It’s often said that bumper stickers are useless in that you can’t possibly sum up a political or philosophical position in a mere phrase. But they do serve a somewhat useful purpose – to tell the people around the driver a little bit about the person’s identity. While some are frustratingly in your face, there are others that bring a smile to my face and make me think that I would actually like to meet the driver. As I have an unfortunate fondness for goofy/sincere bumper stickers (like the vegetarian one), I find it a bit unfortunate that there’s no way to put any on a bike. But thinking about that fact, I realized that riding a bike for transportation where I am in and of itself a statement about my identity.
The image of what it means to be a commuter bicyclist varies widely by geography and culture. In the D.C. metro area, you have three types of commuter cyclists – racers, “bike culture” folks, and folks who aren’t necessarily “into” cycling but think it’s convenient/cheap.
The racers often wear spandex, use high-end gear, bike down major roadways, and use their commute to rack up mileage. Most people who see them think of them first and foremost as athletes, even if they’re headed to work. Anyone who grimaces whenever someone has shouted, “Hey, Lance Armstrong!” hates the cultural image of this group, even when they’re a part of it. Similarly, the character of Jeff the Cyclist in Pearls before Swine is the ultimate summary of this unfortunate stereotype.
Then there’s the “bike culture” folks, who span a wide array. These are people who are either active bicycle advocates or think cycling to get everywhere in and of itself is fantastic (not just for cost/convenience). In the suburbs, they may wear spandex, especially because long commutes are much more comfortable with bike shorts. In the city, they generally wear street clothes or bike clothes that just look normal. They may also wear fancy street clothes, like the fellow at the Victorian-ish Seersucker Ride who told me he always dressed that way. These are the folks you see most often with cargo bikes, as they value comfort and practicality in their gear far more than speed. When riding recreationally, they may be more interested in where they are stopping for lunch than how fast they are going. They enjoy going on slow, meandering recreational rides for the sense of community. (Can you tell this category includes me?) An increasing number of stores like Bicycle Space are catering to this group specifically, rather than to racers. If a person in this group is outspoken about his or her love of bicycles, he or she may be labeled a hippie, treehugger, gentrifier, or maybe even a “myopic little twit.”
Then there’s the commuters that ride bikes the same way they ride the bus or walk somewhere. They aren’t particularly fond of it as a mode of transit, but it’s easy and cheap. Some of the people in this category are young professionals who live near their work, while others are low-income folks who find the bus system too restrictive and Metro too expensive. Capital Bikeshare appeals the most to this group, as it maximizes convenience and ease. Although people in the second group might use CaBi occasionally, they’re likely to own their own bikes, and racers would almost never ride on something that heavy. In fact, the bikeshare deployment in my area is specifically targeted at low-income folks in the hopes that subsidizing it will increase their transportation options. Because D.C. has only recently starting shifting towards cycling as a major option, some drivers will lump this entire category into either the first or second group because they can’t imagine a “normal person” cycling somewhere. As a result, even casual commuter bicyclists run the risk of being harassed just because of their mode of transportation. On the other hand, just a change of clothes can move someone’s appearance to others from the first or second group into this one. One of my fellow advocates in my community bicycle advisory group said that he tends to be treated very differently by drivers whether he is wearing spandex or semi-street clothes with a reflective vest.
Of course, elsewhere in the country and the world is a far different story. I suspect that in more bicycle-friendly cities like Minneapolis, and even moreso in bicycle-friendly countries like the Netherlands, bicycling is far less of an identity marker in general. People would find no reason to yell at cyclists or harass them if everyone does it. (Not that rude/threatening behavior is ever acceptable in any circumstance.) In contrast, cycling out in rural areas or less cosmopolitan suburbs in the U.S. is far stranger than in the city. If you use a bicycle for your main form of transportation in places that are generally unsafe for cycling, especially at night, you may be looked at askance. I believe the thinking goes, “Why would you be putting your life in danger unless you’re some sort of deviant?” The most common label I’ve heard is that the person must have lost their drivers’ license for drunk driving. Many of the people who have this attitude have no qualms about bringing their kids out for a bike ride on the weekends and may even support bike trails. In these areas, the idea of cycling for recreation is completely separate than for transportation.
Even within the cycling community, there’s identity conflicts at play. The racers and enthusiasts don’t always get along terribly well, in part because the enthusiasts feel the competitive image discourages people from trying it out at all. Admittedly, part of my refusal to purchase a road bike to replace my sturdy hybrid, despite the fact that it would have made the Climate Ride easier, is a backlash against the idea that you need fancy equipment to ride.
I hope that someday, people can use sustainable forms of transportation anywhere, be they walking, biking, or taking public transit, and not have that taken as a mark of identity. When we need to start creating bumper stickers for bikes to show off our opinions, we’ll know that we’ve reached a real milestone.