In the last two months, the explosion of news stories about bike-car violence has been astounding. I follow all of this coverage among bike blogs with anxiety (and even re-post about it), but recently the academic in me is reading the phenomenon of bikes in the media with a more critical lens. Believe it or not, there is a narrative that many news outlets are willingly writing:
• Gas prices rise and driving a car is no longer a viable option for a number of people
• They start looking for alternatives, including public transportation, motorcycles, and bicycles
• Numbers of bicycles on the road increase
• Unaccustomed and/or inexperienced cyclists and motorists begin to express their frustrations on the road
• Tensions rise as Critical Mass rides become increasingly disruptive
• Chaos ensues
It's fine that the LA Times and NY Times are talking about bikes (coverage is a good thing if it leads to increased awareness), but my problem is the very foundation of the big bike switch-over: people are only crazy enough to ride bikes when cars are no longer affordable. That sort of determinist argument frustrates the hippie in me, and I think we in the bike community need to be more vocal about our diversity. We also need to complicate this explanation from a social and cultural theory perspective.
To borrow a page from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, people are different and that is an inconvenient narrative for the rise in bike riding.
I became a bike commuter long before gas prices rose above $2 a gallon. And I know that as a long-time bike commuter, I do not fall within this narrative. When I started riding my bicycle, just about everyone who was making the switch cited the reasons above as secondary. The big reason they were switching was because, get this, riding a bike is REALLY fun. It's a happy activity. I also feel much more free on my bicycle than I do in a car and I'm sure I am not alone. I remember a conversation I had with my sister right after I saved up some money to buy a cheap mountain bike. She said, "isn't it fun?" Eventually, the fun is what won out; it is what pushed me to ride my bike more often and eventually forsake my car. I've only heard the fun side of this rise in bicycles mentioned in reference to the fixed-gear frenzy that is taking over many urban spaces.
Second to fun, the efficiency of commuting on a bike around LA further urged me to continue to ride. Parking is rarely an issue and I always get to park my bike close to my final destination. My commute times are predictable and consistent, I waste less energy and arrive at my work or school in a good mood. Fun efficiency!
And I have a strong feeling that fun is huge reason why Critical Mass and other large group rides are so popular. Just spend a day watching people ride their bikes along the Santa Monica Beach Bike path, and the fun part of the revolution will be inescapable. Now I'm just waiting for the LA Times to catch up with that side of things.