Bicycles have already become an essential part of our culture, but now they're shaping our urban and social spaces too.
New York City isn't known as a biker's paradise, with its overcrowded subways, pedestrian-packed sidewalks, yellow taxis snarled in traffic, and noisy buses. Yet even New York City is heading in the direction of places like Portland, Paris, and Copenhagen, which have embraced and promoted bike culture and bike sharing in the urban environment. Over the past four years, the Bloomberg administration has rolled out more than 250 miles of bike lanes. And this summer NYC will introduce its own bike-share program with 10,000 bikes and 600 docking stations around the city.
While New Yorkers pride themselves on always being first, the city is just catching up when it comes to bikes. In fact, the bicycle is the most commonly used mode of transportation around the world. Think of a bike as a tool, a toy, a connector and a mode of expression with a low barrier to entry. It's probably the most hackable (and hacked) simple machine on the planet. Bikes not only get us from place to place, they are the focus of a number of conversations about how we organize communities and define and share social boundaries, and how we can harness human power to recycle energy back to the grid. Most importantly though, bicycles are an intrinsic part of how we imagine and design the city of the future. They will play a significant role in shaping identity and communities and influencing social dynamics in urban areas, because they are the next great technology platform.
Mode of Self-Expression
Most people remember their first bike. Mine was a BMX, which immediately gave me a shared identity with the coolest guys I knew. It also made me more adventurous. I felt I could go anywhere and do anything because my BMX gave me freedom not only to roam, but also for self-expression. I customized my bike to look like my favorite BMXer bikes. But it wasn't just about the look; the changing features and functionality I made were my first steps toward creativity and experimentation. I tweaked the bolts on the front axel so they accommodated foot pegs I had fashioned to do certain tricks. I designed and built my own ramps to help me jump higher. Bikes were already inspiring me to add things to my environment. I was becoming a designer.
Here in New York we're seeing that search for self-expression on a much larger scale in the form of subcultures like the Black Label Bicycle Club, a so-called "outlaw bike club" whose members custom-make "mutant" cycles known as tall bikes (two conventional bike frames soldered one atop the other). This community of bikers go dumpster diving for spare parts. They also find vegetables to share at vegan meals, an activity directly tied to ideas about reusing resources wasted by others.
Black Label and similar groups can also be seen as a form of anarchic and anti-consumerist expression, as symbols of freedom. Bicycle culture is their inspiration to live off the grid. My brother has traveled to New York from Nashville several times to participate in Black Label's annual "Bike Kill" tall bike jousting event. He often travels here via a tight network of tall bikers that can be likened to an underground railroad, a community that connects cities.
Go to a bike shop in your neighborhood and you're likely to find a social space where you can not only buy a new saddle, but also get in touch with like-minded members of the biking community. People swap ride stories and repair tips. Bike shops are community hubs, where groups and new friendships are forged and social activism takes root.
You see this in the emerging movement to open nonprofit bicycle shops in large urban areas to engage troubled youth and redefine the behaviors of communities. One organization called Red, Bike and Green, a community-building collective of black urban cyclists founded in 2007 in Oakland, California, wants to create a "sustainable Black bike culture" that will improve the physical and mental health of African-Americans and improve their neighborhoods. RGB is a direct response to a number of health and environmental problems that are the result of misguided city policies.