June is Bike Month in many jurisdictions and in British Columbia the May 26 – June 1 Bike to Work Week got things rolling with huge participation numbers. Over 25,000 commuters cycled almost a million kilometres and saved nearly 210,000 kilograms of green house gas emissions. Almost 6,000 of these participants were new riders, or perhaps newer to utilitarian rather than recreational cycling. When encouraging new riders on the road, bicycle advocacy tends to address lack of safety and infrastructure as the major barriers to a more bike-friendly city. These are crucial components needed to increase ridership, yet I find that one of the barriers that is often overlooked in this discussion is the ‘materiality,’ or the clothing and accessories associated with riding.
It wasn’t until I moved to Copenhagen (a city that aptly states that they do not have cyclists, but merely ‘people who happen to ride their bicycles’) that I realized how the cycling environment could influence the types of clothing and equipment worn and used by riders. The majority of Copenhageners cycle in their everyday clothes- dresses, suits, high heels, business pants – and often ride middle-of-the-road city-style bicycles.
However, upon returning to Vancouver, I started noticing different patterns among cyclists; often bright, reflective jackets, cycling shorts or shoes, and even the yellow construction-style vest. I started questioning whether these specific materialities contributed to a particular identity, or at least one that differed from a transit or automobile user. But more importantly, I wondered if the reflective jackets, flashy vests, bicycle gloves, sporty bicycles and yes, even helmets encouraged or discouraged potential cyclists to hop on the saddle. Surely one would be more inclined to use a bicycle if you saw the majority of riders wearing regular rather than ‘cycle-specific’ clothes.
However, those in Vancouver who fit the stereotypical ‘cyclist’ identity may not feel that such attire is desirable or even fashionable, yet bright jackets are often worn in order to remain visible to surrounding motor traffic, or lycra/spandex and higher end / light weight tour bikes for comfort during longer commutes. Nonetheless, I would argue that the usage and prevalence of these particular objects reaffirms bicycling as an alternative rather than conventional mode of transport.
Researchers such as Pelzer dive deeper into these socio-cultural aspects, suggesting that ‘soft factors’ often exist within bicycle mobility cultures, where riders may associate feelings of empowerment, resistance, and environmental consciousness with their bicycling behaviour. Another American researcher writes, “Engaged in a marginalized, distinctive and distinguishing act, the cyclist unavoidably sends signals to the rest of society” (Horton, 2006, p. 49). It’s these sorts of ‘signals’- the messages that cycle-specific materials send to non-riders- that are worth questioning, in hopes of gaining a more nuanced appreciation of the barriers to utilitarian cycling.
One would hope that as cycling in North American cities becomes safer and more convenient, its appeal will extend to the mainstream. Thanks to initiatives such as Cycle Chic , ‘people who happen to ride their bicycles’ are being celebrated in cities across the globe. And it is these sorts of people who will help to transcend the social or cultural barriers that may be present within the non-riding demographic…one more suit jacket rather than reflective jacket at a time.
Guest Author Bio
Andrew studied Human Geography at the University of Victoria and will be starting a Masters in Urban Planning in September. He often posts bicycling related phenomena here: http://cycling-