Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Beyond Bicycle Commuting

I'm not a big fan of the the commuter bicycles designation. "Commuting" sets the horizon for practical cycling at getting individuals to and from work on the weekdays. If that's the most we can hope for from the bicycle, I'm not interested.

People have a lot more places to get to than work, and they need to get more than just themselves and a couple of small items there. People need to get groceries, they need to pick up things in large boxes, they need to haul around children. They need everyday transportation. And we need a more humane, sensible mode of everyday transportation than doing it in two ton vehicles that kill 1.2 million people a year.

The promise of the "mechanical horse" was that it allowed people to travel great distances who couldn't afford the purchase and upkeep of a horse. There is a popular notion that back "in the old days" everyone rode a horse, but in reality only the well-off could afford them. Most people were limited to the distances they could travel on foot. Walking is undoubtedly the most humane form of transport, but for distances too great to walk the bicycle is best. For any distance on land, the only major disadvantage of the bicycle is that the ubiquity of automobiles make bicycle riding somewhat more dangerous than riding or driving a car. But this isn't an essential feature of the bicycle. The bicycle is very, very safe. Cars are not.

When thinking about bicycles and how they can serve flourishing human life, we should always remember what the bicycle was--and is--made for. As Aristotle says, the virtue (arete, sometimes translated as "excellence") of any object has to do with the proper function of a thing. The proper function of a bicycle is transportation. Bicycles that are intended for sporting or recreational purposes should bear the burden of modifying adjectives, which is another reason we should reject the "commuting" appellation. Bicycles that perform well their proper function of transportation aren't commuting bicycles. They're just bicycles.


Felkerino said...

As someone who rides their bicycle to and from work, I have a special feeling about the term "bicycle commuting" and the information it imparts. It tells people not only that I use my bike to cover the six miles between home and office, but that I am *not* a car commuter. Also implied is the idea that the distance is too far to cover on foot.

It's a statement of principle, in part. Commuter bike might be a little too confining. But bike commuter says something about my choice of vehicle in the urban world -- mine being Washington, D.C.

Ed Felker
Arlington, VA

Longleaf Bicycles said...

I believe I understand what you're saying, Ed. To me, "commuter" of any sort rings as a contrived word that only seems natural when found in newspaper articles. Sort of like referring to people as "consumers." Both strike me as odd reductions, and I never cared for being designated a bicycle commuter.

The connotation of "bicycle commuter" always seems to me those who are a little odd or a little crazy. The connotation depends on the local culture, of course, but I'd say this holds for most places in the US, with the exception of a few cities.

And I also don't like "commuting" because it has become the primary mode of useful cycling in the minds of most people which I believe discourages people from riding. People often have long commutes to work, and they generally have to travel at times when there are many none too chilled-out drivers on the road. I always suggest that people starting out riding use their bike to do some nearby errands. The bank, groceries, haircut, church, etc. are often closer than work. What invariably happens is that people increase their range and often they find they can use their bike for many of the trips they previously thought they had to use the car for.

Hero said...

Awesome post - I totally agree. I just found out about Longleaf bicycles and am excited to see it open. Wilmington is a perfect place for people to use bikes as their main form of transportation - it's warm and flat. Now we need to work on making the roads and drivers bike friendly.

be your own hero