Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Bicycles: Toys, Tools, or...?

Alan Bernard over at the Recumbent Blog has taken a stab at the age-old question of bicycles as toys vs. tools. Now, I ride a bike every day for transportation. I have ridden to work, to school, to visit friends, to go shopping -- everywhere -- my whole life. I do so in all kinds of weather -- sun, rain, wind, or snow -- and in the day or at night. My bikes are outfitted to let me do so as comfortably as possible. I have bags and racks to let me carry loads, I have fenders to keep the rain and snow off of my back and legs, I have good lights to let me ride safely after the sun goes down. So it may surprise you to hear that I don't come down entirely on Alan's side in this one.

The thing is, I do all of the riding I described above, and yet "utility" cycling still only constitutes maybe 1/4 of the miles I do in a year. When I think about the place cycling occupies in my life, it is the rides out to the coast, or up the Columbia River, or around Mt. Hood that figure most prominently. And while racks, lights, and fenders give a bike an air of Sam the Eagle seriousness, racks carry camping equipment as well as groceries, lights are just as necessary for riding a fleche as they are for commuting in winter, and fenders are just a good idea for whatever kind of riding you do here in the northwest, be it serious or frivolous. I use my bikes that are equipped thusly for both purposes. And here's the dirty secret: I have fun whenever I ride my bike, even if I'm ostensibly doing it for some practical purpose. So, if a reasonable definition of a toy is an object that facilitates fun, in what meaningful way are my bikes distinguishable from toys? If most of my riding is done for recreation, if even my supposedly "practical" riding puts a smile on my face, where is the distinction?

Sure, it's useful to be able to respond to the occasional curmudgeonly motorist who accuses cyclists of clogging up the roadways frivolously. But these people are singling us out because we're easily identified as "others", not because they have a leg to stand on. At any given time, lots of motorists are on the road for recreational purposes, and the congestion they cause is far worse than that caused by cyclists' miniscule presence in public rights-of-way. However, while I will deny to my dying day the part of the charge that says that I am clogging the roadways, I must throw myself on their mercy for the part that says that I am out there frivolously. Am I having fun? You bet. You might be, too, if you were pedaling.

In his post, Alan goes through the most common phyla of bikes you'll find in a bike store, and dismisses them all: "I’d volunteer that all of these bikes are only marginally useful as anything other than toys." Well, I'd like to take a different view. There isn't a bike in any store that can't accept any light made, from budget-priced Planet Bike LED's to top-line Night Rider HID lights to generator powered Busch & Mueller halogens. Fenders are often standard equipment on the cruisers that Mr. Bernard mentions, and the commonly available "Race Blade" design can be fitted to even the most race-oriented road frame. Cargo presents a bit more of a challenge, but seat- and handlebar-bags have been available for years, messenger bags are commonly available, and for many, the humble backpack serves just fine.

Most importantly, all bicycles provide movement -- it's the whole point -- and mobility is inherently practical. I've ridden both my skinny-tired, unfendered race bike and my knobby-tired full-suspension mountain bike to work. Conversely, I don't think anyone who was otherwise predisposed to ride a bike for practical purposes was dissuaded from doing so because their equipment limited them, at least not long term. If you are the type of person who might actually ride in the rain, you will get fenders eventually. The bicycle is such an awesome, flexible design that I believe that the way it is used pretty accurately reflects the desires of the people who use it. If manufacturers make more commuter bikes, it doesn't follow that they will make more commuters.

The point is, bicycles are fun. I want people to enjoy their bicycles. That is the best way to get people to ride them more. Then the market will provide them with the tools to do the type of riding they want to do.