Urban Cyclists Must Learn To Think More Like Car Advertisers

Background Reading


Ferrari Testarossa

Ferrari Testarossa

The Urban Cycling Movement is largely a ‘religion‘. It has managed to reduce the primary aim of its catechism to the furtherance of bicycling as a transportation mode. But that is (perhaps you will forgive my usual bluntness) like advertising ‘sex‘ as the ‘means to procreation‘. It is that. But as anyone in their twenties knows, so very much more. In fact trying to sell bicycling as ‘basic transportation‘ is about as exciting as directing a commercial video in which you attempt to make the case for this by having your actors piloting a Ferrari Testarossa.

The problem is that we are often so focused on the notion of encouraging the creation of ‘protected bike lanes‘ that they no longer represent ‘a means to an end‘ but are the ‘end itself‘. We have been brainwashed into thinking that if there are no ‘bike lanes‘ cycling will die. And the corollary to that seems to be that once bike lanes are in place there is nothing more to be done than use them to go from Point A to Point B.

Laurie “Wo” Smith’s Picture Says Bicycling Is Much More Than Basic Transportation


Laurie “Wo” Smith

Connie and I have been subscribing to magazine called Easy Riders Recumbent Cyclists for nearly 15 years or so. It is largely a publication that was begun by Laurie Smith’s mom, Connie McAyeal.

The articles included in the magazine are about the joys of riding a recumbent in lots of different settings and circumstances. Many of the rides described are bicycle tours.

It is the kind of reading that I would classify as ‘epic‘. You know the kind of story where you learn to understand the hardships of solo bike touring and the enjoyment as well. It is a story that is more of a Lord of the Rings read than a handbook on how to ‘signal turns‘ or to ‘take the lane‘.

Stories like these always give my wanderlust a bit of a kick in the seat of the pants. And while I recognize that the bicycle is being used as the primary mode of transportation it is hardly as pedestrian in nature as riding from Daley Plaza to Wrigley Field. No this is often Battle of the 5 Armies stuff. You read about the fears and the triumphs and even failures of the protagonist and sense that in many ways a bicycle is a means of getting in touch with your inner self.

That is what Oboi Reed’s article conveys to me. He writes:

About ten years ago, when I was 30 years old, I took an extended medical leave from my job at Citibank when work, family and relationship stresses brought on a severe bout of clinical depression. I have struggled with this illness on-and-off since high school.

During this time, I was experiencing a level of emotional pain so intense, an escape route was the only thing I could think about. One day, as I sat on my couch in Chatham, crying in the dark, I summoned the will to explore an alternative to taking my own life.

A few years before, when I was living in Champaign, my dear friend Ogunsola Hammond Carter sold me a green Diamondback mountain bike for about $50. After I moved back to Chicago, I hardly ever rode the bike. However, during my moment of crisis, I felt my final option was to try bicycling as a healthy escape from my pain.

I rejoiced at his willingness to share deeply of himself and his struggles. This is an ‘epic‘ tale. He concludes with:

I continued to struggle with this mental illness, and it sometimes got the best of me, but I no longer considered suicide. Along with counseling, diet, yoga, and spending time with family and friends, biking is still my one of my greatest weapons against depression.

I know unequivocally that I am alive today because of that ride on the Lakefront Trail a decade ago. This knowledge fuels my current efforts to bring the many benefits of cycling to others in the Black community.

For a host of reasons, many Black Chicagoans have little interest in cycling. Like I once did, they view biking as something for children and White people on the Northside. Very few of them consider biking to be a viable form of transportation.

But here is where I think he gets it wrong. Like many religion organizations The Church of Urban Cycling has a dominant emphasis, Protected Bike Lanes. If you were an Evangelical in the 1950s you knew that your life has two important purposes:

  • To spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ (i.e. The Good News)
  • And the most important method was to Evangelize

Many young people took to foreign lands to become Missionaries. And that is essentially what Oboi Reed is undertaking. He wishes to spread the Good News about the fact that ‘the bicycle is a viable form of transportation‘. And like the Evangelical Missionaries who preached the Good News, there was sometimes a bit of baggage that was never left behind while trying to convert the world.

‘Protected Bicycle Lanes’ Are Not Salvation

Bike lanes are merely artifices which allow bicycle riders, pedestrians and motorists to learn to coexist. Having a lane is no guarantee that coexistence will actually occur, it is merely there as an attempt to define boundaries. This is what walls in farm fields do.

They act like fences between backyards in suburban townships. The presence of the fences is not a guarantee that neighbors will coexist peacefully. That bit depends on there being mutual respect.

Being able to use a bicycle as viable form of transportation is no more meaningful than  showing a person  a set of equipment for solo bike touring and suggesting that this is enough to guarantee them a successful tour. It is not.

You may purchase a very expensive tent and white gas burner and equip your bicycle with a SON hub generator and an eDelux front lamp with matching rear light and still have a very uninspiring tour.

The real lesson that Oboi Reed learned was the one which the picture above of Laurie “Wo” Smith shouts to me.

Bicycling is release and with that release comes to possibility of overwhelming and utter joy in being alive.

Clinical depression is in fact the thing that replaces our understandings of this basic fact. In fact what People of Color understand more than most is that Bicycles Are For Children. Missionaries who focused on the teachings of Jesus often had to be reminded (as did his Disciples):

But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.

If you ride 10,000 miles a year on protected bike lanes in every kind of weather and come away joyless in the effort then something is wrong.

Rejecting The Act Of ‘Making A Statement’


Real Rides Not Kid Fests?

Children‘ are the only truly joyous riders of bicycles. But children come in all sizes and ages and colors. And that is the thing we really want to convey to ‘People of Color‘. I am not interested in recruiting the Poor to a mindset that a few Liberals who are all about ‘Making A Statement‘. Instead I am all about finding ways to bring People of All Colors, Religions, Income Levels, Genders and Sexual Orientations into a re-encounter with the child inside them. A bicycle can do that.

In fact I am more than willing to forego any notion that people have to use bike lanes to get around. I am willing to live happily in the knowledge that they drive their bikes to forest preserves to tour their trails. I am happy when families take their bikes to the county fair grounds to watch 4th of July fireworks and never bring them out again all year.

But if they want to ride more often I would fly to their side to encourage them to do so. I would spend time mapping out ‘safe routes‘ to their favorite local ice cream shoppe. I have no intention of critiquing the clothing they wear or the kinds of bikes they choose. All I care is that they find bicycling to be one more weapon in their arsenal in the maintenance of their personal sanity.

What is often pointed out is the egalitarian quality of the bicycle. It is simple enough that it can be used around the world with good effect. But somehow in the rush to be hip and cool where Urban Cycling is concerned we have become more snob than evangelist.

That may be because we have started to do what every religion does. It begins to comb through the basic truths of the faith to find religious purity.


Bikes Are Bikes. Rides Are Rides. It’s All Good!

Once bicycling becomes ‘serious‘ or ‘real‘ it ceases to have much meaning for me. I would hazard a guess that this is true for most people who are novices. The way to bring them into a ‘saving knowledge of cycling‘ is to take them by the hand and ride alongside them.

You should start this as children. And when your church group has its next picnic you should consider organizing a group ride to the park where it is being held. I would go so far as to consider finding ways to get Sunday School Lessons taught in parks on Summer Sundays at the mid-point of a fun ride.

People who are hooked on how much fun it is to ride will soon figure out that taking their bike along the Chicago Lakefront Trail is a great way to unwind. And when they get hungry and perhaps find a local shop where they can grab a bite to eat then the notion of using a bicycle to get about becomes more organic. It is not stilted in the way in which many Liberals who want to ‘make statements‘ try to spread cycling.

Think About Car Commercials

You pitch the fun that folks are having with the top down on their convertible. You position the car atop a mountain pass or cruising past a California beach. You make it certain that everyone know that the car is ‘fun‘. You leave them to learn that it also can carry stuff.

Eventually you will be able to show the car in settings that are far more mundane. But by that time your customer will not question its practicality. He will have already become enamored with the ‘freedom‘ its signifies.

We Liberals make the mistake of focusing on all the nasty encounters we have with automobile drivers. That is a non-starter. If we are to grow bicycling we will have to eventually get some of those drivers to become cyclists. You cannot do that when you are spending precious capital painting motorists as The Devil.

Our aim should be to entice people into the use of Divvy and their own bikes. We should be welcoming in every sense of that word. Bicycling should become the new ‘meet and greet‘ activity in place of ‘bar hopping‘.

We ought to at all costs lose the religious posture that we wear on our sleeves and like Jesus hobnob with the Publicans and Sinners. That means finding the drivers who are unaware of just how much fun bicycling can be and create opportunities for them to reconnect with their ‘inner child‘.