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The Bicycle & The Good Life

Posted on 09 August 2009

Editors note. Another article from our previous Bespoke magazine. Indeed, as people have moved back downtown there has been a priority on 'downsizing' and curating their consumption. Experiences rather than things have become important. In this article we thought that this shift from suburbs to downtown would mean a shift in the quality of bike that people would buy, and at Curbside this is certainly still very much the case. However, the sudden oscillation from Dutch bike to cheap fast-fashion bikes hasn't helped produce the middle-position that should one day represent a mature market position for the North American city bike. It is surely the sign of a new and immature marketplace that articulate a Dutch bike for its fashion sense only (without reproducing or innovating on its quality). It's a further immaturity that many of these bikes are only sold online. But, there's an immaturity with existing bike stores as well. To succeed, they have to move beyond mountain bikes and road bikes and sell bikes that anyone can aspire to. 

- February 2016

It was in his Ethics that Aristotle insinuated the task of philosophy to provide the principles for 'the good life.' Since then, the interest in the 'good life' has been an obsession from monks in cloisters to nation states. The French principles of liberty, egality and fraternity is a delineation of the 'good life' as are the American pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. And clearly, the definitions vary. The French put stress on collectivism while the American model puts stress on individualism. Even in ancient times, the Stoics claimed the 'good life' included material possessions, health and beauty, while Aristotle's focused far more on the measured habits of accrued virtue.

If there is a crisis right now in North America and the UK, it is certainly a crisis emerging from an increasingly de-mythologized way of life. It's a well known critique that American consumerism was the path to the 'good life', and that infinite ownership of material possessions provided freedom. It is also a well known critique that in many ways, that the greatest metonymy and symbol of the 'good life' was in property ownership and the automobile. As property expanded like rings around desolate craters of once thriving city cores, the automobile lost its liberating effect as soon as it became a necessity. From gridlocked commuter traffic to driving just to grab milk, the American 'good life' has become a model of lonely and unsustainable consumerism, wasted space, and pollution broadly writ. The signs are fairly clear today in the property foreclosures and the fall of GM. We have, in short, lost the 'good life' - or we never had it.

According to research, the Danes are the happiest people on earth. The indicators have very little to with liberty and freedom of property ownership, but more to do with health, welfare, education, and income equality. But behind the Danish liberal society is an ethos that stands in contrast to the bold humanist manifestos of France and the United States. The Danes live and breathe by an aesthetic creed they call hygge. Hygge is about as difficult to interpret as the Dutch word gezellig, which roughly means the same thing. Both hygge and gezellig refer to a sense of coziness, of good company, of everything 'just right' and very few annoyances. It's a very human impulse that relates to nothing more humble than having good friends, good food, and the proper lighting. This is the Danish and Dutch pursuit of the 'good life', and possessions, status, and power are largely checked by the driving force of this ethos - which is undoubtedly why both countries have such a strong middle class. This ethos is reflected in the Danish and Dutch state, family life, their modest lifestyles, and perhaps most symbolically, in their bicycles.

As the wasted expanses of today's suburbs were made possible by the automobiles uncanny ability to close distance quickly, the Danish and Dutch emphasis on hygge and gezellig is one of proximity and inter-dependency. The urban spaces of Holland are truly a shared open-air agora of citizens intermingling with citizens despite class or other discrimination's. This is quite different from North America where independent individuals, not inter-dependent citizens, isolate themselves from the shared space of the agora as they seal themselves from fellow citizens in their detached suburban homes and automobiles. In America, the automobile connects consumers with their things. In Holland and Denmark, the bicycle is the intersubjective glue of each culture.

This was once also the case in the UK, where the bicycle reigned before WW II. Many people do not know that the classic Dutch bike is really a co-opted British design.  Companies like Raleigh had massive factories that produced everything from the frame to the ball bearings of the bicycle. These were, as Sheldon Brown states, "the finest utility bicycles money could buy", designed for transportation, utility and, as Sheldon Brown claims "were built to last 100 years, with reasonable care." Post WW II, the British went mad over the automobile. The automobile brought people out of the polluted city centers and as close to the country as possible, until, of course everyone got the same idea at once. The countryside disappeared and the pollution only got worse. Meanwhile, the bicycle industry fell into disrepair. It is interesting to see what a company like Raleigh looks like today. A once venerable supplier of one of the worlds finest city bikes, The Guardian interviewed Mark Gouldthorp, the head of Raleigh in 2007 to find a company in disgrace.

"Which is the best seller, I ask. He marches across the room to a small bright pink confection with glittery pom poms and a dolly carrier behind the seat: the "Molly", which retails at between £80 and £100, depending on size. 'That's the best selling bike we do, every which way you look at it.'"

This year, the UK supermarket chain Asda released the 'UK's cheapest bicycle' - as if this were a virtue or something to be expected. They sold thousands the first week despite terrible reviews. And then, not more than three weeks later, each and every bike was recalled. Unlike Holland, where the average cost of a city bike is 700 EU, the North American obsession with cheap, disposable goods has reduced the bicycle from its esteemed place of civilized transportation to a cheap pom-pommed confection while its retailers are viewed as a boys-club of disenchanted grumpy fetishists. "If you want to imagine the typical independent bike dealer, he is 50-60, highly cynical, miserable, moaning, scruffy. That's my customer. It is great", says Mark Gouldthorp. The problem is: he's right. Things have never sunk so low.

Luckily, things are changing. The Atlantic reported that the suburbs of today will be the slums of tomorrow, and even before the housing-bubble people like Richard Florida were encouraging people to move back to city cores. There has been a sense of disillusionment for quite some time. If you live downtown you can get to know your neighbours and the shopkeeper, you can walk to the grocery store and have immediate proximity to cultural events. With greater proximity comes a lesser need for the car. This opens up a large field of options from walking to public transit, of which the bicycle is the most efficient. It also allows for a great deal of transportation multi-tasking from trains to automobile to walking. But this still doesn't matter. Riding a bike shouldn't just be more useful, it should be enjoyable. And so should driving a car. When each are given their proper place, both are gezellig. Driving a car in Holland is as pleasurable as riding a bike, as long as you aren't driving into the center of Amsterdam.

The North American bicycle and automotive companies have always had a difficult relationship with urban city dwellers. Like the rings of suburbs surrounding city cores, the city is what a car is supposed to escape. And it does escape the city, but only in rush hour traffic heading home. Over 80% of Americans are urban, according to statistics, but of this 80% the great majority is suburban. It's no surprise that North American products are generally geared towards the suburban consumer, and this is certainly true of bicycles and automobiles. In the universal catalog of North American bicycles, the word 'city bike' has only been added recently. Until recently, every bike produced in North America rode best outside the city. Consider the names: mountain bike, racing bike, path bike...the list goes on. Whereas England once had a proud history of making real city bikes for the majority of its citizens, this was not the case in America. The iconic bike of America is not the Raleigh 'lightweight' bikes of the 30's but instead the beach cruisers that have all the styling and impracticality of a chromed and finned Cadillac. Slow, inelegant, disposable, and arguably infantile, the beach cruiser was part of that era that saw California as America's bright light, with its infinite sprawl and nuclear family homes. The American bike is a profoundly suburban artifact. Produced in China with the same disposability as a toaster, the American bike industry is just more pom-pomsin red, white and blue.

Jean-Baptiste Clement, the protagonist in Camus' The Fall, may have poked fun of the Dutch in his myopic manner by commenting on the middle class sameness of the Dutch, but one suspects jealousy. The French, he says, are obsessed with 'ideas and fornication' - he is being critical - while the Dutch, in their ubiquitous black clothing roll around the fog as equals on their 'black bicycles with high handlebars.' They either have too much or too little imagination' his character proclaims, and he may be right on both counts. After all, the principles of gezellig is to make the ordinary extraordinary - and this requires both imagination and a happiness with what one has. The Dutch and Danish obsession with the 'cozy life' renders an open-air society that has the very equality, fraternity, liberty, and happiness that neither asks for too much nor takes too little. The bicycle is part of this, of course. A Dutch and Danish bike is the very expression of hygge and gezellig. All the annoyances are removed and it feels as secure and comfortable as a blanket. It is, in short, cozy and pleasant. But also sociable, and of course, highly practical. It is, as the Dutch say, "just right."

It would be unfair to say the North American bike industry has not responded to the needs of city cyclists. But it is also no surprise to see their bikes trying to replace cars by mimicking their traffic flow. In North America, automobile transportation generally implies a drive from the suburbs to the center in the morning and a return in the evening. The North American bike industry has very much assumed the same suburban demographic, ignoring urban consumers in dense cores who use their bikes for far more than just going to work. This new breed of North American city bike are dubbed 'commuter bikes', but, to be sure, attract a small market. It should be no surprise that the ads for these bikes celebrate this new breed of 'road warrior', a cyclist who dares brave the commute from suburbs to urban along dangerous automobile corridors. Sweaty upon arrival, the cyclist packs a change of clothes and takes a shower before hitting the office. By promoting the very idea of city cycling as inherently dangerous, a battleground, and even unhygienic, it is difficult to see how this new tribe of cyclists will attract a wide demographic. A bike should be hygge, not a weapon.

The market for city bikes is fundamentally urban and not suburban. Even the automobile industry has noticed this shift, with cars like the Mini, Smart and Prius reaching a large urban demographic. Not surprisingly, each of these automobiles are imports. Research in Holland shows what most urbanites already know: people who live in urban centers live about 80% of their lives within 10km of home. The graph (top) demonstrates the average range of the Dutch city cyclist. In Denmark and Holland, and certainly any urban center in North America, a bicycle connects citizens with a whole range of activities. The recent report from the Netherlands Fietsberaad reveals that the bicycle is used in Holland for the following tasks: touring/hiking, social/recreational, visits, educational, shopping, services/personal care, business trips and finally, commuting (see graph, middle). Anyone who lives in downtown cores and has access to bike lanes, backstreets, or relatively respectful drivers knows the ease and enjoyment of shopping, visiting friends, and riding in a suit to the opera. By limiting the city bike to a commuter vehicle only, the North American bike industry has followed by the same suburban to urban traffic flow paradigm of the automobile. Like the mountain bike and racing bike, the North American 'commuter bike' is just another suburban artifact.

Riding a Dutch bike, even in North America, in an aesthetic experience. While North Americans are riding bikes to save the earth or be more practical, a new study reveals that the Dutch ride bikes for no other reason than because they enjoy it (see graph: left). Not only do they enjoy it, but they enjoy it far more than driving an automobile. Moreover, they feel the least fear, anger and sadness when riding a bicycle than any other mode. And, as a culture of individuals, they prefer bicycle and automotive over more collectivist transportation. Even in a perfect word, public transit is rarely gezellig. If you have ever done your shopping, visited a friend, or gone to work on a Dutch bike, you most certainly know the meaning of the word gezellig. It's manufactured according to the principles of gezellig. At once civilized and elegant, it is also comfortable, pleasant to ride, and can multi-task many different vocations while the scenery gently rolls by. It's soothing. Therapeutic.

North America is romanced by the bicycle, but at the moment, is invested only in a summertime fling. This shows in the inherent disposability of the new 'commuter bikes' being sold and the fairweather mentality. North Americans need to get beyond the shiny pom-poms and beach cruiser aesthetics to bicycles that not only represent long term sustainability and urban practicality, but also enjoyment. And that means a change in focus from the so-call liberty of mass-consumption to the simple pleasures of riding a bike. It's gezellig, ja?

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