently, establish yourself in the flow of traffic and be assertive (not aggressive).
- Plan routes that make use of bike lanes or side streets.
- Try to find an indoor parking area near your work to park your bike; alternatively, lock your bike to an immovable object in a highly visible area out of the elements.
- Make sure your bike is in good working order and has a rechargeable headlight.
- Consider weather protection such as fenders.
- Learn how to repair a flat, fix a chain, and inspect your brake pads for wear.
Biking With a Bump
Safe exercise during a low-risk pregnancy offers many benefits to both mom and baby. Given the proper precautions, cycling is good exercise for pregnant women because it doesn’t require lifting or jumping, and you can adjust your level of exertion. Here are some tips for remaining part of bicycle culture while pregnant:
- As with any exercise during pregnancy, consult with your doctor first.
- Make sure your bike is well maintained and properly adjusted.
- Adjust your route to reduce your chance of having an accident – for instance, using low traffic volume streets and bike paths instead of busy roads.
- Consider not cycling in extremely hot, humid weather, or when weather can make road conditions dangerous.
- If you experience balance issues or back pain near the end of your pregnancy, you might want to stop cycling for awhile.