The unstoppable rise of bikes

In five years, bicycling will be so common that it's boring, says author Elly Blue

Published January 12, 2014 3:30PM (EST)

   (<a href=''>Miro Vrlik Photography</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Miro Vrlik Photography via Shutterstock)

It's hard to deny that bicycles are having a moment. Last year saw New York City, Chicago, Salt Lake City and Columbus all get bike-share systems of their very own -- joining Boston, London, Paris, Dublin, Moscow, Hangzhou, Montreal and many, many other cities throughout the world. Increasingly, people are talking about bikes as a replacement for cars (and even trucks), debating the best ways to design bike lanes and bike-friendly intersections, dreaming up futuristic bike paths and, above all else, taking to the streets on two wheels.

But bicycling's recent rise to the spotlight isn't just a passing fad, argues writer and bike activist Elly Blue. Instead, she says, growing numbers of people are beginning to recognize the tangible benefits -- to themselves and to their cities -- of trading in cars for self-powered transportation. And the research is backing up their experiences. Blue's new book, "Bikenomics," draws on a growing body of academic work, along with her own involvement with the country's bicycle movement, to make the economic case for bicycles. As for the people who insist, in the face of such evidence, that bike commuters are a scourge on humanity? Blue maintains they're just bitter from spending so much time stuck in traffic.

Blue spoke with Salon about the bike movement's recent rise to prominence and the way in which old stereotypes no longer pass muster. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Your book takes on a lot of misconceptions held by people who don’t bike. You talk about things like safety, the convenience of having a car, and biking in inclement weather. And you make the case that a lot of those excuses aren’t so legitimate when you look at them more closely. What do you think is driving those misconceptions? 

Part of what’s driving those misconceptions is that they’re reported as fact, in newspapers, by conservative think thanks and by public leaders. A lot of it, though, comes from the fact that over the past 70 years, and especially over the past 30 or 40 years, we’ve been investing – personally and as a society – so heavily in this system where you have to drive a car, that it makes sense to people that you have to drive a car. And so arguments that shore that knowledge up make sense, and arguments that don’t support that kind of common-sense knowledge are seen as being not as valid.

What I’m trying to do is provide a window into a new normal. I’m asking people to look around and see how they’re being asked to live their daily lives, what they’re being asked to do financially and with their time -- which is sinking a lot of money and time into cars -- and to see that as not necessarily a natural, or even economically sustainable thing.

Sure, and you give plenty of examples in the book of places where the common-sense knowledge doesn’t make sense in reality. Are there any examples of that that particularly stick out to you?

The whole myth that people who ride bicycles are freeloaders is just an unbelievably pernicious mess. This idea that we’re not just scofflaws, but that we’re somehow getting something for free. People have this perception that they pay a lot of money into the road system, which is true: If you drive a car you pay a lot of money into the road system for that. But the myth is that that’s enough. And it turns out that the fees paid by drivers are only about 50 percent of the cost needed to keep the nation’s roads even in the bad state of maintenance that they are now. And the rest comes from everybody. Whether you drive a car for two hours every day or one hour every week, or never at all, of if you can’t afford a car, a considerable amount of whatever sales tax or income tax or whatever tax you pay goes into the road system. You can make the argument, as I do in the book, that if you don’t drive a car, you’re overpaying into the road system. So the truth is the opposite of the misconception.

As to where that comes from, honestly, I think that driving a car is so stressful. There are studies that back this up, that driving a car is one of the most stressful things you do every day. It actually causes mental health problems if you have a bad commute. It’s this state of mind, almost, that’s fueling the anger against bicyclists. So it’s not even about rational arguments, it’s about how people feel. Someone who’s angry about bicycling and isn’t convinced, I assume that the book won’t necessarily do anything for them, because they’re acting based on their feeling and their experience, not on numbers and statistics.

I’ve got to say, though, having been a bicycle commuter myself, that can be stressful too. 

That is true, and I think there’s something to be said for that as a reason why sometimes people behave the way they do on bicycles.

Yeah, that would explain a lot. And it seems like the argument you’re making is really that a better bicycling culture needs to come from investment in city infrastructure, bike-share programs and that sort of thing, more than just convincing more people to start riding bikes. 

Those two things go together. You’ve probably seen in New York City just a huge increase in the amount of bicycles in the street every day just because of bike-share and the new infrastructure. But that stuff happens because there’s a popular movement – because people are convinced and eager and demanding more. So I definitely am making the argument that if you build it, they will come, but a prerequisite to them building it is us demanding it.

Dorothy Rabinowitz became infamous for opposing New York’s bike-share program. Do you think its rollout, so far, has proven her wrong?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, everything I’ve seen about Citi Bikes, in terms of its actual impact, has been overwhelmingly positive. People riding Citi Bikes are safer than people riding their own bikes, it seems like from the studies. The increase in bicycling has been tremendous, and the increase in people driving safely around bicyclists, while a little harder to measure, sounds like it’s been effective, too. I recently read a report that 30 percent of the bicycle traffic in New York City is now on Citi Bikes, which is amazing.

You also write about the perception of bicycling being elitist. Can you talk about some of the ways in which you found bikes can help people who are living in poverty, and help empower minority communities?

It’s funny, so many of these stereotypes about bicycling going so unquestioned that people are able to hold them simultaneously, even when they’re completely contradictory. So you have the dual perception that bicycles are a rich man’s toys – everyone knows that stereotype of doctors riding in the countryside two or three abreast, blocking traffic – and then you have the other stereotype that everyone who rides a bike is a broke ne’er-do-well, maybe with illegal status, or with a DUI, and maybe there are racial connotations that go with that – the idea that these are people who have never grown up. That’s the bicyclist that you see in movies – it’s either the environmentalist or the fool that rides the bike, or maybe those two are seen as the same thing.

And, honestly, both those things are true, but neither of them is true. There are plenty of people who buy the most expensive bike they can, and they drive out to the country to ride it around, and then they come back and that’s their entire commitment to bicycling. A lot of those people are actually starting to turn into bike advocates. On the other end of the spectrum, there are a lot of people who ride a bicycle because it beats spending three hours on the bus instead of what could be a half-hour bike ride, or they have no other options. For a lot of those folks, if they had the option not to ride a bike – if they had better transport, or the ability to ride in a car – they would. But not necessarily. For a lot of folks, bicycling is just this fun, empowering thing.

I think the thing that often makes or breaks whether bicycling is seen as desirable is access to a bike community. Having friends and coworkers and colleagues that bike, and knowing that there’s a bike stable waiting for you when you get to your job site or your office, or being able to take your bike inside, out of the elements, in your apartment complex. All of these things that legitimize bicycling, I think, are what will help break down those stereotypes. Because for a community organizer living in a poor neighborhood, a bicycle is just as strong a tool as it is for a lawyer who’s using bicycling as the new golf. The difference is in who has the infrastructure, who has the legitimacy. And everybody needs it.

You live in Portland now, where in a lot of ways you’re seeing the cutting edge of bike culture, and many of those possibilities are opening up. What do you think can help promote more of a bike culture in other places, where there’s less of a mindset oriented toward it?

I do a lot of traveling – I do this thing called the Dinner and Bikes Tour where we drive around the country with a chef, talking about bikes and feeding people amazing vegan food. So what we see -- it’s not like there’s a linear progression that looks the same everywhere, but you’ll start everywhere with the die-hard riders, who are going to commute no matter what -- they’re going to take the lane on a busy road, they’re wearing tons of reflective clothing – as this sort of personal challenge. And then at some point, a node starts to form. Often it’s a riding group – people riding recreationally – but just as often it’s people who are tying bicycling into their other interests.

For example, we went to Mobile, Alabama, and people showed us photos of the chicken coop touring ride and the beer brewery rides they went on. It was a lot of adults riding their hybrid or cruiser bikes around Mobile and just having fun, maybe having a beer in-between, and just getting to know each other. I feel like that’s the most potent form of activism – that’s the kind of thing that really sparks the movement, because then those people aren’t just talking about serious things. They’re socializing and they’re networking with each other, but they’re also becoming experts about bicycling in their city. They’re learning what specific intersections are needed, they’re educating each other about how to make change happen, they’re introducing each other to the city leaders and they’re building a movement from the ground up.

That’s what I see, over and over again, in cities across the U.S. A small group starts building a movement, and then suddenly becomes a political force. The group Red, Bike and Green that I wrote about in the book started in Oakland, and now it’s in four different cities. Each chapter has become a force that’s firing up the base, but also, when they go to a planning meeting or a project open house, they can’t be ignored, because there are a ton of them, and they know what they’re talking about. They’re talking about their daily lives, their rides and where they live.

As a casual observer, bike culture appears to be changing and growing extremely rapidly. With everything you’ve seen across the country, and maybe read about in the rest of the world, would you say that we're in the middle of a revolution?

Absolutely, without question. When I started touring in 2010, it was just happening in a few cities, and I questioned whether it was just a trend. But every year it’s grown palpably, and by now it’s national news. Major cities are starting to embrace bicycling, major political leaders are starting to see the bicycle not just as a tool, but as something that people are really passionate about and organized around. There’s a kind of energy coming from the bicycle movement, and politicians are of course really attracted to that. But also, it’s the tangible, positive benefits that bicycling bring to the community, the civic money-saving benefits, and the business benefits, the job benefits and so on. The case for bicycling is definitely becoming a lot more clear, as more people are doing it and as we have more case studies.

And it seems like something that will just keep growing?

I see it as becoming kind of a boring thing in the next five years, actually. And that would be a good thing. You don’t think about going grocery shopping as an exciting adventure, normally, but when you go by bike now, in most cities, it is. The idea is that in five years, it probably won’t be that way. It’ll just be what you need to do after work.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Bicycles Bike-sharing Citi Bike Cycling Elly Blue Green Transportation