walking around in tap shoes and pyjamas since 2010 - my cycling log (opens in new window)

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Fun AND Practical: Is This Concept So Very Foreign?

Recently, I noticed One Speed: Go! in the blogroll of another bike blog that I read regularly. I couldn't actually tell you which one, because it actually appears in several (should I have noted it for proper cred-forwarding? I'm not sure about the netiquette, there). It's another witty, intelligent bike blog with great pictures — a much better read than mine, IMO, so feel free to clicky-the-link and head directly over there, instead of listening (er, so to 'speak') to me blather.

Anyway, whilst reading the recent 'back issues,' I noticed that there seems to be some minor debate going on in the world about whether cycling is, in fact, fun.

The rabbit hole down which this inevitably led me is one I frequently visit: one in which it becomes increasingly clear that there are those of us who see the world in black and white and those of us who don't.

Mikael at Copenhagenize notes that the first real bike boom — that phenomenon of the Victorian era — had little to do with fun — that ordinary people flocked to the bicycle as a mode of transport not because it was fun, but because it was practical. 'The bicycle went mainstream,' he observes, 'because it was quick and easy.'

In the 1800s, that was undoubtedly true (however, I suspect that all those ladies in their bloomers tasting real freedom for the first time probably also thought it was fun).

The thing is, during that era the automobile was in its infancy and very, very far from being a mass-market option. Likewise, owning and maintaining one private riding horse, let alone a coach-and-four or what have you, was an expensive proposition beyon the reach of your average urban dweller. Trains and other forms of public transit were available in some areas, but not all, and even then only on whatever schedule the operating agencies deemed convenient (and profitable).

The bicycle, then, was the only option if one wanted to travel quickly and easily from point A to point B — in other words, it didn't matter if it was fun back then. As such, the correlation does not follow (does that mean it DNFed? I didn't even know there was an organized ride involved!).

Flash forward to bustling 2010, and you'll find that in the United States, most of us own cars. I don't, but I'm a weirdo — and that doesn't mean I never ride in cars: indeed, over the past week-and-a-half, my posterior has spent exactly no time on a bicycle seat and proportionately much, much more time than usual on an automobile seat. Likewise, the last time I had to move a sofa, you'd better believe I rented a truck. Yes, I could've dropped $400 or more on a true cargo trailer for Swift, then waited however long it would take for the trailer to be built, had it shipped across country (by truck!), hooked it up, and retrieved my sofa — but the cheaper, simpler solution, in this situation, was simply to rent the truck for a couple of hours.

In 1892, a bicycle would unquestionably have presented the fastest way from Point A to Point B for a great many people (urban or otherwise). However, in 2010, for the vast majority of us (read: those who do not already live in well-planned urban areas), cycling is often not the fastest way to get from point A to point B.

It so happens that I can make it to the office from my apartment in 15 minutes flat, which is faster than the average drive time, because a significant stretch of my commute uses a MUP that has no stoplights and no street crossings. Likewise, to get to the ValuMarket at Midtown Mall from my apartment is a painless trip of about a minute or two by bike, and on the bike I get to park some ten meters or so from the door.

From PT Guy's place, however, I would guess the ride to work would probably tally half an hour at least (Google Maps claims 42 minutes, but I'm usually significantly faster than their bike directions expect me to be), simply because the route in question would involve more stoplights. Drive time is about the same on the surface streets and less on the interstate (unless you hit a traffic SNAFU, which is always possible in Louisville). The nearest grocery store isn't terribly far away, and probably wouldn't be much, if any, longer a ride timewise on a bike than it would in a car — but it would involve traversing some of Louisville's less bike-friendly streets, which would mean more stress (note: to a seasoned bike commuter, this is no big deal, but to a newbie, it's a really big deal).

Driving definitely has its drawbacks — beyond the environmental and health impacts, it tends to be stressful. I wrote a while ago about how people tend to be subject to adrenaline when behind the wheel, and I still believe that to be true. It's much easier to relax while riding a bike than it is while driving (or riding in) an auto.

However, car manufacturers have done a lot of smart things to make us all feel that driving is not only the logical way to get from point A to Point B, but the fun way.

Mikael at Copenhagenize seems to indicate that none of the respondants to the biennial Copenhagen cycling survey ranked 'Because it's fun' as reason #1 to ride a bike. I'm guessing that's probably either A) because it wasn't an option or B) because the motivations we proclaim and those upon which we act are often not the same, or at least not ranked as we say they are. It's not that we're deceptive; just that it's hard for us to discern between things as we think they should be and things as they are when forced to judge our own motivations.

I suspect that nobody in Copenhagen would ride bikes if it wasn't any fun to do so. Why? Because, from what I understand, Copenhagen, in addition to being a great city for urban cycling, is also a great city for walking, has reliable public transit, and has not yet totally banned autos.

Moreover, even when we're used to doing it, cycling involves physical effort — WORK! :O — and as a species that is designed to conserve energy, we are much more likely to do something that involves physical effort if it's at least a little bit fun (if sex wasn't fun, for example, the human race would probably die out in roughly one generation).

The point that seems so difficult for many of us in the cycling-advocacy world is that it's okay if fun comes first. In fact, if we really want people riding bikes, fun not only should, but must come first.

Having been off my bike for a week, now, I can say with certainty that I haven't spent much, if any, additional time in transit. I probably should care about the fact that my environmental footprint has been much greater than normal, and I do on a purely cerebral level — but I am not going to allow guilt to be a prime motivator in my life, so I don't really feel that on a gut level (that would mean feeling guilty in a particularly useless and ineffectual way). I am probably a little less fit than I was a week ago, but there are plenty of means of maintaining fitness that don't involve bikes. Likewise, since PT Guy has kindly been shuttling me around, I'm not exactly taking a car off teh road — but I'm also not really adding one, and if I really felt bad about that, I could just take the bus.

What I really miss is the fun. I miss whizzing down hills. I miss banking around turns and feeling like I'm flying. I miss the ticking of my freewheel pawls, and the giddy sense of being in on some giant cosmic joke when I hook up with a other cyclists on a busy road, grinning with glee as we wait politely for the light to turn green. I miss spontaneous races (especially the ones that break out on Baringer Hill), even though I often lose.

I've read several articles and blog entries that point out the magical thing that auto manufacturers have done right — they make driving look sexy and fun. Statistically, one is much more likely to be injured or killed in a car than on a bike in daily life; even if one renders a mile-to-mile comparison, cars come out a little ahead in the danger department. Yet even those auto ads which do mention safety — those for family vehicles, usually — always present their products in a way that makes them look fun, stylish, or sexy.

If we want an even more direct correlation, we need look only so far as the recent surge in the popularity of motorcycles. Real bikers may look askance at all the road-n00bs in their fresh-from-the-dealer-stiff chaps on their fake-custom rides, but no one can deny that there are more motorcycles on the roads and more people enjoying them since someone realized that you could market them as fun, sexy vehicles of midlife mayhem that are nonetheless respectable enough for the Joneses.

Real Cyclists (TM) may likewise look askance at the idea of marketing road bikes (for example) as a form of midlife rebellion — but, quite frankly, the real money that drives this country sits in the bank accounts of middle class midlifers (since 40 is the new 30, I'm going to call them the 50 - 70 crowd). These are the same people who are the most influential in shaping our laws, who drive their kids to school every morning (because cycling wouldn't be safe), whose preferences determine what shows up on the grocery shelves, and who make the big purchases for their families.

They're also often the same people who say bikes don't belong on the road. A lot of younger people are still radical enough to fight for the underdog just because he's the underdog. A lot of older people are randonneurs* and bike tourists**.

If we could get enough of those people riding bikes — I don't know about you, but I'd be glad to have them — it could make a significant impact not only in the image of cycling in the 'States, but in the number of bikes we see on our roads.

The question is, given the relatively small margin of cycling businesses and the frantically paranoid bike safety lobby, how do we pull that off?

I suspect we should start by asking the motorcycle world how it manages to get around the fact that motorcycles are among the single most dangerous ways to get from here to there, and manages instead to present them as sexy and fun.

*No offense to randonneurs, here — I'm both an aspiring randonneur and someone who hopes to live long enough to earn the right to call himself an 'older person,' conflicts with lamp-posts notwithstanding. My French-Canadian grandmother, who was already in her sixties when I was born, was probably the biggest influence in my childhood. Also, most of you 'older' randonneurs could kick my butt if we ever threw down, be it on bike or off. So, you know, mad love :)

**Same goes for bike tourists.


  1. We can spread the word one blog at a time that cycling in all its forms can be really fun. As for the sexy part: Liz Hatch, Liz Hatch, Liz Hatch. And/or Rochelle Gilmore. It should be required to post one video of them on the blog periodically.

  2. LOL! Great idea! I think I'm going to have to see if I can fulfill that requirement.

    I do hope that the blogosphere will hook more would-be riders on the idea that cycling can be fun. Sometimes I think we almost feel that we're not *allowed* to have that much fun...

  3. Hmm. I get your point. I recently had somebody ask me if I rode for fun very much, or just to work. I replied that no, I didn't ride as much as I would like on the weekends because there was always other stuff to get done.

    They said they didn't want to commute to work by bike because it might take the fun out of cycling for them. I didn't really get that, but whatever.

    What I failed to point out at the time was that I ride to work almost solely for fun. There are other benefits, but the reason I ride to work is to have fun, twice a day, every weekday. I even enjoy riding in traffic! I own a car. I could drive. I don't because cycling is way more fun.


  4. You know, I've heard that 'it might take the fun out of cycling' thing a couple of times, too. When it comes up, part of me wants to give that argument a little credit, since that's basically the reason I became a computer guy instead of a concert violinist ('concert violinist' seemed to be right up there with 'volunteer shark wrangler' in terms of job security) ... and then another part of me (the part that understands I *really* opted out of being a concert violinist because I was too insecure to face the pressure and potential for rejection) thinks it's just an excuse.

    I wonder how often I fail to point out that the primary reason I ride my bike to work (or anywhere else) is for fun?

    I think I'm going to order a plain jersey and make a big iron-on transfer for it that says "BECAUSE IT'S FUN!"