Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bike to Work [Fill in the Blank]

I attended in mid-May the "Bike to Work Day" held along my morning commute in Columbia, Maryland. It was frankly frustrating, and as probably the only regular cycle commuter in attendance, I felt, frankly, out of place. Who were all these people in colored Spandex, and where did they come from? Unlike last year, when it was a downpour, the weather cooperated, and there was a pretty good crowd of people, I'd say 50 or so. A smattering of the attendees are described below:
  • An older middle-aged woman who steadfastly refused to be convinced that riding with the traffic was safer for her;
  • A group of cyclists who had a 10+ mile commute for which they hadn't figured out the route;
  • A group of bicycle cops, off at a small remove, looking like they didn't belong, and no other cyclists were going over to talk;
  • The usual group of recreational club cyclists waddling around on their racing cleats;
  • Maybe (maybe!) one other person who was outfitted for practical cycling (this was the only other bike with fenders, for God's sake.)
I went off to talk with the cops. They were nice enough guys, if a little clueless about what "bike to work" was all about. I asked them about their training, and they said they had received certification from the International Police Mountain Biking Association, which trains and certifies policemen, EMS, and security people. I asked about the coursework, and they emphasizd the low-speed, crowd-oriented part of the training. (I've since followed up on it, and to me, the PDF coursework summary offered by the IPMBA looks pretty good for a 3 day course.) As usual, I would say, the cops were a little too focused on the hardware. They kept looking at me a little strangely, maybe because I was wearing my "Eclectic Shock" T-shirt (image at right.)

But, getting back to the point. What is the purpose of Bike to Work Day? Is it
  1. To convince people that they can physically manage the ride to and from their place of work? Maybe it does that, but I also suspect that there are enough mishaps (from flat tires, sunburn, and being late to work from simply getting lost) that there is a significant risk that the opposite effect may be achieved.
  2. To allow local politicians to conspicuously ride a bike and thus try and capture the bike riding community as supporters? I suspect that this plays no small role in the planning. For sure, I didn't hear anyone talking about serious new bikeway planning or sharrow painting. (Unlike lucky Boris, see previous post.)
  3. To educate people about safety? There were State of Maryland DOT brochures out about "Bike safety" competent enough I suppose in their content, but they featured a little girl in pigtails on a banana-seated bike as their protagonist, thus perpetuating the image of bicycling as a children's activity.
  4. To ecucate people about what they really need to know about how to commute successfully? In this respect it failed miserably. Success as a cycle commuter requires planning and motivation. Resources promoting either of these were nowhere in evidence.
I suspect the real answer is 2, and so I've become more than a little jaded about bike to work day. I've joined the ranks of Bike Snob NYC who put out a PSA on Bike to Work month. (More and more, I like Bike Snob, even if he does leave me rather breathless.)

Think about it -- even the name is wrong. What does "Bike to Work Day" mean? It should be "Bike to Work Unless It's Bad Weather", or "Bike to Work Year Around". I've come to terms with the fanatical streak that keeps me on my bike and I enjoy the side-benefits, but I must admit I don't have the least practical idea about how to convince others to become regular practical cyclists. That "regular" part is pretty important -- how do you make bike commuting a habit?


Brigitte in Vancouver BC said...

Hi Robert,

I am one of those people who often commutes to work in coloured spandex. I have a 30 km round-trip commute involving lots of hills, and wearing plain clothing is just not an option if I want to get to work in under an hour and without my clothes being a soggy mess when I get there. And I know lots of others like me, and I meet lots of others on my daily commute. And, oh, automatic pedals really help when I need to climb those hills, so yes I wear cleats. In the wet winter days, they also save me from slipping and getting bruised from the pedals hitting my shins.

I have fenders on my "rain bike" but not on my road bike, which I like to use for commuting when the weather's nice and I don't have side-errands to do. Why would I not indulge? It's fast, responsive, and a lot more fun to ride than the other bike. On the way home, I can make a side trip to the beach and add another 30 km.

And if I just ride down a few blocks for errands, no, I don't wear spandex, and I take whatever bike I feel safe to lock outside. It's all about choosing the right tool for the job.

I'm not quite a fanatic, but I'm a pretty enthusiastic and convinced cycle commuter who also likes to convince others that it can be done.

Oh, and I much prefer to ride on arterials than on bike paths. But I can totally understand that someone who's been raised in the car culture would need to build confidence somewhere first. Sometimes trying to "educate" doesn't go very far.

I'm sure you are more open-minded in real life than you sound in your post today. But I think you need to make your cycling heart a little more inclusive in order to promote cycling to the masses.

Amy said...

In Indianapolis, the BTWD event was again attended by a few hundred people, including 80ish from my own company (a large employer, admittedly). There were info booths and free breakfast at the destination, which was a 'cool' place blocked to cars for the morning. Organized rides were led from 11 parts of the city which helped people not get lost and encouraged participation.

Overall a good event, but I agree if I'd not done the searching myself online to learn what to haul and what not to (and trial and error helped me figure that out too!), and if I didn't have coworkers helping me plan, it would have been a lot harder. I became a regular bike commuter thanks to last year's event because I found peers who championed it and answered my questions. The general public probably isn't as lucky as I am to have that support, training/info sessions, safe parking, and showers at their disposal. When someone challenges and encourages you to try it it's a lot easier, isn't it?

These events can be good or bad and I think it really depends on how well it's organized and promoted. I like the event because I get to try a new route and the cars were reminded we were out there--in a much larger group.