Walker Angell’s got a great piece over at Streets MN that really made me re-evaluate how I talk about cycling, particularly to those who don’t ride. He points out that there is a real, hard limit to the number of people we can expect to take up bike commuting, but that there is near-limitless potential when we start looking at encouraging other trips by bike—to the store, school, the neighborhood watering hole. Angell points out:
Almost all of us should be able to ride to a local cafe or ice cream place at least one out of ten times. These shorter trips don’t require significant physical effort or that people ‘be in shape’. The time difference between riding and driving is minimal and will often favor riding. They’re not so long that they require a fast bike or any special clothing and on all but the most frightful days (bad year to be writing this?) they’re short enough to not be uncomfortable from a weather standpoint.
He’s right. American cities in general aren’t laid out in a way that makes regular bike commuting feasible for lots of people—we tend to live too far from our workplaces, and the infrastructure is intimidating or downright hazardous, particularly for newer riders. But these shorter trips—taking the kids to the library, meeting friends for a pint, running out for milk and bread—these are within reach for most of us, urban, suburban, and beyond.
So why the insistence on talking about bike commuting as the holy grail on two wheels? It leaves an enormous number of potential cyclists out of the conversation entirely, and ignores a whole lot of low-hanging fruit: establishing a safe one-mile route to your neighborhood school is far more attainable than laying down the dozens of miles of bike lanes and greenways that would be required to connect employers with their workforce. (Both are worthy goals, and we shouldn’t stop fighting for either. But let’s not ignore the little victories we could have next year in favor of the big goals that will take a decade or more to realize.)
Harping on bike commuting, while helpful for those who do or could or want to ride to work, subtly emphasizes to everyone else that riding a bike for transportation is something unusual, something for a select few, something that they will never do. We know that streets get safer for cyclists as more and more people start riding. Normalizing the bicycle as a transportation choice gets more butts in bike seats.
We’d love to see more folks riding to work. We’ve done a lot to encourage just that in these pages. But I think we do get overly focused on commuting when we really should be encouraging the broader—and more attainable—goal of getting people to ride anywhere, at any time, for any reason.
Partly it’s a vocabulary problem—we simply don’t have a term in our language to quickly refer to people who ride a bike for transportation. “Utility cyclist” is catching on in some circles, but (much like “multimodal”) it’s a word that still confuses a whole heck of a lot of non-cyclers, i.e., the very people we’re trying to reach.
I’m looking forward to seeing how our language evolves as cycling—and the perception of cyclists in this country—continues to evolve beyond spandex and time trials. Maybe we won’t even need a word to differentiate biking to the store from biking for fun or exercise. And I’ll account that an enormous win.