The context dilemma when discussing cycling in global fora

It has been two months since I returned from my 9 week tour of cycling cities in America, Europe etc, and only now has it really sunk in, that my perspective has changed. I have lost the antipodean point of view (POV), that gave my blog its tragicomic undercurrents. I can never get it back either. Ignorance was bliss, and I'm sure quite amusing to watch.

From left: 1K bikes left on the street in Copenhagen; a lonely racing bike kept in a former bank vault in Portland; 3000 abandoned bikes in a rusting bike tower in Amsterdam.

What I have now, is an overwhelming impression of the global diversity of cycling. Context changes everything. There is hardly an issue effecting cycling that could be treated in the same way in two cities, let alone across borders. Take secure bicycle parking, for instance. In Denmark, secure bike parking is hardly required, thanks mainly to social equality, but also the home insurance industry there, that ultimately profits from thefts. In sprawling American cities, long trips on Lance Armstrong signature edition type bikes, to offices in neighborhoods "enlivened" by poor folk, lead to Fort Knox facilities. The Dutch build towers to store beater bikes that have been abandoned. So there we have the welfare state, American apartheid, and Calvinist tolerance leading to three architectural responses to the one problem.
 
Infrastructure, bicycling laws, cycling mores, and architectural responses to cycling, are all dependent on context. This explains the speaking at crossed purposes we see in bike blog comments streams. Sometimes I wonder if there is anything we can learn from each other at all. All the worst cities are more or less the same: drowning in cars. All great cities are more or less different, because there are so many different ways to fill them with bikes. 

5 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    The “behind the windscreen” context

    Dr Behooving,

    You raise a fundamentally important point. Context is, as you say, everything but im my experience, all too often it becomes an excuse for lazy thinking. I recall our previous PM, JWH, saying in an interview “we Australians love our cars”, and a talk back radio host being treated as some sort of authority on Channel 7’s sunrise saying about European cities, “but they’re cycling cities”, without any challenge or question from Kochie or Mel. So the default position becomes, “we are not Danish/Dutch/from Portland – it wouldn’t work here”.

    Readers to your blog would by now take for granted the benefits of building cities on a human scale and encouraging walking and cycling around them. Failing to accept that assumption is in my experience the biggest barrier to changing minds. You can talk all you want about separated bike infrastructure and designing buildings and spaces for people, but the obstacle is the “but I like my car and I like driving it” mindset. Watch what happens when your local council suggests blocking a few neighbourhood streets to stop them being treated as thoroughfares. The reaction is swift and strong.

    The context problem is not so much the context of different cities but the context of viewing the world primarily from behind a car windscreen. It shapes people’s views and assumptions. Your suggestion to turn Newcastle’s disused railway lines into a separate network of bike routes and suburbs will no doubt be greeted with, “but won’t that leave less room for cars and cause congestion?” or “but where will the residents of those suburbs park their cars?”

    If you have three short and snippy points that I can make to one of the many people I talk to about this and who suffer from “car head”, you would help me no end. Trying to take time to explain is greeted with a glassed over look or they simply walk away.

    Edward

  2. Steven says:

    Re: The “behind the windscreen” context

    Hi Edward, first, thanks for a smashing comment. I’m flattered most by the suggestion that my blog might have readers. I know it does, but it’s always fun to be reminded. Next, I’m sobered by the point you make that the word context is often used to preface a cop-out. Point humbly taken. As to this old chestnut of lazy drivers and their voting habits—I would never lift a finger to persuade them. If drawn into an argument and asked for three pithy points to my repartee, I would remind them that I am healthy, wealthy and wise, while they are sick, poor and idiotic. I am developing a separatist attitude, and looking at these wastelands and disused networks more carefully each day. Hell, I would love to see cyclists/greenies/alternative types seizing disused land, as the founders of Christiania did in the 1970s in Copenhagen. That’s not for me, personally, though. Me, I like to dress up, and ride with my head high, and take positive steps to organise my life around these alternative routes. I once lived in an area where I could only get to work by riding on dangerous road shoulders. So I moved. I’m ranting now, but will thank you wholeheartedly for helping me clarify my own thinking. In summery, I think it’s best to not waste our breath on the unwashed, but to forge an alternative space. This is what homosexuals do—their disposition to mainstream society is fairly similar.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Re: Lightweight 28″ rims

    Dead right, a heavy wheel accelerates and decelerates less easily than a lighter wheel. Given that even a skilled spinner still delivers power unevenly; acceleration & deceleration will always be part of a bike’s progress. Given the physical law of cussedness; what you gain in reduced deceleration will not offset fully what you loose to reduced acceleration. So a lighter wheel will be more efficient than a heavier one overall. You’ll loose quite a bit accelerating and a tiny bit at constant speed, but you will gain a little coasting too.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Travel broadens the mind. Whoda thunk it?

    • Steven says:

      not me 🙂 Traveling without a bike for all those years prior, had left me feeling the whole world was the same. Taking a bike got me involved.

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