When I would go skiing with my dad as a kid and we shared a chairlift with another person, he would always ask, “So, the weather’s pretty good, huh? Have you been to the top yet?” He would ask this even if it was raining. Teasingly, my mom and I would call him Mr. Rogers for his chipper demeanor. Although it was most obvious while skiing, my dad also always had this attitude while biking. He always nods at fellow cyclists in a friendly manner or even says hello, a habit that I’ve picked up as well.
I was reminded of this tendency when a fellow bike advisory committee member said that biking helps build community in ways that driving can’t. After all, who says hello to their neighbor when they’re driving down the street? It’s so unnatural to lean out the window and requires yelling that it comes off as harassment. On the other hand, I always say hello to people I pass when walking to the Metro. Even though I’ve never formerly introduced myself, I have these minor relationships with people in my neighborhood that binds me to my neighbors in a way that driving places wouldn’t.
This community-building occurs with bicycling and walking because they’re not just human-powered, but human-scaled. They expose you to the world, forcing you to notice and interact with it. In contrast, cars not only separate you from the elements but other people. People think they can get away with rude behavior in a car, whether it’s cutting people off or fussing grossly with bodily functions. In contrast, people on the street can choose to be rude, but know people will be staring at them if they are!
Along with building personal relationships, getting around town these ways also helps you notice more details about your neighborhood. On my bike, I’ve noticed businesses and community institutions that I never would have otherwise. Similarly, when I walk through commercial areas, I stop at far more stores than I ever would if I drove there. This isn’t always great for my budget, but it’s good for the local economy, as opposed to big box or mall stores you must drive to. I also take greater notice of the natural environment when cycling, at least in part because I’m just going so much slower. Even when I’m in a rush, I’m much more likely to notice the trees arching over the path, the flowers in front of houses, the stream running under the bridges on a bike than in a car. I deeply believe that noticing the beauty of nature can build environmental values, so I support anything that helps people slow down and notice it.
Lastly, bicycling can help bring people together to strengthen existing communities and form new ones. Bike paths provide safe spaces for families to spend time outdoors together. I know I formed many fond childhood memories while riding with my parents along a local rail-trail. Community rides offer the chance for new riders to spend time with and learn from experienced ones. Neighborhood or city-sponsored rides can help people learn history about their town that they may have never known otherwise. My hometown, which was generally a very boring, white-bred suburb, did a great historical bike ride every year that helped tie me my life a little more to the past.
Psychogeography is a rather intense area of social science that explores how the landscape affects people and how we can manipulate it to change those effects. Even though this is an obscure area that few people have heard of and even fewer fully grasp (including myself!), I think that regular cyclists and pedestrians have a better inherent understanding of this interaction than drivers do. They notice all parts of their surroundings more readily, including the people, architecture, and natural environment. They can also more readily choose to interact with these elements, building relationships with neighbors, appreciating unique historical buildings, and cherishing natural beauty. It’s when we truly listen to these aspects of our surroundings and interact back that we begin to build community.