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The City Bike and the Media

Posted on 10 September 2009

Editors note. It was great fun importing European city bikes in a city like Toronto that just natively accepted them. It was even more fun watching how these bikes got so much press in other cities. In Toronto they fit into a pre-existing way of life. In other cities they represented a new way of life. Today city bikes have become more of a fact and the press, it seems, have gotten tired by yet another city bike company entering the fray (unless it connects to your iPhone or electric - both which are pretty cool). 

- February 2016

 

It all started with the NY Times article early this summer, on April 15th, 2009. Stating that the "great downturn may have its first status symbol," the article romanced a whole new demographic out of their cars and onto their bicycle. As the importer of top-brand European city bikes (on a shoestring budget), we were naturally pleased as punch. Publicity is always good, especially if it is free!

 

This week the NY Times came out with another article, entitled "Whose bike are you wearing?". While many have criticized the tendency to place these bikes in the Fashion section, there is nothing at all vapid about this. A European city bike nearly always keeps clothing absolutely clean. This is something quite rare for a bicycle in North America. A bike that is as fashion-forward as the rider is quite a wonderful synchronicity. No wonder all the fashion-forward people are suddenly lured by the bicycle. This isn't just about pretty looks, its about keeping pretty looks looking pretty, and that's a matter of practicality.

Of course, practicality is far more than just clean couture. The upright position, the extreme low maintenance, and the indestructible nature of a European city bike are all absolute assets to the urban cyclist. The European city bike, in this sense, has far more place in the Wheels section than just the Fashion section. But that time will come.

However, the LA Times understood the broader reaches of the European city bike when they interviewed Josef at Flying Pigeon LA for the Business section.

"The bikes we sell, you won't find in general bike shops," said Josef Bray-Ali, 30. "For one, these bikes are comfortable, and they don't jar you around like most performance bikes people sometimes get talked into buying. But most people aren't as used to this idea of the bike as a durable good and a real, daily mode of transportation in L.A."

The Business angle is about as interesting as the Fashion angle. In the same way some very atypical people are suddenly riding bikes, the shops selling these bikes are often just as atypical. Stores like Rain City Bikes in Vancouver (who we recently interviewed) started their store entirely around the Dutch bike concept while the typical bike store has struggled to think beyond the lightweight performance bike. This, happily, is changing as bike stores scramble to welcome an entirely different demographic while re-learning everything they know about bikes. Some approach this change with hostility and others with open arms. "The extreme poles of bike culture are still in many ways hostile to biking as it is done in the Netherlands" said the NY Times, and this is unfortunate.

But why? Perhaps, as the more recent NY Times article stated, the "purists worry that their beloved bikes are being turned into a showy status symbol." But this 'showiness' is hardly something to worry about. After all, the purists could use a fashion check. The problem probably surrounds the issue of status. George Bliss, a Pratt Institute professor and owner of HubStation NYC stated in the April NY Times article,

"“I use to think that car culture was the problem, but now I think it’s bike culture,” he said. By that he meant that the discourse about city biking is dominated by cycling zealots who don’t have the desire, or the skill, to attract people who don’t see themselves as cyclists, just as people who ride a bike to work."

Seth Stevenson at Slate Magazine very much states the same phenomena. While testing several European city bikes in a recent issue, he found that the classic Dutch bike challenged the presuppositions of many his co-workers.

It turns out my colleagues view urban cycling as a Darwinian contest, in which the cyclist who weaves most daringly between the delivery trucks is the glorious victor. Thus they chafe at the configuration of the Batavus, which does not encourage or enable aggressive pedaling. I, on the other hand, like to pretend I'm a European—rolling around the city at dawdling speed, occasionally dinging the bell to alert inattentive pedestrians to my presence. If you're like me, you'll adore the Batavus. If you approach cycling as a vicious blood sport, you likely won't.

This aggressive attitude is certainly not the norm, but it has up till now been the default position. Safety, it seems, is won through aggression and confrontation, not suits and skirts on a truly civilized bike. This, sadly is the default status of the city cyclist: part activist, part warrior. But this status is changing, and quite frankly, it's about time. Of course, there are concerns. As an interviewee in the more recent NY Times article stated, "if you unleash a herd of teetering, wobbly fashionistas into city streets without any real knowledge of how to ride a bike in traffic, accidents can (and likely will) happen." Yet wobbly or not, this was precisely the success of the Paris Velib program, which in many ways was the first instance in the emerging paradigm shift. Parisians, like the fashionistas of New York, are hardly considered likely cyclists - and this made Velib a risky program. (It also made our experiment to import containers of Dutch, Danish, English and Italian bikes equally risky!). Yet, the public was instantly romanced. As the more recent NY Times article stated, “an elegant lady or man on a bike? Now, that is elegant, that’s really the new art of living.” Well said.

At the end of the day, it appears that we simply have to recognize that there are many different types of city cyclists. Luckily, the media has done a fantastic job doing just that. Some ride distance and require a performance and speedy city bike. These are almost certainly the cyclists who rightfully demand lockers and showers at their destination. But then there is the city cyclist who has nearly the same native habits as a Amsterdammer. This cyclist lives right downtown and lives an intense volume of their lives within a small urban radius. The joy of having a safe, stable bike that is wardrobe adaptable and also remarkably low on maintenance is a pretty enticing offer. And if it makes you feel like a movie star, well, then that's awesome!

Perhaps the greatest effect of Velib was its ability to tame the mad Parisian drivers. This only happens when there are lots and lots of cyclists. By attracting new cyclists with a fashion-forward (and fashion friendly) bike, cities like New York, Chicago, LA, and Toronto are growing up fast.  NYC drivers may be dangerous, but they are hardly gallic (try Montreal). Face it, if you can get a cashmere-clad Parisian on a bike, then job-well-done. If you can create a bike culture large enough to tame Parisian drivers, then we say mission-accomplished. If you can accomplish both of these while paving miles and miles of new bike lanes - as there are in Paris and NYC - then that's an absolute miracle! And this is exactly what is happening in North America. The media is pushing for it as much as city planners. New bike shops are opening all over the place. Bike companies in North America are scrambling to get more clear on the concept. New bikes are being introduced. It's actually sticking.

Still driving or taking the taxi? Time to update your status!

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