Photo from seattletransitblog.com
Seattle Transit Blog's Martin H. Duke posted a short anecdote last weekend about his experiences as a brand-new bike commuter (he started riding two weeks ago). Duke focuses primarily on how he, a regular transit rider, started biking to make one leg of his commute faster and easier. The importance of multi-modal commuting cannot be understated, particularly in Seattle where hills are often a legitimate barrier to bicycling. But it was Duke's second point that really stuck out.
It’s important to note what a casual rider like me is willing to do. I have no interest in buying hundreds of dollars of equipment (I spent less than $150 on bike, helmet, and lock combined; thanks, Bikeworks). I had no interest in having to change or shower at the end of the ride, since that would annihilate the time savings; that ruled out buying an outfit or crossing the lake.
Duke is a person who rides a bike, not a cyclist. Though there's always the chance that he'll fall in love with cycling and its many subcultures (I never could have predicated my future obsession with all things cycling when I first bought a used bike in college), it's just as likely that he will continue to see bikes as a tool and not an identity. That's exactly what we need.
If bicycling is going to become a viable mode of transportation, bicycles need to be seen as a means of conveyance, not an entry point to a lifestyle that requires specialized clothing, new lingo, or dedication to a particular political ideology. Fair or not, that image compounds some people's reluctance to start riding.
Driving, walking, and transit riding aren't cultural identifiers like bicycling. I doubt there are many people who, asked to describe themselves, would respond "driver." Bicycling needs to be the same way if it's going to be embraced by a broad audience.
There are a number of reasons cycling is seen as an identity, not a mode. With a very small share of the transportation system (just 0.5 percent of trips nationally and 2.9 percent of trips in Seattle), bicycling is always going to be seen as more "fringe" than ubiquitous modes like driving and transit. As bicycling becomes more commonplace, it will lose some of that baggage, but that's years if not decades away.
But there are a few things we can do in meantime:
Support bicycling publications that focus on bicycling as transportation, such as Momentum Magazine and Urban Velo. Both magazines are young (and underfunded), so the quality leaves a little to be desired. But the majority of cycling magazines are dedicated to racing and the latest, greatest equipment—perpetuating the false notion that you need a race bike, cycling shoes, and a full-spandex kit every time you ride.
Continue building pragmatic bicycle infrastructure, particularly on arterial routes and routes that connect neighborhoods to transit. The more people who ride, the safer and more acceptable bicycling becomes. In order for that to happen, bicycling (or bicycling combined with transit) needs to be the easiest mode for short trips. Those Dutch commuters in the video we posted Friday aren't riding for altruistic reasons. They're riding because it's easy and practical.
As STB's Adam Parast showed with his bikeability study, Seattle has islands of good bikeability (typically around urban centers) that need to be connected. For fitter bike riders, these islands can be connected by infrastructure on the most direct routes, which are also typically the flattest. Road diets seem to work wonders on arterials. For less-fit riders, we need good infrastructure connecting those bikeable islands to transit. Everyone who can ride a bike can ride two miles to the bus or train station. Infrastructure will insure that that's the safe, easy, practical thing to do.
None of this is to say that cycling culture is bad. I love the culture, gear, racing, and history of the bicycle. But those things aren't going to attract the Martin Dukes of the world. The bicycle as a pragmatic transportation tool will.