Since my arrival in Amsterdam a few months ago I’ve had the opportunity to visit a number of other European cities and experience how biking plays a role in urban life across various parts of Europe. On my travels I make a point to try and experience bike culture as a local would. I rent bikes, check out the bike racks to see what the locals ride and I seek out local bike shops to visit.
It was in one of those shops on a recent trip to Zurich where I heard a comment that spurred an important realization. The proprietor of a bike shop serving the local market commented that he did not think that there was really a “bike culture” in Amsterdam because everyone rides the traditional upright “omafiets”, which literally translates into Grandmas bike..
After pausing for a moment I realized he was right that Amsterdam does not have a “bike culture” in the sense of what that word has come to mean. The new magazines and books promoting cycle chic and the hipster fixie bike fashions that have taken off in recent years reflect what I have always considered to be a positive, if somewhat youth oriented shift towards a more bike centric universe.
More recently I’ve come to realize that these various trends need to be understood not so much as an emerging bike culture but as a set of independent bike sub-cultures. You have racers and hipsters, bike packers and mountain bikers and even some who do their best to reject the orthodoxy of a bike industry that seems more dedicated to driving bike consumerism than biking as a social movement or as part of the cure to what ails our urban environments.
So let’s contrast all those movements and sub-cultures with biking in the Netherlands; In Amsterdam about 60% of all trips are made by bike. Based on this single fact alone biking is not a sub culture in the Netherlands, it is a fully developed part of the mainstream culture and an integral part of how the Dutch live and how they operate in urban areas. So in order to contrast this with what has come to be called a “bike culture” the Dutch have what I will call a culture of biking. A culture where cycling is a mainstream, everyday pursuit that crosses all the boundaries of class, age, ethnicity and gender.
What the bike industry, press and most bikers outside the Netherlands call “bike culture” needs to be called what it really is, which is some variant of a bike sub-culture. I can freely admit that I am a part of more than one of these sub cultures based on my interest in racing, mountain bikes, cyclocross and vintage cycles and I think these sub cultures have a vital role to play in helping to drive biking more into mainstream culture and consciousness. But I no longer mistake any of them for a bike culture because they are all really just special interests serving relatively tiny percentages of the population Vs the bike friendly culture of the Netherlands that serves the majority of the population.
For many people this is just a trivial bit of semantics but for those of us interested in cycling advocacy and in making biking a much bigger part of our urban transport landscape I believe this distinction is important for a couple of reasons. The first and foremost is that sub-cultures are by their very definition somewhat exclusive and meant to serve the interests of a small group of people with a shared interest. This is something it is important for the cycling enthusiast to understand about their little patch of the biking world.
You can build bridges between sub cultures and cross pollinate ideas and maybe over time the mainstream culture will begin to adopt those concepts and they will spread to much wider audience. But until the mainstream culture truly embraces cycling by adopting the same methodical and comprehensive approach to bike infrastructure, cycling will remain a niche pursuit in countries like the US and “bike culture” will not evolve into a culture that supports biking.
In my next post I’ll look at what I think the members of the various bike sub-cultures should be doing to help our world evolve into a culture that supports biking.