What is the role of bicycles in our culture? More accurately, what are the roles of bicycles in our culture?
To a majority, or at least the significant plurality, bicycles are playthings for children; a way for them to expend energy, or get around before they are old enough to drive a car. Thus when one rides on the street the obscenities and rude motions by some people telling you to get on the sidewalk.
To others, an active but significant minority, they are recreational. Thus the development of bicycle trails and bicycle routes that go nowhere. The scenery may be enjoyable, but you may drive more miles getting your bicycle to the bike trail than you actually end up riding on the trail itself — at least by the time you double those miles to go home.
For others of us they are a means of travel — the daily commute — and we ride them on a regular basis. For most of this bracket their use is only during good weather, but for some the practice is persistent in both heat and cold, rain or sun. For the young, it can be the means of getting and from that first job, or to and from school and college. Routes can be congested and competed with by vehicles that don’t respect you when you fall in this category. Sometimes you get bicycle lanes. Sometimes those lanes are clear. Sometimes those lanes are full of dirt, sand, debris,. The designers of the lanes don’t really care if there are drainage grates, manhole covers, or seams between the concrete and asphalt that run parallel to the direction of progress. But those items, and those seams, are hazards to the cyclist.
An even smaller group or cyclist are those where the bicycle is their only transporation, their lifeline to everything. I’ve never met someone that I knew this was the case, but who knows which people I see carrying groceries in a bag on their handlebars might have no car, and which ones are just being adventurous.
Then there are people like the guy I saw this morning. He was sitting wrapped up in a black sleeping bag, asleep, on the Heart of America Bridge, his body blocking the northbound lane of the bicycle path across the bridge, his back to the outside concrete abutment. Next to him was a decent-looking, well-kept hybrid bicycle (mountain/commuter cross).
He had wisely chosen to fall asleep in a well-lit spot (some of the lights on the bridge are perpetually out), or with his blackness I might not have seen him and he might have been a hazard to other cyclists (Just before I saw him another cyclist had been coming toward me, all dressed in black, no bicycle lights, in the dark, and when he saw me moved INTO my lane, until I yelled a “good morning” to him and he moved back over). I was going too fast to observe much more than I have already described, except to say it was probable that his mound hid the pack that carried all (or most) of his worldly possessions. For him the bicycle might really have been transportation and the root of his nomadic home.
Earlier in the summer I had encountered someone similar, asleep on the benches outside my place of work, a bicycle next to him, when I came in early to work one morning on my bicycle. I mentioned it to security, and they checked on the man, who had rode up from Arkansas to KC for some reason. Security kindly explained to him that it was private property, and told him where he could find the shelter downtown. So I know some people travel long distances with bicycles as their only home/shelter.
Which of these roles we value is important; it determines where our resources, public and private, as a society are spent. The recreational, rather than the commuter, is in the ascendant, at least locally, as can be seen by where the resources are being spent.