Bicycles' Popularity Grows in Cities

Bicycling has become fashionable. Urban and transportation policymakers take note.
by | December 2010

Bicycling, the mode of transportation stereotyped by short-pants-wearing tykes or spandex-clad health nuts, has become fashionable. Not since the 1880s -- when the first bicycle craze hit the nation and produced some of its first paved roads -- has this two-wheeled, self-propelled machine been such a symbol of urbanity and style.

In September, The New York Times ran a cover story in its fashion section about fashionable women and the bikes they were riding as part of their stylish ensemble, not apart from it. They could even choose high-status accessories, such as a $365 leather and canvas bag for their handlebars.

“These daring young women, in their stylish attire, are turning heads as they roll by,” wrote Ruth La Ferla, the story’s author. “They are clad not in spandex but in fluttery skirts, capes and kitten heels.”

I don’t know what a kitten heel is, but it sounds nice.

The retail clothing company Banana Republic has been running full-page ads in national magazines showing a relaxed young man in a dark gray suit, red shirt, scarf and tie. And he’s not behind the wheel of an Italian sports car -- he’s on a bicycle.

As someone who’s been waiting for and urging along such a trend for about 20 years, I can only say, “Bravo!” I first fell in love with this type of cycling in Holland, where it’s common to see people in fine dresses and suits on bikes. It seemed so civilized.

Where I live in New York City, it certainly has become a real trend. I see fairly frequently now fashionable women on bikes, often with wicker baskets up front, sometimes wearing high heels and even elegant hats instead of helmets. Gentlemen riders, wearing pinstriped suits and carrying leather briefcases are a less frequent sight, but I do see them.

The Web, as always, amplifies this trend. There are countless blogs -- Urban Velo, Cyclelicious, Velo Chic NYC, Chic Cyclists, ­Bikes and The City -- dedicated to celebrating cycling in towns and cities. One is appropriately called Riding Pretty, which shows well-dressed women on bikes, often in heels and dresses, in and around San Francisco. The site says it is “dedicated to all the girls in the world who want to ride pretty on a bicycle. Here’s to living a bicycle lifestyle!”

So bicycling is a lifestyle! Who knew?

The significance of this trend goes way beyond fashion. It shows that bikes are once again becoming a means of transportation, not just for exercise or sport. And like that other mode of transportation, the car, bikes are becoming a means of expressing ourselves.

There’s little question that bicycling is coming back, whether as a pleasure spin, an outing to pick up milk or a practical roll to work. The venerable League of American Bicyclists, an organization that dates to the first cycling craze in the 1880s, reports that cycling to work grew 43 percent from 2000 to 2008. Selected cities have grown much faster. Portland, Ore., one of the nation’s cycling capitals, has seen a 238 percent increase in bike commuting.

This trend is happening both because and in spite of public policy. In New York City, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has practically, in the wink of an eye, created bike lanes all over town by painting new white lanes on streets. Our mean streets have become less so. But bicycling, perhaps even more so when clad in a dress or three-piece suit, requires a degree of bravery and assertiveness. It’s still rough out there.

For policymakers outside New York, the choice is whether to embrace or resist this trend. Embracing it would mean more bike lanes and even more importantly, changing the legal relationship between bicycles and cars so that a driver is, by default, at fault in any collision. My research has shown that this more than anything else would make cycling safer because it would change drivers’ conduct.

Places with an older network of gridded streets will have an easier time accommodating those fashionable young ladies and men on bikes. But more suburban cities, with swooping arterials and soaring freeways, can do what they can. They risk ignoring this trend at their peril. For cities that aim to be receptive to a creative culture, accommodating bicycles and fashionable urban riders may be just as important as having a light rail line or an abundance of coffee shops.

Alex Marshall
Alex Marshall  |  columnist
alex@rpa.org  | 

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