For some weeks now, I've wanted to make a post with some general observations about the differences between bicycle advocacy where I come from and the the places that I'm traveling through.
Be warned, though: this is not a thoroughly researched, well documented article about the history of bicycle advocacy in America or Europe. Rather, these are a few limited observations made during more than two months spent studying bicycle cultures in Europe.
1. Staying Positive:
Most of the advocacy I have seen in Denmark and the Netherlands has been oriented at *increasing* the positive benefits across the social spectrum which are accrued from more bicycling. One simple example is a statistic from Denmark which the Danish Cycling Federation put together: for every kilometer bicycled in Denmark, the government actually earns one Danish Crown. This is a particularly poignant political argument for fiscal conservatives as it demonstrates the returns on bicycle investment. Sure it costs money to create bicycle infrastructure; in today's world, it costs money to do almost anything! But the returns on bicycle investments are quite good.
2. Name the Goal, not the Step.
I actually read this in a zine I picked up while haunting a local squat here in Amsterdam. It was a zine about computer technology, of all things, but I think it is a good way of positing a solution to a common problem with bicycle advocates. Installing new bike parking is not the goal, it is the step. An increase in bicycle lanes is not the goal, it is the step. A healthier society is the goal. A city that can move its people with increased efficiency and care, that is the goal. The goal, I think, can compel and inspire people to get out on a bike, which is more powerful than arguments for increased spending on blue stripes in the roadway. For effective advocates, the work before us goes beyond the bicycle, and it should be clearly stated that bike advocates are about more than increasing the number of people on bicycles.
I think this point chafes the sensibilities of bicycle enthusiasts because for so many of us, the bicycle in itself is a powerful tool for social and personal liberation. But the time for preaching to the choir has come and gone. Reaching more people requires broadening the message.
3. Eco-guilt and Slim Bodies Won't Cut it
What is the number one reason people bicycle in Denmark? Ease and convenience. In the Netherlands? 7.2 of 10 people say they are satisfied with the network of bicycle tracks throughout the city. This is a pretty good satisfaction rate for bicycle infrastructure.
A well developed, easy to use system of designated paths is critical to making cycling attractive. Public health, eco friendliness and sustainability, I would argue, are the by-products of bicycle cultures built around convenience. This is a point that should not be lost, because providing convenient and efficient transportation to a municipality's citizenry is in many ways as important as providing fire and ambulance services. Vehicular mobility often determines social mobility, and cities with limited vehicular mobility are often cities with limited social mobility as well. Bicycle paths, then, can be seen as a noble service provided to citizens.
4. America Lacks not for Best Practices; We Lack Political Will
The culture wars, I would argue, are one of the reasons bicycling has enjoyed little progress in America. I think advocates and cyclists alike often fail to use the bicycle as a political tool to bridge the divide between social conservatism and social liberalism. I've observed many of the most passionate bicycle lovers are bent on destroying the car culture in the U.S.; or bent on shoveling out the old guard of traffic engineers in favor of newer, hipper, more enlightened engineers.
Let's get real. The car culture will change in coming years, for sure, but the goal of bicycle advocates should not be to promote its demise. The same is true with the field of traffic engineering.
To focus on the ways in which the bicycle is a unifying force, the ways in which it acts as an egalitarian tool to increase the opportunity for all peoples is, to me, a much more politically sensible approach to effective advocacy. As long as an "us (bikes) vs. them (cars and the engineers/politicians/companies that promote them!)" mentality pervades bicycle advocacy, our single speed wheels will continue to spin and want for political traction.
Me? I'm hoping to encourage the car companies--perhaps in an effort to win some nice publicity for a change--to start a small grants program aimed at increasing effective bicycle advocacy. Refreshing but impossible, you say? Keep an open mind. You'd be amazed at what is possible.
So let's discuss. What, in your estimation, has led to the bicycle's trivial role in American society. This list is not exhaustive, and it certainly needs some improvement.