15 April 2014

Environmentalism And Cycling

From Chronicles of the Voyager

My birth as a "serious" cyclist--that is to say, my interest in 
riding "long distances" (i.e., beyond my neighborhood) and better bikes--coincided, more or less, with the early '70's "Bike Boom".

Although some professors and other professionals rode their bikes to work, and there was a small but growing number of adult cyclists (with whom I rode), for anyone to continue pedaling when he or she was old enough to have a driver's license was still considered a bit geeky, vaguely counter-cultural and even subversive.

Then, there was a lot of talk about the environmental benefits of cycling.  Back then, scientists were saying that the world's oil, coal, natural gas and other fuels weren't going to last forever If we were lucky, they'd last another century, maybe two.  That was, of course, if we didn't make ourselves extinct with all of the pollution from burning those fuels.

Ironically, the first energy crisis that followed the Middle East Oil Embargo of 1973-74 all but put an end to the bike boom.  Sure, some of us continued to ride bikes, and even buy new ones.  But in spite of al of the attempts to link cycling with environmentalism. most people bought bikes for recreation or simply because it was fashionable to do so.  Once the price of petroleum spiked in the US (though it was still nowhere near what most Europeans or the Japanese paid), unemployment skyrocketed. A commuter or some other cyclist who uses his or her bike to help him or herself earn a living might buy a new bike, if it's necessary, and continue to buy parts and accessories or use the services of their local bike mechanics.  But those with no such commitment aren't going to spend their money, especially if they've lost their jobs.

As history progressed (which is just a somewhat pompously academic way of saying "as time moved on"), some new cyclists came into the fold and some of us continued to ride, although we might have morphed into different kinds of cyclists from the ones we were in the beginning.  

One thing I couldn't help to notice, however, is that by the 1980's, any mention of environmentalism or even energy conservation had disappeared from discussions about cycling.  Such a state of affairs continued into the '90's and even the early part of this century.  One reason is that the cost of gasoline fell in relation to the overall cost of living.  Another, I think, is that cycling increasingly became the province of upper-middle- to high-income men and was increasingly seen as part of a "lifestyle" in much the same way as buying an SUV was.

Over the past few years, I am noticing that talk of the environment has returned to discussions about cycling.  I hear it in my conversations with cyclists and read it in bicycle-related publications, even in mainstream media coverage about cycling.

One reason is, of course, that gasoline has become more expensive (though, once again, is still not nearly as expensive as it is in Europe or Japan).  That makes some people more aware of the finite-ness of our resources.  Also, I think more cyclists have seen their favorite riding places turned into malls, condominium developments or despoiled in other ways. Finally, I think another reason is that there are more female cyclists.  Perhaps I am thinking in terms of gender stereotypes, but it seems to me that places with strong environmental movements tend to be places in which women play a greater role in policy- and other decision-making processes.


  1. Your historical perspective is spot on, once again.
    When I bought my first 10-speed in 1973, a Motobecane Mirage, it was my sole means of transportation. In addition to getting me to class and to work reliably, it also was a lot of fun to go riding with friends, and I tweaked that bike to improve its performance.
    After I entered the work world and bought a car, I upgraded my bikes, but they remained an outlet for exercise and sport until about five or six years ago, when I started cycling to work and to run errands. It's exciting to see more people embrace cycling as transportation. About 90 percent of the time, my commute is the best part of my day.

  2. MT--Thank you. I am trying to be accurate as well as to convey a sense of what I've witnessed over the years.

    Ah, yes, a Motobecane Mirage! If I knew then what I know now, I probably would have bought that instead of a Schwinn Continental. Oh well.

    I agree--Most days, the commute is my highlight as well!

    Take care.