Sunday, February 1, 2015

Bicycling as social statement

Steve Henning is a textiles-industry executive.  He was working in Australia, and bicycle commuted almost exclusively.  His associates admired him for it.

Then he was relocated to China, where he assumed he could continue riding... after all, bicycle is a very common mode of transportation in that heavily-populated country.  But then he made an unfortunate discovery.  "My team was humiliated that their boss rode a bike to work like a common person. While Chinese bike to work infinitely more than Australians, among the wealthier Chinese, bikes are not an option. There are plenty of bikes on the road, but biking is for the lower classes only. So my team felt it was an embarrassment that their boss rode a bike to the office. They felt it suggested to the entire company that their boss was unimportant, and that by association, they were unimportant, too."  (Story HERE.)


Can you imagine being socially-pressured on account of your bicycle riding?

But as I think about it... what kind of social pressures do we have, here in the U.S.A., regarding our transportation?

There is no doubt that in many eyes and minds, choice of vehicle is a very significant "statement."  If you don't believe me, spend an evening watching network TV, and observe the car and truck commercials.  If they are to be believed, your wheels are everything!  If you don't drive their vehicle, you might as well tattoo LOSER on your forehead!

Ride the bus?  Are you kidding?  Do you eat at the rescue mission, too?!?

Ride a bike?  A grownup riding a bike?  Pitiful!  Lost your driver's license, huh?  What are you, some kind of tree-hugging liberal?

Of course, there are exceptions.  Among the "hipsters" where image is EVERYTHING, it's very stylish to ride a vintage single-speed... and particularly if you're wearing the proper hipster clothing style (which seems to change somewhat regularly - ya gotta pay attention to these things).  Perhaps as they graduate to full adulthood, bicycle-as-transportation will continue to evolve into respectability?

And of course there's a subculture of "equipment fethishists" in the world of bicycling as everywhere else... people who derive satisfaction from having the very top-level gear.  Surely part of the appeal of titanium carbon fiber / Dura-Ace / Campy Record is other like-minded riders making note of your awesome steed.

If I'm making a "social statement" by my bicycling, it's at the subconscious level.  (In my mind, transportation by bicycle is superior in pretty much every way.  I'm saving a boatload of dough.  I'm not contributing to the inversion.  I could do what every motorist is doing... but relatively few of them could do what I'm doing.  But I don't care whether they recognize any of that or not.)

Excuse me, while I wax nostalgic for a moment...

When I was a kid, most families only had one car... or at least that's my memory.  (More moms stayed home back then.)  But still, it was a very unusual sight to see a grownup riding a bike, other than for recreation.

Wesley Goodson was well-known in my neighborhood - for bicycling.  He rode an ancient "cruiser" style bike that was festooned with baskets, several headlights, horns, and literally hundreds of reflectors.  He was an adult - but not a normal adult.  I'm sure he was mentally impaired to some degree... he mowed lawns for pocket money and constantly smoked a pipe as he rode.  He'd ride his bike to Roosevelt Market, right across the street from my elementary school, where we would admire it while he leaned against the wall and sipped beer from a quart bottle.  (Thinking back... Wesley was a pretty cool character!  Although he was hardly a role model, he certainly didn't feel any pressure to "fit in."  He was his own guy.  And - he probably was role model in the sense of his transportation... for me.  Here was a guy who didn't have much in the way of prosperity, but he got around the neighborhood in style, and on the cheap!)

There was another fellow - I don't know his name, but I knew of him from the same Roosevelt Market connection.  He'd park his "English three speed" out front, while he ran in for provisions... on his way to work downtown.  He worked at the music store.  (When I was a bit older, I'd hang out there, admiring electric guitars and horns and pianos and such.)  He bicycled to work regularly... you could say it was his daily transportation.

And my dad rode a bike to work sometimes, but only maybe once a week and when the weather was nice.  I always thought it was pretty cool when his bicycle was cabled up in his office parking spot.

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