A 17-year-old boy of Bengali immigrant parents once told me how much he loved riding a bicycle—but that he would drive a car when he was an adult.
We were cycling from London to the coastal city of Brighton at the time. His mind was clearly infused with cultural notions of car ownership as a form of status and wealth — but more than that, it seemed to hinge on an idea that cycling belonged to a time of childhood, youth, and, broadly, of innocence. His image was in harmony with futurist author H.G. Wells, who wrote in 1905: “Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia.”
In an age of politics proud to knock the vulnerable, where many fear for society’s loss of innocence, the way bicycles are creating a place for themselves on the world’s car-filled roads offers both a beacon and guide. It shows how a fringe and fragile, but rational idea can survive a political climate that prides itself on the ability to be firm, tough, and even means.
Physics alone makes a compelling case for the value of the bicycle. Designed to human proportions, bicycles are recognized as the most energy-efficient means of transport available — better even than walking. A bicycle requires around 50 calories per passenger mile, and while cars vary greatly in efficiency rates, the equivalent figure starts at around 1,500. The bicycle is to transportation what pulleys and winches are to lifting; in their very essence, and even quite literally, bicycles give power to the powerless.
Over history, this quality has made them ever-present in both social change and protest. In 1896, American suffragette Susan B. Anthony famously pronounced of the bicycle, ‘’I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.’’ In the grainy footage of Chinese protesters clearing the wounded from Tiananmen Square in 1989, bicycles are visible bearing stretchers and helping protesters get around. In Saudi Arabia, as religious leaders prop up a conservative nation reliant on oil prices, the country’s first domestically produced film, Wadjda, features a young girl determined to resist the forces that try to stop her from riding the green bicycle she dreams of owning. The bicycle toes a delicate cultural line, along which it is powerful enough to inspire but innocent enough not to offend censors.
In many examples, the bicycle plays both practical and emotional roles. Kimberly Coats, a cycling advocate who’s worked across Africa, has seen bicycles allow health workers to cover otherwise-impossible distances. Coats now run women’s cycling club Team Rwanda Cycling and explain how women have been slower to take up riding in Rwanda than in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and other places she has worked. “It’s been an uphill battle to find women interested in learning to cycle and then having the fortitude to stand up to the cultural stigma placed on them for riding,” she says. “It’s a slow process, but it is a process, and we are witnessing change. It’s not just freedom; bicycles are essential to a better quality of life in Africa.”
Coats’ partner organization, Qhubeka, runs a number of projects across Africa that reward community work with bicycles. In the informal settlement of Kayamandi, in South Africa’s Western Cape province, 18-year-old Olwethu is now able to cycle to school and pursue ambitions of studying medicine. “Riding my bicycle has brought me closer to myself. It has taught me to be brave. The bicycle has changed my life,” she says. “I’m standing proud to show that I can ride my bicycle as a female and that not only men can ride. We also can do this.”
Those qualities are well-summarized in a 2012 message, encouraging riders to join a bicycle phalanx as it made its way to New York’s Union Square and Occupy Wall Street protests: “Bike Blocs at street protests have the advantage of being able to break up and reform. The spontaneity of a Bike Bloc means that participants are able to easily move through the streets without needing leaders or a decided route … In the past, Bike Blocs have provided a tremendous amount of solidarity and logistical support to demonstrators who are on foot.”
In both Western and non-Western settings, the low barriers to obtaining and using a bicycle, which requires little maintenance and is largely resilient against most kinds of mechanic failure, predisposes the technology toward inclusivity.
Although it’s hard to plot a single, accurate timeline in such a global trend, 2009 might usefully be seen as a tipping point in the cultural renaissance of the bicycle — a moment when its marginal, grassroots appeal started to go mainstream. With a greater number of people living in cities than the world’s rural areas for the first time, a pendulum tipped — bringing with it the need for efficient transport in settings that now define most of the human presence on Earth.
In the manicured spaces of the modern Western city, the bicycle offers a safe, healthy means of rebellion, perfectly attuned to the new vogue. Financial institutions in London and New York, which flocked eagerly to sponsor cycle hire schemes, have led the clamor around buying a slice of H.G. Wells’ prophesied utopia.
Nonetheless, the bicycle now has an almost existential appeal. In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has begun closing stretches of urban expressway so that the banks of the River Seine can see a “reconquest” by bikes and pedestrians. Back in London, Mayor Sadiq Khan has pledged to double cycling investment, build more bike lanes, and “make London a byword for cycling.” Campaigners are determinedly holding their feet to the fire on those promises, but the way politicians are now expected to come to the table with positive sound bites on bicycles demonstrates how central they are in the creation of modern, livable spaces.
This growing political popularity of cycling is not only the prevail of public-spirited leftists. In New York, it was finance-billionaire-turned-mayor Michael Bloomberg who first insisted Manhattan streets must accommodate bicycles. Some of the most impressive cycle infrastructures in London was signed-off by Boris Johnson; a man educated at Eton and Oxford, belonging to the highest walks of the British class system. To traditional conservatives, cycling seems to have a life-affirming appeal that draws resilience, thanks to the diversity of its gene pool.
The notion that bicycles form part of the architecture of a healthy city is also growing outside the West. Clarisse Linke is Brazil’s country director for the global Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, through which she has successfully pushed for the implementation of bicycle infrastructure in the sprawling, gridlocked São Paulo. A well-integrated network of bike lanes has boosted the popularity of cycling on key routes by 116 percent, while also delivering large reductions in fatal accidents.
“The bike lane program came with a broader movement for reclaiming public spaces in São Paulo,” explains Linke. “There’s also an important mindset change in the population, which started to discover the need and joy of being ‘out in the streets.’ Bikes play an important role in that, as citizens have the possibility to interact with other citizens while outside a car.”
A city-centric view of the unstoppable roll of the bicycles, however, is perhaps wishful thinking. In thriving urban areas, we see bicycles in a glorified role as an avatar for metropolitan liberty. Cycling is celebrated in a city’s culture, media, and politics; cycling fashion is championed, each fatality is given broad coverage, condemned by campaign groups, and commemorated by protesters willing to close junctions by lying down in the street — an action that channels the idea of a sit-in into a “die-in.
It isn’t only a question of urban areas, however. Different cities have different characteristics. Activists in the concrete sprawl of Houston, Texas, have been moved to begin a “ghost bike” project in which painted bicycles are left at those places where cyclists have been killed by drivers; their deaths treated by police as if such events were an obvious cost of using the road network on two wheels. Despite the existence of a grassroots cycling community to condemn the injustice, its presence has not yet permeated the minds of public servants.
Outside major metropolitan areas, the rights of cyclists are even more easily flouted. The statistics bear this out. In the U.K., rural roads host just 32 percent of every billion miles cycled, but are home to 58 percent of cycling fatalities. When the League of American Bicyclists ranked state policy on cycling (measuring a mix of state spending on bikes, long-term planning, and enforcement against driving offenses), it was Washington that topped the table, with West Coast companionship from Oregon and California also inside the top 10. States with lower urban density, like Alabama, Kentucky, Kansas, and Nebraska, propped up the bottom of the list.
Then there’s the curious phenomenon of the extreme anger that the mere presence of cyclists on our streets seems to evoke in some. Despite cyclists frequently suffering as the victims of roads, allowances for bicycles attract an ire that seems to go well beyond mere infrastructure. In New York, Bloomberg’s pro-bike changes saw a rival politician remark that, if elected, he would “tear out his fucking bike lanes.” Cycling communities are full of stories of unwarranted road rage. Even London’s former mayor, Boris Johnson, mercurial in his love of cycling, criticized fellow riders in 2012 for thinking of themselves as “morally superior.”
Julian Huppert, who served as MP for the U.K.’s top cycling city, Cambridge, tells similar stories about Eric Pickles, a minister with a bruising reputation for dismissing bikes. “He attacked Cambridge for focusing on cycling, describing it as the choice of the ‘elite,’” Huppert tells me. “In Cambridge, over a third of trips for work or education are done by bike; imagine the gridlock if we stopped cycling!”
These incidents aren’t isolated. In an era of Brexit and Trump, bicycles can be readily found in the basket of goods used to typify supposedly out-of-touch city types. The same nostalgic politics that harkens back to a glorious, unfettered past see the curtailment of car use, the imposition of speed limits, and affordance of greater rights to cyclists as an arrogant imposition of the future, a world of “political correctness has gone mad.”
One common view of bicycles, rational and human-scale, is as a vehicle of liberalism, while cars become the prevail of those with an affinity for libertarian power. On roads dominated by heavy traffic, the cyclist quickly learns what it is to feel a minority, vulnerable, and structurally and systematically discriminated against. What happens in a culture that diminishes the value of rules, or scoffs at those that protect the vulnerable, is an increasingly central question of modern politics—but a familiar one in cycling.
Looking at the road through this political lens, the value of bicycle campaigning takes on broader resonance for how vulnerable ideas can protect and advance themselves in judgmental times. A number of characteristics have, in this regard, always worked in the bicycle’s favor. For starters, cycling is an active, physical activity with a real-world manifestation that is at odds with the sometimes cerebral disposition of liberal thought. To cycle is to vote with your bike, and in a network built around cars, it’s a de facto public protest.
While liberal politics can struggle to offer symbols that enforce abstract ideas with semiotics that evoke feeling, the bicycle as a visual icon — instantly recognizable and unifying — has a galvanizing, rallying role in campaigns. Despite efforts — both positive and critical — to typecast cyclists, bicycles have broad appeal across a political spectrum; adherents are as likely to be proponents of conscientious living as they are to believe in a free-market world of survival of the fittest.
Many of those who campaign for cycling provisions genuinely see it as an answer to their perceptions of the world’s ills: climate change, pocketbook politics, self-reliant transport, taxpayer value for money, improved public health, emotional well-being. The belief that the bicycle really could fix all of our problems, whatever they are, creates an absolute vision that serves bicycle campaigning with both a practical roadmap and a religious zeal. It’s easier to build a utopia if you can imagine what it looks like, even if the only detail in that image is plenty of bikes.
The necessity of walking the talk is also paramount, and international cycling groups have exemplified much of what is required in smart, successful campaigning: Point to positive examples elsewhere, create healthy competition between nations and cities, get media visibility, don’t indulge rivalry between groups in the same movement, share knowledge, make politicians aware, hound them where they do not acknowledge you and praise them where they do, reply to consultations, write letters, propose visions. In short — be busy. Cycling has the added bonus of creating its own tribe — cyclists — and a value system is always at its strongest where it resides in the shared form of a community, rather than in potentially atomized, isolated individuals.
This inclusivity and action have had a tendency to filter upwards, making it possible to put ideals into practice. Female politicians have been instrumental in pushing through transport changes for the good of cycling: Anne Hidalgo has made Paris a leading light of the movement, Janette Sadik-Khan (no relation to London’s mayor) bossed Bloomberg’s transport policy, and Val Shawcross has been stalwart in London’s pro-bike changes.
The consistent thread in all of this is one of the bicycles as a solution; an idea that can open those ghettos that form when busy roads segregate public space. It is not a combative form of transportation, but rather one that is well suited to pulling down the walls between groups and breathing air into the places where hostile politics fester.
Much of this can help in forming templates for how the politically vulnerable ideas and minorities of this world can now fortify themselves — designing transport to relegate motor traffic and prioritize humans and human interaction is only a metaphor for a broader struggle getting underway. Coats, though talking of bicycles in Rwanda, has words that are global in their relevance: “What I love about cycling is that it’s a sport that can cut through ethnic divisions, country conflict, and help overcome social and cultural stigma.”
In sympathy with this, the bicycle offers a pace of travel that is itself an incitation to patience. Change happens slowly, and you will more likely win a war by converting an opponent than defeating them. Huppert recalls how campaigners once struggled to get cycling issues into Parliament, but after a debate was scheduled and attracted a packed house in September 2013, it became easier to secure funding and changes further down the
Linke describes São Paulo’s eventual embrace of its bicycle infrastructure as evidence for the same gradual acceptance. “Public opinion changed significantly since the start, when the media voiced several criticisms, amplifying problems and making the population go against the program,” she says. “In the beginning, critics simply denied the possibility of bikes in São Paulo — saying that ‘bikes are good for Amsterdam, but they don’t fit in São Paulo.’”
Clear in Linke’s reflection, however, is a desire to welcome rather than punish those slow to come around to her way of thinking. “As the network moved forward and started to show new cyclists on the road, the main criticisms moved their focus from, ‘We don’t want bike lanes’ to ‘These bike lanes are not so good, we want better ones,’” she explains. “The media support changed along with the population’s support towards the bike lane program.”
Against a backdrop of social media burnout, and the unsettling capacity of the internet to create multiple realities, the fake-news furor of the 2016 U.S. presidential election seemed a high watermark for the feeling that the delicate bonds that secure human empathy are under threat.
As Donald Trump makes and unmakes both his promises and insults, playing fast and loose with facts along the way, the concept of gaslighting has been popularized as a term used to describe a process of taking control of a subject by making targets question their own memories, perceptions, and even sanity. Gaslighting is done through chicanery and contradiction, conjecture and non sequitur, rather than outright opposition.
But if gaslighting’s purpose is to unhinge people from their sense of self, cycling as a form of transport is the opposite, an antidote. It offers space to think. To ride is a small act of self-affirmation. I cycle, therefore I am; I am pedaling, I move forward, I feel the wind on my skin.
The word “transport,” unpacked to its etymology, means literally “across doors.” It represents the gray area between home and work, lived realities that we strive constantly to control. Transport is very often the thing that happens while we are making other plans.
As concern for the state of our public discourse begins to mount, as we rue our inability to communicate across divides that seem very new and needlessly wide, perhaps the humble bicycle, a transportation mode that puts people in contact with one another and gives them back that control they seem to crave, offers a unique opportunity to remake those realities for the better.