Why Can’t Riding Bikes in America Just Be Normal?
Biking to run errands is commonplace in other countries, so enough with the 20 questions.
What’s the best way to get people to notice you when you’re out on the bike? Is it slathering your legs in glistening embrocation? Swaddling yourself in the latest finery from Assos? Throwing a leg over an exotic wooden road bicycle?
Hardly. Even doing all of those things at once won’t get you half as much attention as riding a giant cargo bike. I know this because I’ve been testing a Yuba Supermarché. The Supermarché is a front-loading cargo bike, and mine is set up with a large trough-like bamboo box. In this configuration it resembles a bakfiets, though with its derailleur drivetrain, mountain bike cockpit, and hydraulic disc brakes, it’s more sporting cargo bike than true Dutch utility tub. The ride is smooth and stable, even when laden (it’ll carry up to 220 pounds), and if you’re tired of fussing with racks, straps, and panniers when running errands, there’s nothing more liberating than just tossing everything into a big pedal-powered wheelbarrow. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is the way people react to it.
My first ride on the Supermarché was from 718 Cyclery in Brooklyn to my home in the Bronx, a 20-mile journey that took me the entire length of Manhattan and netted me more attention and unsolicited commentary than any non-celebrity is accustomed to receiving. “Can I hop in?” was the most common remark, followed closely by “Did you make that?” Bicycle delivery people were equally inquisitive but more pragmatic, enviously eyeballing its ample hauling capacity before asking, “How much did that cost?” Then there was the guy outside of my local supermarket who stared at it for a full ten seconds before demanding to know, “How do you steer that thing?”
“With the handlebars,” I replied, and he seemed crestfallen that there wasn’t some sort of rudder.
Furthermore, I soon found that once you throw some kids in that tub you go from familiar character actor to full-blown A-lister, and it seems like every single person you pass either says something to you or looks like they’re deciding whether or not they should. Turning onto my street after a school pick-up, my two boys wrestling in the Supermarché’s cargo hold like a pair of puppies in a cardboard box, the driver of a passing SUV slowed and rolled down her window. I was bracing myself for the inevitable safety lecture when she confounded my expectations by shouting, “That’s the coolest thing I ever saw!”
But while most comments range from curiosity to delight, there’s also a mildly disquieting undercurrent of disdain, and some people peer at me through their car windows like I’m serving my children water from the toilet.
Certainly I’m not surprised by the attention. I also don’t mind fielding bike-related questions from passersby, and as a cyclist I’m already used to a certain amount of disdain. At the same time, I can’t help but find it a little depressing that people react so strongly to this thing, because it says everything about our weird relationship with bikes. On a trip to Amsterdam some years back I spent considerable time using a bakfiets and was amazed by two things: how wildly convenient a bike with a great big box on the front is, and how utterly normal and unremarkable it was. Nobody in Amsterdam asks if you made your cargo bike, just like nobody in New York asks if you made your Hyundai. They’re ubiquitous.
Here, a giant cargo bike is just as wonderfully practical as it is in Amsterdam, but if you ride one you’re an oddball—yet riding a road bike in form-fitting Lycra barely registers. When it comes to bicycles we’ve got everything backwards. If we had the same attitude toward clothes as we do toward bikes, you could walk around town all day in a thong without anybody so much as glancing at you, but if you threw on a pair of overalls you’d have astonished people stopping you every five seconds because now you’ve got pockets just like a kangaroo. “Did you make those?,” they’d ask. “Can I hop in?”
Of course you don’t have to ride a cargo bike to attract undue attention to yourself, and when people aren’t expressing amazement they’re expressing concern, especially if you’re a woman. In an article about closing the gender gap in urban cycling, Eillie Anzilotti writes:
At least once a week, I will pull up to a red light on my bike and someone–usually an older man–will say to me: “I hope you’re being careful,” accompanied by some shake of the head. If not that, it’s someone asking me: “Aren’t you scared?” I have yet to meet a male cyclist who’s subject to the same constant questioning; most of the women I spoke with share my experience.
As it happens, as a male cyclist I have indeed experienced that same line of questioning, but only while carrying children on my bike, and only from women who were concerned for their safety. I’ve never had a man say, “Hey bro, I hope you’re being careful with that baby.” For that matter I’ve also never had anyone of any gender implore me to be careful when loading my children into a car, which statistically speaking is far more warranted.
In any case, it’s hard not to conclude from all of this that we’re the rubes of the cycling world, and that our retrograde attitudes towards bikes and gender are inextricably intertwined. We’re able to comprehend riding bikes only as a means of recreation; confounded by the practical; aghast at the notion that women and children should be exposed to this high-risk action sport. Hey, I’ll take being told I’m doing the coolest thing somebody’s ever seen, and it sure beats having things thrown at me from car windows (this has happened to every cyclist), but what I’d like even more would be if what I was doing was so commonplace as to be utterly not worth mentioning.
Maybe the power of big bikes to amaze and delight coupled with their sheer usefulness will bring us a little bit closer to that happening.