Can North America Become a Civilized Cycling Society?

New examples of the growing demand for a mainstream transportation culture where bicycles are a normal, accepted, and vital are popping up. But we still have a long way to go.

Each day, I see new examples of the growing demand for a mainstream transportation culture where bicycles are a normal, accepted, and vital part of the mix. But we still have a long way to go.

For North America to accept and integrate bicycle use into our transportation systems it is important to understand what is standing in the way.

To this day, we are faced with a biased mainstream media portrayal of cycling. We are faced with politicians pandering to people in their cars who are far too hesitant to take the aggressive steps needed to build a complete network of safe bicycle infrastructure. We are faced with a bicycle industry that continues to push the agenda (and products) that cycling is merely a sport or a hobby.

National media outlets continue to portray “cyclists” as a homogeneous group of lawbreakers who must attain an unrealistic, ideal behavior before being granted designated room on our streets. On June 27, 2013, Canada’s National Post ran a widely circulated story that liberally tossed around the hideous word “scofflaw” yet provided no statistical evidence to back their claims that “too many” riders are disobeying the law. While these news stories continue to use anecdotal evidence to support their claims researchers are seeking the truth. A recent study conducted by Portland State University found that 94 percent of riders obeyed red lights – a fact that media outlets conveniently overlooked.

Too many politicians and city leaders have yet to understand that creating safe bike infrastructure requires building a complete network as well as altering laws to favor travel by bike, foot, and transit. There is a glimmer of hope in cities like New York, NY, and Chicago, IL, but elsewhere change is too slow, too small, and often completely non-existent. Forcing riders to compromise their safety in order to share space on our streets with drivers will never lead to civilized cycling.

For potential and existing riders, the bike industry has yet to deliver quality bikes and accessories that cater to people using their bicycles for transportation. In Europe, a majority of bicycles on the street come fully equipped for daily use. There, major brands like Giant and Raleigh provide bicycles off the shelf with lights, fenders, chainguards, kickstands, and racks. Yet in North America there seems to be little movement within the industry to even recognize this segment of the market.

Despite these dominant societal forces working against us, there are changes (many within the past three years) that give us hope.

Strong political leadership in Chicago and New York has quickly brought significant and wide-sweeping change. Chicago added 27 miles (43.5 kilometers) of protected bike lanes in just two years and has ambitious plans to reach 100 miles (160 kilometers) by 2020. New York launched North America’s largest bike share and within the first month sold more than 100,000 daily, weekly, and annual memberships. In these cities, leading lifestyle transportation bike companies like Linus, Biria, and PUBLIC are providing the right products for these new urban landscapes. Will the North American industry learn from these small brands or will they miss the boat on what may be the largest opportunity we have ever seen?

Mia Kohout, editor-in-chief  |  |  @MiaKohout

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  • Jim Baross

    It’s not so much the roads as the behaviors of those using them that threatens people biking and walking. Yes, some – too many roads are designed to encourage fast motor vehicles, but each driver could choose to drive to accommodate people bicycling and walking. Car-culture needs a turn around.

  • Dave

    What it will take, that nobody polite (not my problem) is willing to talk about, is a reduction in the civil and legal rights of motor vehicle operators. Drivers have become a predator species with no natural enemies and they need to be made to feel some fear. Police are the obvious answer–increasing police power to stop motorists for whatever reason, raising of traffic fines, and allowing vehicle siezures for smaller and smaller infractions. I look forward to the day when a bike is advertised not as “Ours won at Roubaix” but “Our vehicle still lets you keep your civil rights.”

    • KillMoto


    • AKA

      In too many places (including Chicago), there is simply NO enforcement in most places most of the time. Here we don’t need increased police powers. We need to reverse the long-term shrinkage by attrition of the police dept. so there are ENOUGH police to do ordinary enforcement. If we had the kind of enforcement today that we had 10 years ago, driver behavior would be a lot better. Just my $0.02…

  • Kelley

    …about NYC. There is a huge gap between what the bike lanes and bike share accomplish and the education portion of the problem. NYC Cops do not know the law and apparently have no interest in learning it. The requirement for them to do so MUST come from the top down — which means advocacy at the highest levels for police education as to cyclists AND motorists rights and responsibilities.

  • Mae

    Thank you Mia for writing “To this day, we are faced with a biased mainstream media portrayal of cycling. We are faced with politicians pandering to people in their cars who are far too hesitant to take the aggressive steps needed to build a complete network of safe bicycle infrastructure.” As we watch independent news, radio and TV bought out and/or over run by Faux News, we watch major corporations like AAA lobby against public transportation infrastructure, and we’ve seen many times the auto and oil industry destroy public transportation infrastructure. Hello, Bay Area residents? Remember the Key line? Me neither, before my time. Here we are in this blog blaming your local bike shop and the cycling industry. The cycling “industry” is tiny compared to big coal/oil.

    As for the bikes themselves; plenty of choices out there. We’re down to 7 in Chez Mae now, all steel and all ready to ride for transportation.

  • Douglas Yardley

    Last year in Toronto I was able to buy a bike fully-equipped with 8-spd hub, cable disc brakes, generator lights, fenders, and carrier. And I like it. There is also a need to teach people the difference between principle and prejudice.

  • Janet

    How many clicks does it take to find a transportation bike on a major manufacturer’s web site? The majority of images on their home pages are men in lycra racing or riding hard. Out of sight is out of mind. It’s no wonder they don’t sell many.

    • Fred Richard

      I agree that the main pages of most manufacturer’s sites portray the racing aspect. It probably takes the same number of clicks to get to any particular bike, but I wonder what the typical shopping experience is for a re-entry rider or someone just wanting to do something around the town or neighborhood? Do they do a lot of on-line research or just go to their LBS to see what’s there? I think the shopping experience would be different for someone like them vs folks like us who are tuned in to cycling in one aspect or another. It’s hopeful with folks like the people at Momentum and you, leading the charge for change. I agree with Grant Petersen that racing ruins the breed.

  • Phil Koopman

    Hope it’s okay to reply w/a plug for our shop… We’re in downtown DC & our main focus is on people who use their bikes everyday. We’d be happy to help your wife (& anyone else!) find a bike that will serve them well in this pursuit. We also sponsor many regular rides- weekly & monthly- where the social aspect of cycling (rather than the performance side) is the primary goal. Please come see us if we are convenient for you to travel to- we’re just off the Green Line if that helps.
    All that aside, what we are lacking most to create the safe, connected networks that will allow & encourage folks to use their bikes on a regular basis for their transportation needs is the political leadership to make it happen. When you have visionary people in place who are willing to make the difficult first steps, then things really start to happen & greater public acceptance for additional progress follows- witness the sea change occurring in Chi & NYC. So, if you want better riding conditions, pressure/vote for the the folks at the top that can/will push these basic (but deserved and desirable) changes forward.
    Thanks & hope to see you soon!

  • Fred Richard

    I kind of have to disagree with the paragraph about the bike industry not being responsive to the demand for transportation bikes. I think most all of the major manufacturers carry models that are built for transportation, but very few people buy them, so local dealers don’t usually keep them in stock and on the showroom floor. Two years ago I bought a Schwinn model that had fenders, disc brakes, rack, chain ring guard, generator hub with a light, and a bell, all standard. I love it. All I had to do was buy a kick stand and some panniers. I can think of similar models in other manufacturer’s line ups, but I don’t see them at local bike shops. Hopefully as the infrastructure and popularity of cycling for transportation improve, sales of those models will pick up and displace all the cycling for recreation and competition hardware that’s on the salesroom floors now.

    PS – I love your magazine and am an ardent subscriber.

  • Steve

    As someone who works at a bike shop and tries his best to get people on the right bike for their desired purpose, I feel obligated to apologize to you on behalf of the US bike industry for the kind of experience you’re talking about here. Frankly, that sucks that you’ve had such a hard time, and I can definitely see where you’re coming from. I enjoy a good fast lycra-clad road ride myself, but I also really enjoy my more comfortable grocery-getting, commuting, touring bike with the lights, fenders, etc., which I can ride with normal shoes if I so desire. I really think that more bike shops and “bike people” in the US need to get a firmer grasp on that understanding, specifically so that we CAN move toward a more generaly bike-able nation. Hey, if you’re ever in the Cincinnati area, swing by my shop and we’ll get you set up! 🙂

  • Jeff

    The bike shops that I’ve been in carry accessories for all bikes plus a small but growing interest in the commuter peddler. It all depends on what major non-mass market companies provide. The bike shops make stunningly little on the actual bikes from the majors and are expected to hit “goals” set by the majors. They are not going to be excited when bikes come fully equipped as those add on accessories are where they is some money to sell up and stay in business. I agree that there are many shops that are geared towards the “race rider”/”weekend warrior” type but there are others including a very small but growing ebike market. It’s huge in Germany!
    Where the cycling infrastructure grows, regular day to day potential bike commuters feel safer and the selection of bikes for this purpose will grow. The majors you state that equip bikes for commuters when selling in Europe do so because a/ lights are the law and b/ consumers expect a fully equipped commuter bike that is looks designed from the ground up to look good as one package rather than
    as piecemeal chosen. At the end of it there are many good selection of bikes for the commuter crowd available in North America and if you bike shop doesn’t carry enough selection, the internet certainly has a vast choice that you can ship to your home or to your local bike shop to do final assembly and tune up. When they see that they have lost a sale, and only get to do an assembly, they will pay more attention to their customers’ needs!

    • Mike

      Your article hits the mark. For us (wife and me) the search for a bike has become more of a curious study of the bicycle shop market, in the Washington DC Metro area. Not one single shop has been able or willing to accommodate my Danish’s wife request for a bicycle. We find bicycle shops made up of a snotty group of people that unless you are not lining up to buy and expensive road bike or whatever it is they have on stock they wont be willing to talk to you. Its becoming more like that process created by the devil himself: “the car shopping experience”. They don’t want to understand the fact that in some parts of the “civilized world” we go to parties in our bicycles wearing tuxedos and dresses. That riding a bike with high heels can be a common occurrence, that cycling in a tie and jacket could be an every work day requirement and that there is nothing like been able to bike to the nearest restaurant and don’t have to wear Lycra. In the USA those people are sometimes looked upon as the weirdos that do a critical mass once a month. Back home we call them normal. So our conclusion has been to buy our next bike in DK or Germany and bring it back to USA. We are one of many couples and friends that have done that.

      • Fred Aron

        In dc, the bike space on 7th is a good shop for the non competitive cyclist, carrying bromptons public, linus and surly. In Va, bikes of vienna, located a couple blocks from the WO&D, carries city, cargo, recumbent, folders, and trikes!

  • Allen Beauchamp

    Thank you Mia for not just the article but for the awesome advocacy work that Momentum Mag provides (both direct & in support of others) towards creating a more civilized pedaling planet. Cheers and keep up the great work, Allen

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