Is There Such a Thing as NYC Bike Culture?

Michael Auerbach of local advocacy group Upper Green Side files this brief from the first New York City Bike Culture Summit.

Last Thursday night’s Bike Culture Summit, hosted by Transportation Alternatives, convened a panel of cycling luminaries to help "define what it means to be an urban cyclist." On hand were David Herlihy, historian of cycling and author of Bicycle; Caroline Samponaro, director of bicycle advocacy for Transportation Alternatives; and Eben Weiss, a.k.a the Bike Snob, making a stop to support the release of his new book.

The Snob supplied an early contender for quote of the night when he was asked to define bike culture. "I don’t like the phrase," he said. "It makes me feel sad and excluded."

After an animated discussion about whether you can apply a blanket term like "bike culture" to the many sub-cultures that New York City cyclists identify with (or reject), the night settled into an extended Q&A. Personally, I wanted to hear the panel spend more time debating some of the more difficult issues facing the cycling community, like how to make bike advocacy more inclusive for groups that have long sat on the sidelines, such as delivery cyclists. But the audience seemed more intent on discussing what you’d call bike etiquette. (Stop for the whole red cycle, or just long enough to see that the intersection is clear?)

That said, there were several questions that led to some lively and open-ended debate. So, in the interest of continuing the discussion, here are a few of the hot topics from the summit:

  • Are cyclists better off when the proportion of women cyclists rises, or is each additional person who chooses to bike equally good for the cause, regardless of sex?
  • Will bringing your bike inside to work ever become easy?
  • Does Bike Snob want you to buy his book, or does he not really care?
  • Does New York City have a strong bike culture, or none at all?
  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    “Bike Culture” in NYC has to be puzzling to the bicycle outsider arriving from another city; expecting that with our daily numbers of riders, there will be a bike party going on every night (and I have had many disappointed friends from many cities ask where NYC bike scene is nightly.)

    Even during bike month some events can be sparsely attended. What gives?

    Truth is NYC is unlike any other bike city. The reasons people ride are as diverse anywhere in the nation, but there is one factor here that seems to drive alot of NYC bike riding: time efficiency. So many people I know bike ride because – yes, they want to be environmentalists, yes – they want to get exercise, and yeah they love the outdoors, freedom, and the camaraderie, (and oh yeah – it is cheap transportation.) But whatever combo of reasons they choose “time management” is always way up there.

    In fact, it always surprises me how many chance conversations over the years I’ve had with people who say they have been riding for years who have no idea who Transportation Alternatives, Time’s Up, and Streetsblog are. None.

    So maybe the fact that bike culture in NYC is less so than other cities is due to the all important “time” issue? Just a thought.

  • flp

    “I don’t like the phrase,” he [bsnyc] said. “It makes me feel sad and excluded.”

    please, that strikes as being rather disingenuous. of all the cycling commentators, the snob strikes me as the one who most capitalizes on the concept of bike culture. he fears defining bike culture simply because he does not wish to risk describing himself based on his definition of the term.

  • al oof

    i think there are several bike cultures in nyc. and there are people who just bike. like there isn’t a ‘car party’, because for most new yorkers biking isn’t their passion, it’s just how they get around or exercise. i actually think that is a good thing, because i think it’s important that people know they don’t need to be -into- bikes to ride bikes, like you don’t have to be -into- cars to drive them.

  • Andrew

    Clarence:

    Most pedestrians and transit riders haven’t heard of Transportation Alternatives (which claims to represent pedestrians and transit riders as well as cyclists) or Streetsblog (which covers topics of interest to pedestrians and to transit riders as well as to cyclists) either.

    Perhaps that’s because most people make their modal selections based on pragmatic rather than ideological grounds.

  • I can’t wait until the day when the idea of a Bike Culture, for people who ride bikes, sounds every bit as ludicrous as a Grocery Store Culture, for people who go to the grocery store!

    I was friends with a Dutch expat here in NYC, and he always chuckled at how we had this whole “bike culture.” A Dutchman sounds like the perfect friend, I know, but he wouldn’t ride with me, and compared the idea of him being eager to get on a bike in NYC to me being eager to drive a car in Amsterdam.

  • “Bike culture” is the invention of marketers in order to sell more bicycle-themed paraphernalia.

  • Ian Turner

    Or, to reframe Andrew’s perspective, perhaps most people don’t consider their choice of transportation a part of their self-identity.

  • a Hells kitchen cyclist

    How about “those that choose the bicycling “lifestyle” becuz we all know they have an agenda!

  • “Are cyclists better off when the proportion of women cyclists rises, or is each additional person who chooses to bike equally good for the cause, regardless of sex?”
    Both. They are not mutually exclusive.

    “Will bringing your bike inside to work ever become easy?”
    It will become more easy as more people take up commuter cycling and start bugging their bosses, and building managers: the biggest obstacle is the service elevator rule; most service elevators shut down at around 4:30, and it’s a drag to have to lock one’s bike out on the street at that hour.

    “Does Bike Snob want you to buy his book, or does he not really care?”
    What do I care? (And I say that as someone who reads and likes the Snob’s blog)

    “Does New York City have a strong bike culture, or none at all?”
    Jeff and Jonathan gave good answers to this question.

  • When I think about Bike Culture, I think back to the times in my life when I NEEDED a bike and where a bike was an absolute necessity to live life normally and all my friends had bikes. Growing up on Staten Island, with everything so far apart and without a driver’s license, I NEEDED a bike. On my study abroad in Copenhagen, you could not live a normal life without a good bike. Everyone had a bike and rode together from school to bars to each other’s houses and you didn’t want to be the one who said “I’m gonna wait for the train.” Same thing when I worked in England. I lived two miles from my office and much to my surprise, there was no bus or train connecting, so I NEEDED my bike to turn a 40 minute walk into a 5-10 minute ride. That ride to work was through a park and pedestrianized shopping area which was as safe as can be. And now I mostly bike for pleasure rather than necessity because NYC has a good transit system and none of my friends bike for necessity.

    Culture is the product of necessity and adaptation. Bike culture forms where biking is more convenient and safer than other forms of tranportation. Creating more of a bike culture is easy: Make it safer and more convenient and make driving harder.

  • Thanks for the nice recap of the event, Mike. Some thoughts:

    Given the hegemony of car culture in the US–and even in New York City–I think it’s ridiculous to think you can use a bike for transportation and not be viewed as making a countercultural choice. The meaning of the choice is not within the control of the cyclist. It is driven by the context in which your cycling is interpreted. I too can’t wait for the day when bikes are viewed merely as utilitarian objects, like toasters or vacuum cleaners, but that day is far off; to pretend it will ever arrive without explicit efforts to promote cycling is naïve.

    Once you accept that cycling has to be promoted for it to grow as a transportation mode, you’ve got bike culture. You’ve got advocacy organizations and blogs; groups rides; T-shirts with slogans, etc. How is bike advocacy not a form of “bike culture”? In what way is bike advocacy harmed by thinking of it as “bike culture”?

    Sure, commercial interests will always find a way to turn authentic cultural expression into a marketing vehicle. Whenever I go into Citibank, there are posters of Citibank customers with their bikes. In a similar vein, I hear Kentucky Fried Chicken is now using pink buckets to demonstrate its support for early breast cancer detections and treatment. Does that mean we should stop advocating for progress on breast cancer, because KFC has “co-opted” the issue?

    The dichotomy between utilitarian and cultural motives for cycling is a useful heuristic device, but it is only a device. Folks misunderstand how cultural action works if they ignore the interplay between utility and culture/expression. I think Clarence makes an excellent point (in part because I am one of the guys who biked in New York City for decades without realizing that TA, Time’s Up!, bike clubs, etc. existed). Once I realized that it was possible and necessary to improve conditions for cyclists, I became an advocate and was drawn inevitably into bike culture. That doesn’t mean I’ve embraced materialist bike culture: I don’t have a fancy bike or any specialized clothes for biking. Initially and today, my choice to bike for transportation is pragmatic, rather than as an expression of personal style. But at the same time, because I’m usually biking for transportation, my personal style is articulated in part through cycling. People know and identify me as a cyclist, and I let them. It would be absurdly coy (not to mention counter to my advocacy goals) to do otherwise.

    There are of course forms of “bike culture” that have nothing to do with cycling advocacy. As far as I can tell, there’s a fixed gear scene, a touring scene, a “mutant bike” scene, various club scenes, various racing scenes, various commercial cyclist scenes … The cyclists involved in these scenes are participating in bike culture, but are not necessarily interested in promoting cycling for transportation. Still, I’m glad these scenes exist because they translate into broadened markets for bicycle manufacturing and repair services (making these industries more viable), more motorists who are sensitive to the safety of cyclists on the road (because they bike), a larger pool of people who are potential cycling advocates.

    For sure there are cyclists associated with most or all of these scenes that behave in a way arguably counterproductive to the cause of growing cycling and improving cycling conditions. It’s easy to list the archetypes. There are roadies and fixters who loudly scorn other cyclists who don’t share their equipment preferences, or who disrespect pedestrians. There are cycling advocates who go around scolding other cyclists to put on their helmets or adjust them differently. There are Critical Massers who just want to get in the face of motorists and cops. (I’ll add another archetype which occasionally describes me: the angry parent who goes ballistic on motorists who endanger my kids while they’re cycling).

    I agree with Bike Snob’s critique that these archetypes often involve using “bike culture” as a way of articulating membership in a club too exclusive to accept you, or as a justification for selfish behavior in traffic. But I don’t believe that the majority of the people in any of one of these scenes live up to the negative archetype. As Snob himself has said, there are idiots to be found everywhere. You can (I say, should) oppose idiocy among cyclists without opposing “bike culture.” I think that’s the position that the other panelists at the Bike Culture Summit, Caroline Samponaro and David Herlihy, were trying to put forward.

  • In fact, it always surprises me how many chance conversations over the years I’ve had with people who say they have been riding for years who have no idea who Transportation Alternatives, Time’s Up, and Streetsblog are. None.

    for all the great work TA and TU do, their names are not the best for reaching out — ‘Streetsblog’, though, i like. catchy. makes sense.

    that said, i don’t really care what particular reason people ride/walk/whatever, we need to reach out to everyone. just being awesome is not good enough — we have to go grab them. i’ve been working on an outreach-type program out here in SF — it’s going thru fits and starts. the next step, after phase 1 (bus outreach), is to get some stickers on the myriad bike racks around town.

    the new transit riders advocacy group in sf is doing some bus outreach — it’s a good idea.

    the problem is, people don’t necessarily know that they care about this stuff. it’s like trying to organize women for equal rights back in the day — there was just no concept in popular culture/mainstream thought that women should be equal to men — you had to go grab people and say, “Look, this is the deal, here is why this stuff is important and why it matters to your everyday existence, so join us.”

    it’s like this new york times article on the loss of sound quality/fidelity with the digitization of music:

    “If people are interested in getting a better sound, there are many ways to do it,” Mr. Zimmer said. “But many people don’t even know that they might be interested.”

    we gotta go grab ’em.

  • Jace

    If there is such a thing as bike culture, does biking in the city automatically make me a member of this group or do I have to subscribe to certain rules and/or beliefs to join? If there are rules/beliefs, where are they codified and by whom? What if I choose not to join the group and instead keep on biking on my own, does that make me some sort of social pariah?

    This is all so ridiculous. Do you have to have a bus culture to advocate for buses? No, because buses are not cool. And only because biking is suddenly cool do you have to flagrantly differentiate yourself from the others (the outsiders) by wearing certain clothing, by knowing about certain events, by talking a certain language. Frankly, bike culture sounds a lot like a clique to me.

  • Andrew

    BicyclesOnly:

    I also think that pedestrian and transit advocacy are important – yet, in New York City, it’s obvious that most pedestrians and transit riders don’t view themselves as members of a particular culture.

    I should clarify that I have no objection to bike culture. I don’t even ride a bike, so I’m certainly not going to tell people who do that they shouldn’t participate in a “culture” (however they choose to define it). I simply question the assumption that selection of a mode requires joining a club.

  • BicyclesOnly

    Andrew, I don’t think selection of a mode requires joining a club. But if one rides a bike on the grid during rush hour and/or in clothing other than that one would expect a commercial cyclist or a recreationist would wear, then one will be interpreted by many, probably most onlookers as an anomaly–someone who rides a bike for transportation. As such a person, you may never join any club or even speak to another cyclist, but you will be perceived as a vaguely countercultural “bike person.” You get objectified and categorized, whether you like it or not. Obviously, you can try to keep a low profile, park a block away from the office to avoid running into co-workers while locking up, not comment on bike oriented blogs like this one, etc., and in that way minimize you role in and identification with “bike culture,” but you can’t escape it entirely.

    You will never be interpeted as an anomaly if you are transit rider or pedestrian in NYC, because those are prevalent, non-stigmatized modes.

  • Jace

    “You will never be interpeted as an anomaly if you are transit rider or pedestrian in NYC, because those are prevalent, non-stigmatized modes.”

    So the key to being a part of bike culture is that you have to be a victim.

  • No, Jace. The broader culture can denigrate and stigmatize your mode of transportation, or any other choice you make. That doesn’t mean you are a victim. It does define you as “different” in the eyes of other. It highlights you as a cultural actor, for better or worse. What you make of that is up to you.

    For me, trying to redefine that difference as “mainstream” by contending that cycling for transport is no different a cultural choice than using a toaster to toast bread or using a vacuum cleaner to clean the carpet just doesn’t work. Most of the mainstream doesn’t really buy it. They believe that cycling is dirty, dangerous, and vaguely “outlaw” and think it sounds defensive when a cyclist contends that they are doing nothing unusual. But more fundamentally, when you try for this kind of simplistic mainstreaming, you lose the opportunity to convince people why cycling is better than most other modes of transport for urban trips of intermediate length (I would define as 1/2 mile – 5 miles). Better as in faster, cheaper, more reliable, and more pleasant. Plus you fold in exercise instead of having to set aside time and funds for a gym. And, if you happen to care about your impact on the environment, it’s less noisy, polluting, congesting, and dangerous to others, than motorized urban transport.

    I’m not saying anyone who bikes for transport has to constantly be urging these points on everyone they meet. I don’t. But when people ask why I bike, that usually means I’m in the spotlight as a perceived representative of “bike culture.” Rather than trying to be mainstream, I explain to them the points in this comment. That doesn’t make me a victim, and it doesn’t make me “subcultural.” I’m me, expressing and affirming my cultural practices.

  • Jace

    This is classic. Not only do you willingly denigrate yourself by accepting the premise that biking is somehow different and unusual, you’re also clearly intent on using this to somehow empower yourself and convert others to the righteous cause. That sure sounds like being a victim (poor us, this weak minority against that strong them). It also sounds a lot like evangelism. Just shut up and ride your fucking bike.

  • Um, Jace? Just shutting up and riding one’s fucking bike is not what this blog is about. It’s about not shutting up: discussing how to make streets more accessible to bicyclists, pedestrians (and even car drivers).

    As I read BicyclesOnly’s comments, there was definitely a hint of evangelism, but I was cool with it.

  • I think David_K pretty much said it all, Jace. But I am curious about one thing: where do you live? I want to know the place where biking for transportation is not viewed as “somehow different and unusual,” and where making a suggestion to the contrary draws the kind of responses you’ve been making to my comments.

  • There exists a life outside Streetsblog. This blog may be all about cycling advocacy, but when you’re trying to convince someone that she should adopt a worldview, “this blog is about not shutting up” is not going to cut it.

  • [W]hen people ask why I bike, that usually means I’m in the spotlight as a perceived representative of “bike culture.” Rather than trying to be mainstream, I explain to them the points in this comment. That doesn’t make me a victim, and it doesn’t make me “subcultural.” I’m me, expressing and affirming my cultural practices.

    I disagree. If someone asks you why you bike, it’s because they’re curious about you, not because they’re curious about “bike culture.”

    I’ve been reading your posts for a couple years now, and I haven’t noticed in them a “cultural” explanation for why you bike. You don’t bike because all your friends are biking, you don’t bike because cycling expresses your role in society, you don’t bike for religious purposes, you don’t bike as an excuse to greater consumption. You have a bunch of practical reasons for cycling, mentioned above. Good for you.

    As you know from reading the comments in the City Room “Spokes” columns, there are plenty of people out there with a “you people” attitude toward cyclists, as in “you people are always running red lights and scaring the elderly.” The fact that letter-writers like to group all cyclists together doesn’t make them all act the same way, and doesn’t create a culture from disparate elements. You may feel that you’re being interrogated because of your cycling, but that doesn’t turn you into an ambassador from Bicycleland.

  • Jonathan, your comments are thoughtful and I appreciate them. I think the reason we are talking past each other a bit is because I have a different definition of “culture.” In my view, we all participate in culture both as subjects (expressive actors articulating culture through our own choices) and objects (cultural symbols and signifiers in the eyes of others). I think of my cultural participation as involving not only things like my religious affiliation, major lifestyle choices, and explicit expression, but also through my mundane utilitarian practices.

    For me, the fact that I have practical reasons for cycling does not make my cycling any less a form of cultural expression. Most people harbor what they believe to be practical reasons for NOT cycling–such as the unacceptable danger of riding in traffic, or the risk of mussing one’s appearance. So by cycling in my work clothes (often a suit, or at least a blazer and slacks), whether I like it or not, I’m making a controversial cultural statement that bicycling for transport is compatible with the professional, businesslike appearance required of many who work in New York City.

    Similarly, the very practical choices I make as a parent, including that of riding with my kids in traffic, are also cultural choices. I don’t bike with them only when it’s the fastest way to get somewhere (often it isn’t, especially in the case of my daughter, who’s 7 and can’t bike that fast). Rather, it’s my responsibility as parent to make sure they get regular exercise, and to teach them my values. A key value I want to teach them is that this city is theirs to explore, and that bike is the best way to explore it.

    So many of my kids’ peers seem to be largely confined to the neighborhood in which they live and go to school (country homes excepted). There are several who seem to arrive by cab or black car at school every morning from their homes less than a mile away. These kids are, in my opinion (which I have would of course not offer unsolicited), missing out on so much the city has to offer. Not just museums and important points of interest, but the up-close, granular experience of different people and neighborhoods throughout the city that only a pedestrian or cyclist gets. You might argue that this is not a matter of “bike culture” but of “parenting culture”–that I just happen to use a bike to facilitate my parenting culture just like I happen to use a toaster to make my kids breakfast. But I find that biking for transport is transformative–personally, politically, culturally–so the toaster analogy just misses the mark.

    By biking for transport, I am “living my bike culture” as both cultural subject and object. I can’t see any way of doing it “privately” and avoiding becoming an “ambassador from Bicycleland.” Acquaintances and strangers alike often look and comment. Parents whom I’ve never spoken to before come up and start a conversation by making excuses as to why they don’t cycle to school! Little old ladies come up to me when I’m in the crosswlk and say things like “you’r ehte most elegant cyclist I’ve ever seen!” I know that my biking practices have inspired a tiny handful of acquaintances to adopt bikes for transport, but I’m sure most people who see me just think I’m nuts, pretentious, or perhaps too poor to travel by other means. Either way, biking for transport is a practical choice that is unavoidably statement-making in a cultural milieu (such as is found in most of Manhattan) where most people view cyclists as either too poor to afford “legitimate” transportation or as traffic desperadoes who thrive on near-death experiences.

    Jonathan, your comments are thoughtful and I appreciate them. I think the reason we are talking past each other a bit is because I have a different definition of “culture.” In my personal belief, we all participate in culture both as subjects (expressive actors articulating culture through our own choices) and objects (cultural symbols and signifiers in the eyes of others). We participate in culture not only through religious affiliation, major lifestyle choices, and articulate expression, but also through mundane utilitarian practices.

    For me, the fact that I have practical reasons for cycling does not make my cycling any less a form of cultural expression. Most people harbor what they believe to be practical reasons for NOT cycling–such as the unacceptable danger of riding in traffic, or the risk of mussing one’s appearance. So by cycling in my work clothes (often a suit, or at least a blazer and slacks), whether I like it or not, I’m perceived as waging a cultural war with those who think bicycling for transportation is incompatible with the professional, businesslike appearance required of many who work in New York City.

    Similarly, the very practical choices I make as a parent, including the choice of riding with my kids, are also cultural choices. I don’t bike with them only when it’s the fastest way to get somewhere (often it isn’t, especially in the case of my daughter, who’s only 7 and can’t bike that fast or far). Rather, it’s my responsibility as parent to make sure they get regular exercise, and to teach them my values. A key value I want to teach them is that this city is theirs to explore, and that bike is the best way to explore it.

    So many of my kids’ peers seem to be largely confined to the neighborhood in which they live and go to school (country homes excepted). There are several who seem to arrive by cab or black car at school every morning from their homes less than a mile away. These kids are, in my opinion (which I of course would never offer unsolicited), missing out on so much the city has to offer. Not just museums and important points of interest, but the up-close, granular experience of different people and neighborhoods throughout the city that only a pedestrian or cyclist gets. You might argue that this is really a matter of my parenting culture, which I happen to use a bike to facilitate (just as I use a toaster to facilitate my kid’s breakfast). But because I find biking for transport to be transformative–personally, politically, culturally–the toaster analogy just misses the mark.

    By making the practical choice of biking with my kids for transportation, I am “living my bike culture” as both cultural subject and object–choosing it as a lifestyle for our family and signifying it as a viable choice to other parents (or, to some, signifying risky and irresponsible parenting). I can’t see any way of doing it “privately” and avoiding becoming an “ambassador from Bicycleland.” Acquaintances and strangers alike often look at us and comment. Other parents whom I’ve never spoken with before come up and start a conversation with me by making excuses as to why they don’t cycle to school. A small handful are inspired to try riding for transport, but I’m sure many just think I’m nuts, pretentious, or too poor to travel by other means. Either way, making the practical choice to bike for transport is unavoidably statement-making in a cultural milieu (such as is found in most of Manhattan) where most people view cyclists as either too poor to afford “better” transportation or as traffic desperadoes who thrive on near-death experiences.

  • A toaster is better at cooking bread than a flashlight, but that doen’t make it culture.

  • Nathan, I get your point. I’m wondering whether you believe that any technology can be so influential upon a civilization–for example, the motor car, the Internet, or fire–that the culture might usefully be described (in shorthand, at least) as being “of” the technology? You know, like the “Bronze Age” or the “Internet Age”?

  • Sure, when a technology becomes mainstream.

  • That too restrictive a definition of “culture” for me, Nathan, but I understand where you’re coming from.

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