January 6th, 2011

A sociological account as to why people stopped cycling

Following on from an earlier post, in which I expressed my surprise that our CBDs were virtually bikeless as early as the 1930s, while blue collar districts had bikes in every old photo I had been studying, I would like to propose an alternative narrative regarding the edging out of bicycles by the automobile. The story is usually couched in terms of volumes of traffic, lane widths, urban sprawl, death rates and factors such as these that have never actually deterred keen cyclists from riding. Ask a keen cyclist, and they will tell you the truth, that paved roads on which they can legally ride two abreast, with no regard for cars banked up behind them, keep being made. Certainly, not many are turned back into fields.

The big factors behind cycling's demise, are less empirical, than attitudinal. And the strongest attitudes, lets face it, are those relating to class. Photographs showing far fewer bikes in metropolitan centers than in blue collar districts in the 30s and 40s, tell us that snobbery stopped people from cycling, long before cars did. Then, as greater affluence reached the working classes in the decades following the war, the working classes naturally aped middle class ways. (Being Gen-X, I can tell you all about apes. We've been coveting anything owned by a Boomer since we were kids!) But back to the bike thing: by the 60s, every man could own a car, just as though he were rich! By the 70s, every woman could own one as well. Come the 90s, people were buying cars for their kids' birthdays. It's only quite recently that bikes worth as much as new cars have made cycling a symbol of affluence. So in time, and because I am so very handsome as well, you all will ape me (although my racing bike only cost about 7K). 
Empires cannot be built on the cheap, and the empire of cycling is no exception. Rome did not only make roads, and demonstratively nail her opponents to crosses to raise public awareness. She also had to build a few temples, all over Europe in fact. It follows (to my mind at least) that the promotion of cycling, if cycling is going to reach its full potential for transit, will need more than separate routes and driver awareness. We will need to build a few temples as well. Thus far we've seen some nice bike parking stations, but I sense more is to come. Don't you just love the honorific tone of someone in activist mode!