The Death and Legacy of Bike Culture: An Appreciation

You don’t hear a lot about “bike culture” these days. A decade or two ago it was a hot phrase, denoting the shared camaraderie, courage, outsidership, feeling of rebellion and excitement of being a cyclist in a world that considered you slightly crazy. (If society treats cyclists as deviants doing an insanely dangerous activity; who else would you expect to become a cyclist beside a risk-taking person with a certain disregard for the rules?) But it also had a powerful democratic and moral vision that said being on a bike was a positive thing that everyone could and be encouraged to do; that it was our roads that were irrational rather than those who didn’t use cars. Like Punk, bike culture was an urban phenomenon, based among weekend racers, daredevil messengers, and the spandex covered hot-rodders joining the others in marginalized outlaw status on the streets. Today, as bicycling has become more mainstream, the macho desperado aspects of the culture have receded to the immature margins and the universalizing positive messages have been carried forward in the nation’s many Bicycle Advocacy and Transportation Reform groups. But here’s a semi-nostalgic glance back at the people who pushed through the asphalt barbed wire to get it all started.


Being reviled by the general public was one of the defining aspects of Bike Culture. The fun was turning the general opprobrium into a compliment: Bike Culture was an expression of the two-wheeled community’s pride and joy in itself. It was a feeling of instant brotherhood (and it was mostly male, if not macho). It was a constant vigilance and awareness that you were always in danger, that the killing machines around you and their thoughtless drivers could run you over at any minute, and that the only response was to be as bold and risk-loving as the situation required. The culture surrounded itself with positive self-images – bicyclists were healthy, non-polluters, a solution to car congestion and over consumption, an alternative to fossil fuels, and an answer to climate change.

Bicyclists identified with and supported each other. As outsiders, they saw themselves as enemies of the dominant car culture. It is no accident that, in city after city, the shock troops of transportation reform were the bicyclists. They were getting hurt. They were angry. They wanted action. And, to their credit, the emerging advocacy leadership quickly realized that their most important mission was not to serve their already riding peers but to help attract the huge majority of people who were not yet using bikes. It wasn’t just that safety was in numbers, it was also that bike culture’s own core values had a universalizing theme – if bicyclists were morally good because they were minimizing car use then creating an environment that encouraged many more people to be physically active on two wheels was to do good.


As the political pressure they created slowly forced car-centric city transportation engineers to begin acknowledging their demands, the resulting re-envisioning of streets opened the door to broader changes and wider constituencies – walkers, bus riders, even car occupants (who, after all, were getting injured in the largest numbers of all). Transportation, the Siamese twin of land use, became a high-leverage entry point for a variety of urban revitalization and environmental sustainability efforts – Smart Growth, New Urbanism, the rebirth of the downtown, energy conservation, and more.

The first extension of the bike advocacy effort was to pedestrians. Even though everyone walks, even though our streets are not always safe or convenient for pedestrians, and even though every trip by every mode of transportation begins and ends on foot, few people self-identify as “walkers.” (For many years, WalkBoston was one of the few pedestrian-focused advocacy groups in the United States.) People will complain about sidewalks and intersections and crazy speeders, but usually only after a tragedy or as a side-effect of being together for some other reason. Bicycle groups became a kernel around which other issues and constituencies could be addressed. It was no coincidence that so many groups around the country changed their name from “Somecity Bike Federation” to “Bicycling and Pedestrian Association.” It’s no accident that the slogans have evolved from self-interested “making cities bike friendly”, to the more general (but anti-car-sounding) “traffic calming”, to the more multi-modal “Complete Streets”, to the safer and better public spaces for all “Vision Zero.”

More recently, transportation reform has embraced transit issues as well – from trains to trolleys, from subways to buses. (To its own credit, LivableStreets Alliance had that holistic vision from the start – even stretching further to see transportation not as a stand-alone issue but as a leverage point for increased quality of life and equity for all.)


In its time Bike Culture was very rad and very important. Now it’s not so much dead as irrelevant. The mainstreaming of bicycling has brought millions of new people on to their saddles. Spandex is no longer fashionable. Bicycle friendly no longer means plopping a couple of “share the road” signs along the curb or even painting an edge line next to the opening doors of parked-cars. Today, the standard for bike facilities are protected bike lanes and intersections, separated bike highways and low-traffic stress bikeways, slow zone neighborways, and even “shared space.” Tomorrow’s designs will revolve around multi-use Greenways with storm-water basins and family-friendly play areas. In the wake of those changes, pedestrian facilities have evolved from runways of danger to wide zebra crosswalks with extra no-car-going times for pedestrians to start, even mid-block crossings with special “HAWK” lights. Jaywalking is as unacceptable a term as saying “car accident.”

Of course, there still some immature cowboys out there going the wrong way, speeding too close to others, yelling at anyone in their way. (And almost every cyclist, like every driver or walker, occasionally does something stupid or mindless.) But the wild men are now a small minority of riders. Behavior norms are now increasingly set by more “ordinary” people going to work, bringing their kids to school, doing errands, enjoying a ride. Unfortunately, the public image of cyclists hasn’t changed as fast as the reality; but that is slowly improving as well.

We owe a nostalgic nod of thanks to the pioneers who got all this started. Our urban transportation systems were probably going to change eventually; we were reaching the end of the road in terms of the spacial requirements and externalized damage of car-dependent mobility. But just as a dead tree doesn’t fall unless it’s pushed, old patterns don’t change until they're challenged. The Bike Culture pioneers were the lumberjacks whose open fields we now inhabit.


Thanks to Richard Fries for feedback on an earlier draft.


Some related previous posts include:

If Bicycling Goes Mainstream, Does Bike Culture Just Go?

In Praise of Just Enjoying The Ride


Boston: Birthplace of American Bicycling

Time to Stop Behaving Badly on Bikes

Bikes Are Vehicles; But They're Not Cars



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