Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What is a Bike Person?

This post was precipitated by a couple of days spent last week with Adrienne, who co-authors the blog Change Your Life, Ride a Bike! and her husband, who came for a visit. They brought their bikes, and we had a great time riding around, discussing all manner of topics, only occasionally bicycle-related. It got me thinking about the idea of “bicycle people” and “bicycle culture.”

It seems endemic to human nature to assign group identities to individuals. This appears to be reasonable on an evolutionary level, since identifying a person as a member of a group hostile to one’s own would be important for survival. Likewise, identifying friendly people and even potential mates as members of congenial groups, or assigning positive group characteristics to the groups we are most likely to join, helps us identify what is worthwhile and positive about ourselves. As much as we like to think of ourselves as solitary apes, we really do thrive as members of groups.

The problem, of course, comes when the identity of the group is taken to stand for the identity of the individual, or when others make assumptions about people based only on the characteristics of the group they are perceived to belong to.

Both Adrienne and I run bike blogs, we both ride quite a bit, and (I’m making an assumption here) we both spend a fair amount of time thinking about bikes and riding, so it seems reasonable to assume that we might talk mostly about bikes. This was not the case at all. Our bikes were, of course, physically present, but they were simply our transportation. Granted, we discussed their finer points and virtues, compared notes on little squeeks and rattles, talked a bit about strategies for urban riding, etc. The bikes were a commonality, to be sure, for we wouldn’t have even met were it not for bikes, but they do not define us as people, or limit the good we can see in others.

It is a common lament in Bike Blog Land how divided the broader “bike culture” can sometimes be. Every kind of bike and every style of riding has its own group of devotees, and every group has a set of perceptions about every other group. This is often lamented in terms of the possibilities for collective action that are lost by dividing “amongst ourselves.” The assumption is that we all have a shared set of concerns and interests if we could just get beyond all the silly posturing and attitudes. But what if we don’t?

Automobile drivers (which many bicyclists also are) don’t typically feel a sense of underlying kinship with other drivers. In fact, most drivers tend to have a pretty low opinion of other drivers. Why should I have (or want to have) a favorable impression of someone or friendship with them just because they choose the same mode of transportation as I do?

Bike bloggers also tend to emphasize the great people we meet while riding, but we also tend to assume to some degree that they are great because they also ride bikes. But what if that has nothing to do with it? What if some people are just nice and we get along with them really well, and what if some people are just jerks and we would rather not spend time with them? What if riding a bike has absolutely nothing to do with it?


  1. I always laugh to myself when I hear folks bemoan the lack of "community" in the bicycle culture. Here's my line of reason: For the most part, we want bicycles to be an accepted form of transportation, used by a large number of people for a large number of errands. Yet we also want everyone on a bicycle to like every other person on a bicycle. If the bicycle is meant to be a useful tool, then a wide variety of people are going to use that tool, and we should appreciate that usage, and not worry about whether everyone gets along. It’s like seeing someone with the same lawn mower and deciding that the two of you should be best friends. If the "community" wants to see the bicycle accepted as a form of personal transport, the "community" needs to stop thinking of the bicycle as a personal affirmation or lifestyle declaration.

    Great post, as always.

  2. Great comment AJ, that's exactly what I was getting at, only you managed to say to better in one paragraph than I did in seven.

    There's a real tension, though, because I think we can both admit that we get something from the sense of community, too. I suppose the real take home message is that the community or communities are fine, but that we can't expect everyone on a bike to join or even want to join. Bike riding and community building are not mutually exclusive, but they're not necessarily connected, either.

    That all being said, I think the idea of a bike "community" and the idea of the bike "culture" are two different things, and I think each of the bike "communities" (however we want to define them) can and should have a hand in promoting a broader bike "culture." I'm going to stop using "superfluous" quotation marks "now"...

  3. I agree completely that there is a lot of great joy and camaraderie to be found amongst fellow cyclists. There are also a large number of jerks and idiots careening about on two wheels. Like you said, though, the most important thing for all the various communities of cyclists to realize is that to non-cyclists we’re all the same! Most motorists recognize no difference between a well-prepared, law abiding commuter, and an anarchic, red-light running hooligan who’s rebellion of choice just happens to be via bicycle. As a policeman once said to a friend on a borrowed bicycle, “you’re one of those Critical Mass guys, aren’t you.”

  4. Great post, Thom! It has got me thinking, and so, I will stew a bit more before I reply. I would like to condense my thought into no more than 2 paragraphs : )

  5. The thing that most people do not realize, is that people always have more in common with us than we think. We project all kinds of fears and misperceptions and assumptions on those we see. No wonder we need things like bicycles to find the common ground. When there is a bicycle in the mix, there is an object that can be accessed by both sides, which allows a period of feeling out to see what kind of interaction style the other has, which leads to continued conversation... it is only when we forget the bike is a bridge to the goal, as opposed to the goal itself, that we start to think that all cyclists are the same.
    Does that make any sense?

  6. Wow, yes, that makes great sense. It's not "bike people" per se that draw our attention, but people with bikes. A single point of commonality *can* be what leads to deeper connections, but we shouldn't assume that a de facto community exists just because we all get around the same way. Good stuff, thanks.

  7. My life changed when I rode a bike: I threw my back out last week on the way to work!!!

    For the time being, I am incapable of self-propulsion.

    But cycling has undoubtedly changed me; this last week without riding has made me perfectly stir crazy!


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