Bike fun vs. fun by bike

Our next guest post is from the fabulous Dave of Portlandize, whose cycling advocacy is a huge inspiration. Today he’s giving LGRAB readers a glimpse of his recent trip to Amsterdam. More on the European cycling scene through American eyes is coming later this week as Dottie and I overcome jetlag and post about our time in France.

Folks in the U.S. bicycle scene often talk about what markers distinguish an established bike culture in a city or country. We talk about infrastructure and percentages of people riding to work and that kind of thing. But I think one of the biggest indicators is a slight (but rather important) perception shift from bike fun to fun by bike, and the idea behind that shift.

Portland is notorious for its bike fun, and people even internationally know us for organizing rides at the drop of a hat for the most mundane or silly kind of events. We have huge bike-related festivals and events and a lot of typical Portlandy events have emphasis on bike themes. There is nothing wrong with this, bikes are fun tools, and these events give people a chance to use them in creative ways and people really have fun with them. But to use these events as a marker of an established bike culture isn’t really accurate, in my opinion.

We were recently in Amsterdam for about a week, and one particular day we spent running around the city with Marc from Amsterdamize. As we were riding around and later sitting at a cafe, we saw hundreds of people riding by dressed in more-or-less religious themed attire (with some notable exceptions, like broccoli). We were probably seeing people go by for an hour and a half. We learned later they were all on their way to a huge party where the dress theme was religious attire.

Amsterdam 2010

Amsterdam 2010

Amsterdam 2010

What stood out to me is that they were not out to have fun on their bikes, they were out to have fun, and it just so happened that the way they were getting there was by bike. It wasn’t a deliberate decision, just like it’s not a deliberate decision for most people in the U.S. to hop in their cars to get somewhere. It’s just a given. When you
have to get somewhere that’s beyond easy walking distance, you hop on your bike.

Amsterdam has its share of bike fun, too – fixies and bike polo and tall bikes and the whole works, but what really marks it as an established bike culture (among other things), is that pretty much everyone uses their bike(s) without thinking about it. There are a lot of things that go into making this the default choice for people, and that’s a theme for many more posts, but there is no doubt that in Amsterdam, the bicycle is as usual as bricks, glass, and humans. It’s a natural part of the everyday flow of people, whether it’s to work, school, restaurants, parties, shopping – whatever the destination, the bike gets you there.

Read more about Dave’s trip to Europe and his everyday Portland cycling life at Portlandize.

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7 thoughts on “Bike fun vs. fun by bike

  1. Michael says:

    I have noticed similar attitudes in Japan–even though there is not a lot of attention to special infrastructure–most cyclists are on the sidewalks or the excellent networks of paved, multiuse paths that seem to go everywhere. Also the speed limits are usually 30-40 KPH so it is easy to stay with traffic (except on the hills). But so many people travel by bike–from “unskilled” laborers to salaryman in a suit and tie–and for many it is the default and most affordable and/or fastest form of transport. And one finds accommodation for bicycle parking practically everywhere (security is not an issue), as well as great parts availability–from the many bike shops to grocery stores and even in some 100 Yen stores. It is just an accepted mode of transport and not a big deal.
    In the U.S. the car is the de facto form of transport. Almost everyone drives almost everywhere. Most people respond with some combination of astonishment, disbelief, or admiration when I tell them I bike to work only 2-3 days per week. They can’t imagine it. Probably many who see me coming to work assume I had a DUI and lost my license–why else would anyone choose not to drive?

    This may be part of the reason why we in the U.S. need these bike-centric/bike focused events. Because most people do not consider the alternative, these events serve to increase awareness and consciousness of cycling as a viable alternative (not just for fun, but for practical transportation)–something that is already firmly established in Japan and in many European countries.

  2. Anne Hawley says:

    Hi Dave. Great guest post, and I like the way you’ve drawn your distinction.

    I’ve never quite found time to participate in any bike fun. It’s enough fun for me to use my bike to get to fun things (and less-fun things like my job).

    It’s no coincidence that I also ride a Dutch bike, wear street clothes, and go at an easy pace: if you’re riding to, say, the theater or dinner with friends, you simply can’t view the trip there as an athletic event or a festival. There’s too much fun at the end of the ride to allow for sweaty lycra, showers, or a wardrobe change.

    I have to say, though, that the religious-themed riders in your photos remind me a lot of a Portland fun ride!

  3. bongobike says:

    Another great difference: here in the states the two guys in blackface and the one dressed like a priest would have caused a scandal of major proportions!

  4. Simply Bike says:

    Very astute observations, Dave! I once spent a few hours in Amsterdam on my way from one place to another and I was also blown away by the amount of bikes on the road there. So wonderful! Would be great to see people using bikes like that in the US.

  5. Margot says:

    Dear Dave,

    My name is Margot and I’m from The Netherlands. You’re right, for the Dutch, riding our bikes is so incredibly normal to us. It’s a vehicle to get from point A to point B. I’ve recently been obsessed with bicycles myself and have taken quite a few photographs of them in Amsterdam. Take a look if you’re interested!

    Bicycle Mania:

    http://maevdkrogt.wordpress.com/2010/05/09/photoessay-bicycle-mania/

    Bicycle Mania (revisited):

    http://maevdkrogt.wordpress.com/2010/05/14/photoessays-bicycle-mania-revisited/

    Bicycles: http://maevdkrogt.wordpress.com/2010/08/25/photoessay-bicycles/

  6. Dave says:

    Margot, thanks for the links! You have some nice photos (and not just the ones of bicycles).

    One thing i really appreciate about European cultures in general, is i feel like they don’t identify themselves as much with things they do, like we do here in America. A bicyclist is not just identified as a bicyclist, an artist not just as an artist, and a doctor not just as a doctor. They are all just people who do different things, and don’t pick up all the categorization and stereotype that we put on all these categories here. I’m sure it happens there some as well, but not like here.

    Thanks again for the links, I’ll have to browse your blog a bit. Cheers!

  7. Dave says:

    Michael: I think one of the biggest things is the car traffic in the U.S. – it is catered to and allowed to travel straight and fast and if something gets in its way, well, too bad for that thing. In the Netherlands, Japan and Lithuania (three places I’ve been), streets are a fraction of the size they are here, even in Portland which has pretty small streets for the U.S. Cars there rarely move faster than 20-25mph except on highways, and priority is given to non-motorized transportation, people driving will actually stop for you, let you cross roads, or even drive behind you as you walk in the roads until you can move over for them. There just isn’t this same entitlement to the public space that users of automobiles often have here, and use of public space by people who aren’t in cars doesn’t elicit the kind of anger and impatience it does here.

    Anne: It does look like a Portland bike fun ride, but the difference is, they didn’t decide to organize a bike ride and dress up funny, they dressed up funny, and then got on their bikes without even thinking about the bikes.

    bongobike: the guys in blackface are part of a Christmas folk tradition in the Netherlands – there is a character called Zwarte Piet, who is a companion to Sinterklaas – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zwarte_Piet

    But yes, they would definitely raise some eyebrows in the U.S. :)

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