(The following guest editorial was written by Beth Hamon.)
In Portland, we recently saw the 12th running of Bridge Pedal, the second-largest community bike ride in the country.
Bridge Pedal has long touted itself as an important “doorway in” for new bicycle riders, and a part of Portland’s much-hyped “bike culture”. These claims, plus my experiences working at a bike shop that sees more than its share of poor people, have led me to ponder about bike culture.
Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:
- What IS bike “culture”? And who decides? Is bike culture simply the collection of extra-curricular, non-commuting bike events that our town seems to be able to organize ad nauseum? If you go by the press, this would seem to be the case. If that’s so it shuts out everyone who rides for transportation, and shuts out the whole concept of commuting by bike.
- If bike culture includes bikes-as-transportation, why are so many people NOT involved, or welcomed, or invited in? I go to some of these bicycle events and I am hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t look at least a little like me: white, educated and reasonably employed. What I don’t see in the so-called “bike culture” are people of color. What I don’t see are the very poor who depend on their bikes for survival. What I don’t see are people who think of themselves as “bicycle riders”, rather than as “bicyclists”. These missing segments represent a larger population than many bicycle activists recognize or are willing to admit, yet they are not being effectively reached by the “bike culture”.
- Is there a way to perhaps deemphasize some of these larger, more costly bike “events”, in favor of promoting more public service by those who see themselves established in the “bike community”, so that more people can be welcomed into a more bicycle-dependent lifestyle? Is there a way the city or state governments could help with this effort? And what are we doing to reach out to those who don’t see themselves as part of “bike culture”?
[Sidenote: One notable exception to this is the Community Cycling Center, which has based its entire existence on reaching underserved populations and getting them onto bicycles for health and happiness. I remain proud of my involvement with the CCC, when I was the lead instructor for the Create-A-Commuter Program, which taught low-income adults bike safety and maintenance and provided them with bikes for transportation (to jobs, housing, etc.). Many of the adults I taught are still riding and more are following their example today.]
I fear the rise of an “us-and-them” mentality. It’s already there, of course, particularly if you race or work as a messenger. These two subgroups are definitely different from the rest of the bicycle-riding population. In fact, they are part of what I think gives rise to the way we use language in the bike scene.
There is a world of difference between calling oneself a “bicyclist” or “cyclist” and calling oneself a “bicycle rider”. Language is loaded in all sorts of ways that can exclude and divide. I try more and more to define myself as a “bicycle rider”, so that I will become more accessible to those around me who don’t ride much, or at all. It’s a deliberate choice and I’d like to think it makes a small but helpful difference.
It’s hard. Because I work in a bike shop and basically have the “key to the candy store” (and my finger on the pulse of many things bicycle), I represent bicycles to the world. That means I’m part of this thing called “bike culture” whether I like it or not. How do I navigate the tricky dance between elitism and inclusion, continuing to enjoy my own brand of bike-geekiness while also making sure that others are not put off by my admittedly extreme bike-love? It’s a question I wrestle with regularly, and I hope I do a good job of of it, at least most of the time.
(This article has been edited for brevity. The original version is posted on Beth’s blog, bikelovejones.)