How Bicycles Can Revolutionize Our Lives: Case Studies from the United States, Netherlands, China & Britain

A two- (and three- and one-) wheeled rev­o­lu­tion is upon us. Dubbed “micro-mobil­i­ty” by start-up mar­keters and influ­encers, the trend incor­po­rates all sorts of per­son­al means of trans­port. While the buzz may hov­er around elec­tric scoot­ers and skate­boards, the faith­ful bicy­cle still leads the pack, as it has for over a hun­dred years. And advocates—who bike as their pri­ma­ry means of exer­cise, com­mut­ing, and run­ning dai­ly errands—are chal­leng­ing the ortho­dox­ies of car cul­ture.

As an avid cyclist myself, who bikes as often as I can for gro­ceries and oth­er errands, I will admit to a strong bias in their favor. But even I’ve been chal­lenged and sur­prised by what I’ve learned from bik­ing advo­cates like Liz Can­ning, pro­duc­er and nar­ra­tor of a new doc­u­men­tary film, Moth­er­load, a por­trait of the many peo­ple who have cho­sen to use car­go bikes instead of cars for near­ly every­thing.

The film is remark­able for the ordi­nar­i­ness of its sub­jects. As one car­go cyclist, Brent Pat­ter­son of Buf­fa­lo, New York, says, “I’m not an ath­lete. I’m not super­hu­man. I’m just a com­plete­ly nor­mal per­son like you.” The Pat­ter­son fam­i­ly “sold its car,” notes Out­side mag­a­zine, “and trav­els by car­go bike year-round, even in snow­storms.” Anoth­er car­go cyclist in the film, Emi­ly Finch, “carts all six of her kid­dos around on two wheels.” We see car­go cyclists around the world, using bikes as emer­gency trans­port haulers and dai­ly gro­cery-get­ters.

Most of the Amer­i­cans pro­filed live in bike-friend­ly com­mu­ni­ties like Marin Coun­ty, Cal­i­for­nia or Port­land, Ore­gon. But oth­ers, like the Pat­ter­sons, do not, “and not all are as com­fort­ably off as Can­ning,” who retired as a com­mer­cial film­mak­er to raise her kids in bike-friend­ly Fair­fax, CA. “Some had to sell their car or take out a no-inter­est loan in order to afford a car­go bike.” No one seems to have regret­ted the deci­sion.

Read­ers who hail from, or have lived in, places in the world where bike-reliance is the norm may scoff at the pre­sumed nov­el­ty of the idea in Canning’s film. But at one time, even the Netherlands—home of the ubiq­ui­tous Bak­fi­ets—was almost as car-cen­tric as most of the U.S., as Amer­i­can Dan Kois writes in a New York­er essay about how he learned to become bike com­muter in the Nether­lands.

I had assumed that Dutch people’s adept­ness at bik­ing was the result of gen­er­a­tions of inces­sant cycling. In fact, after the Sec­ond World War, the Nether­lands had, like the U.S., become dom­i­nat­ed by cars. Cycling paths were over­tak­en by roads, and neigh­bor­hoods in Ams­ter­dam were razed to make room for high­ways. Between 1950 and 1970, the num­ber of cars in the coun­try explod­ed from about a hun­dred thou­sand to near­ly two and a half mil­lion. Dur­ing that same peri­od, bike use plum­met­ed; in Ams­ter­dam, the per­cent­age of trips made by bike fell from eighty to twen­ty.

That all changed when young activists and par­ents, espe­cial­ly mothers—like the bik­ing moth­ers in Moth­er­load—began protest­ing high num­bers of traf­fic deaths. They took to the streets on their bikes, block­ing traf­fic, run­ning for office, and pres­sur­ing city offi­cials to make infra­struc­ture and pub­lic space safe and accom­mo­dat­ing for bikes. Now, there are more bikes than peo­ple in the Nether­lands, and cars co-exist on roads full of cyclists of all ages and class­es, on their way to work, school, and every­where else.

Dutch dri­vers “look out for cyclists,” writes Kois. “After all, near­ly all of those dri­vers are cyclists them­selves,” using the car for a brief, nec­es­sary out­ing before they get back on their bikes for most every­thing else. Next to Kois’ first-per­son account of his few-months-long sojourn through Delft, we have the glob­al tes­ti­mo­ny of the Bicy­cle Archi­tec­ture Bien­nale, a “show­case of cut­ting edge and high pro­file build­ing designs that are facil­i­tat­ing bicy­cle trav­el and trans­form­ing com­mu­ni­ties around the world.” The exhibits, writes Karen Wong at David Byrne’s Rea­sons to Be Cheer­ful, “point the way to a two-wheeled utopia.”

BYCS, the group respon­si­ble for this well-curat­ed exhi­bi­tion, come from Ams­ter­dam. The projects they fea­ture, how­ev­er, are in Lon­don and Chong­min and Cheng­du, Chi­na. The car­go cyclists in Moth­er­load, and the fero­cious activism of cyclists in places like New York City, despite tremen­dous “bike­lash,” may show Amer­i­cans they don’t need to look abroad to see how bikes could slow­ly dis­place cars as Amer­i­cans’ vehi­cles of choice in some parts of the coun­try. But learn­ing from how oth­er places have reimag­ined their infra­struc­ture could prove nec­es­sary for last­ing change.

Many Amer­i­cans can­not imag­ine life with­out their cars, even if they also have garages full of bikes. Some lash out at cyclists as a threat to their way of life. The coun­try is enor­mous (though we do most dri­ving local­ly); cars serve as modes of transport—for human, plant, ani­mal, and every­thing else—and also as escape pods and sta­tus sym­bols. Canning’s film shows us ordi­nary Amer­i­can men and women get­ting the gump­tion to trade some com­fort and secu­ri­ty for lives of minor adven­ture and eco­log­i­cal sim­plic­i­ty. (And a good many of them still have cars if they need them.)

We also see, in exhi­bi­tions like that pre­viewed in the video above how design prin­ci­ples and pol­i­cy can help make such choic­es eas­i­er and safer for every­one to make. Can­ning point­ed­ly frames her argu­ment in Moth­er­load around cycling’s rad­i­cal his­to­ry. “100 years before the bicy­cle saved me,” she says in the film’s offi­cial trail­er at the top, “it lib­er­at­ed the poor, empow­ered the suf­fragettes, and trans­formed soci­ety faster than any inven­tion in human his­to­ry. It could hap­pen again.”

via Out­side

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The First 100 Years of the Bicy­cle: A 1915 Doc­u­men­tary Shows How the Bike Went from Its Clunky Birth in 1818, to Its Endur­ing Design in 1890

The Art & Sci­ence of Bike Design: A 5‑Part Intro­duc­tion from the Open Uni­ver­si­ty

How Leo Tol­stoy Learned to Ride a Bike at 67, and Oth­er Tales of Life­long Learn­ing

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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