Copenhagen’s got it, Amsterdam and the UK, too. It’s cycling chic, those websites devoted to the idea that cycling doesn’t require special clothes (think: Spandex) and anyone can do it. While the underlying message is sorely needed—the more butts on bikes the better—there’s a danger lurking in those glossy photos of (primarily) young, hip urban female cyclists. Such photos celebrate (and ultimately sell) a with-it aesthetic, turning bicycles into consumerist accessories and women, once again, into eye candy.
According to the League of American Cyclists, in the USA only 24% of bicycle trips are made by women, yet most cycling chic blogs or sites feature beautiful women. Women’s lib was about fighting for economic equality and equally, for removing the objectifying male gaze the media favors. But cycling chic puts an old-fashioned focus back on women’s appearance, a global cultural norm we’ve struggled to overcome.
Historically speaking, femininity and biking go extremely well together. Bicycles were an important tool in the suffragette and early feminist movements and even in 2015, I can relate as cycling gives me a degree of freedom other forms of transportation simply don’t. I bike everyday, I bike as a woman, and I sometimes bike in heels. I don’t need to deny my femininity in order to cycle but I don’t need to put on lipstick to bike into town, either.
Here’s an interesting article in which dozens of women weigh in what cycling means to them. It’s a great, complex conversation to have and one that continues to develop.
I tend to agree with this Guardian article that: “Anyone who has ever tried to make their way through the centre of Amsterdam in a car knows it: the city is owned by cyclists.” For those unschooled in Dutch cycling history, this is a quick take on the subject and shows how the Dutch didn’t embrace cycling by accident.
Like most of the world, the Dutch were also enthralled by cars, which seen to signal both prosperity and the future. However in 1971, there were 3,300 car-related deaths–400 of which were children–and this was the turning point for parents to take to the streets and reclaim them. At least for cyclists.
Oddly enough, the Dutch might be taking this hard-won cycling victory for granted. There are fewer children cycling to school than in the past and no one knows why. Supposedly, despite no evidence to the contrary, parents believe that roads are more dangerous and have started driving their children to school. I saw this happen in Silicon Valley decades ago (only because the local council cancelled bus service due to budgetary constraints) and it seems to be a common myth. Scaremongering over hard facts.
But to repeat: The roads here are safe. Drivers look out for cyclists. The infrastructure is sound. Most people benefit from having the freedom of movement, freedom from noise pollution and the cost effectiveness of cycling minor distances. Yes, this city is owned by cyclists–but only because they remember to keep their voices heard.
How do riders ride their bikes? Amsterdam’s Urban Cycling Institute, a department of the University of Amsterdam (UvA), set out do research on just that. While Dutch city streets are much safer than, say, their American counterparts (due to separate bike paths), some local newspapers have claimed that local cyclists edge towards anarchic behavior.
According to research conducted by UvA Sociology students, who analyzed nine major junctions during rush hour—and the whopping 18,500 cyclists that sailed through them in one hour—there are three types of cyclists:
- Conformists: those who obviously stick to the rules;
- Momentumists: cyclists who adapt the rules to suit their own ends, without causing danger;
- Recklists: those who recklessly ignore the rules, causing conflict with other road users.
Guess what? The majority of cyclists are conformists with recklists weighing in at a mere 5%.
Shoot that theory in the spokes….
As cycling keeps growing in popularity, the Urban Cycling Institute will hopefully keep making the news. It’s new summer program, “Planning the Cycling City” was swamped with applicants—those on the wait list are probably looking at 2016 for their start date. The course will discuss amongst other things: Bicycle culture and effects from a social and geographical position.
To keep informed, please visit their blog. I certainly will!
Easter is a major weekend for tourists invading Amsterdam. For a capital with roughly one million inhabitants, Amsterdam attracts 250,000 Chinese tourists a year, not to mention British Hen party-goers, who never fail to make an impression with their offensive language and equally offensive matching pink T-shirts/tutus,/playboy bunny ears/boas or baseball caps.
I’ve often chatted about this to Dutch friends: should tourists be forced to use separate bike lanes? I’m almost willing to pay taxes for it. If you’re Dutch or have lived here long enough, you’ll see tourists riding chaotically into traffic with little understanding of how city cycling works. To the untrained tourist eye, there are no real rules here—bikes simply go wherever they want, clanking their little bells to announce their arrival. But Amsterdam isn’t a sweet, innocuous Disneyland despite its charming, cobblestoned appearance; there are traffic deaths here, too.
The rules here are pretty wonderful when it comes to cyclists: they always have the right of way, can often go the wrong way down a one way street, and have cycle lanes separated from traffic, ensuring real safety. But there are still rules and the rule of logic always applies, like looking both ways for oncoming vehicles, especially those made of tin, rather than assuming they will graciously stop.
Of course when it comes to cycling the Dutch flaunt the rules. But that’s because they know them. They have an engrained knowledge of the rhythm of the road, have had minor skirmishes themselves growing up and so, can navigate the streets quickly, dodging red lights, pedestrians etc. And yes, they can also SMS, smoke cigarettes, walk their dogs and Google something while above spokes. But that ease comes from having grown up in a cycling culture their entire lives.
My Dutch boyfriend often leaves me behind in traffic. “Sorry, but I don’t wait for the lights to change” he once told me, weaving his way through oncoming traffic with the finesse of a conductor performing Beethoven’s Fifth. This sounds a bit arrogant, but whenever I try to follow, I nearly get hit. For all my cycling experience on the streets of Amsterdam, I still have to take it slower than the locals.
So this has been a weekend of dodging tourists on bikes, those yellow swarms that suddenly take over entire intersections while failing to see the lights have changed. I curse at them like a local, but perhaps I’m worse for seeing them reminds me of all the times I also cycled lackadaisically through the city, smashing into confused pedestrians or other cyclists.
Every few weeks, the news (Dutch or otherwise) seems to have an article about there being too many bikes in Amsterdam. Included amongst these are abandoned bikes, a good number of which are hastily dumped near Central Station. Dozens of studies have been conducted trying to understand why owners never come back, but with no real conclusions.
The local city government tends to remove bikes quickly, including illegally parked bikes, and even dredges the canals for them. This is referred to locally as bicycle fishing. According to city water authority Waternet, between 12,000 and 15,000 bikes are found in Amsterdam’s canals each year, victims of theft or vandalism.
What to do with these bikes? Bikes dredged up from the canals are made into scrap metal, yet another 30,000 bikes (useable ones) are left uncollected from the city’s central bike depot every year. Last year, the city sent 1400 bikes to the al Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, a camp full of 81,000 refugees. Arguably, another 28,600 bicycles could have also been shipped, but it’s a beautiful attempt to give both bikes and refugees a second chance.