Bikes. Are. Everywhere. It doesn’t take a study or statistic to prove that bicycle ridership is way up across North America — the sheer number of bicycles on the streets of your city, and even in upscale clothing store windows, is proof enough that the bike boom is upon us. Not since the 1890s have bikes been this cool. The timeless bicycle, once known as the mechanical or iron horse, is one of humanity’s oldest manufactured self-propelled personal transportation vehicles, and one that’s had a profound impact on our history. From its vital role in the emancipation of women and dramatic changes to their acceptable everyday clothing (hello, bloomers!) to the paving of our city streets, the first flight, and the widely accessible transportation of people and goods over ever-greater distances, the bicycle is nothing short of a two-wheeled wonder. Its classic design hasn’t even changed much since 1885, when the safety bicycle, with two same-sized wheels, a drive chain, and inflated tires, was invented.
While most of our North American cities are in varying stages of adaptation to the bicycle (and yes, we’re far from the bicycle nirvana of many European cities), millions of North Americans are choosing a bicycle for daily transportation. Gone are the days when bikes were seen as the last-resort transport of the poor or the domain of men in tight shorts and brightly colored jerseys, a.k.a. MAMILs (middle-aged men in Lycra). Far more women and men of all ages, backgrounds, and occupations are now riding — and they’re wearing whatever they like to do so. Bicycles are increasingly being seen, understood, and praised as the gloriously efficient, fun, fast, elegant, and accessible vehicles that they are — a classic solution to so many of the issues that seem to plague our cities.
“When you ride your bike, it isn’t just transportation, it is the key to designing the sustainable cities of the future,” says Lloyd Alter, managing editor of TreeHugger.com.
With this growth in ridership, city governments across North America are also increasingly investing in expanded and updated bike infrastructure and programs, and they are recognizing bicycles as an important form of sustainable urban transportation that can help ease the burden of traffic congestion. While we might be on our way, we’re not there yet: Interestingly, the most bike-friendly large city in North America, Portland, has the same bicycle ridership (6 per cent), as the least bike-friendly city in Germany, Stuttgart. But as John Pucher and Ralph Buehler point out in their book City Cycling, with the right policies in place, levels of cycling can be dramatically increased: “Cities of all sizes with very different land use patterns, histories, and cultures have succeeded in increasing cycling and making it safer.” Unlike that found in the more-established cycling cities, North American transportation cycling culture is still growing and maturing; every year we have more riders with varying levels of skill. With a relatively young bike culture, limited bike-specific infrastructure (bike lanes, etc.), a gap in bike education, and a wider variety of riding conditions to adapt to, some cycling norms are still in development. New riders pick up cycling habits from watching others and through their own experiences. Although honing skills through observation and experience is important, it’s crucial to start from a solid foundation of knowledge.