Along with the push for more bicycle infrastructure came the term “cycling community.” Whether this term was the impetus for the infrastructure changes or the result of advocacy arguments, it’s difficult to say. Either way, this term is bandied about among cyclists and is often referred to in the media. But it’s unclear who they’re talking about. Who is the cycling community?
Loosely speaking, the cycling community consists of anyone who rides a bike. Community, in this sense, refers to participation. However, this use of the term is too broad to have any real meaning. Cyclists who ride on bike paths have little in common with cyclists who ride on roads, and these two groups have little in common with off-road cyclists. Further, bike path cyclists and off-road cyclists don’t need a community because their rights are not on the line. So, who we’re actually talking about is road cyclists — the one group with common trials and tribulations.
Road cyclists, whether commuters, recreational cyclists, urban cyclists or racers, all share one thing in common — conflict with drivers. This conflict, which ultimately comes down to who has a right to use the road, binds these diverse groups together. None of them chose to be part of a community. They were thrust into it, even though members of these groups can be quite different from one another, and the groups themselves are occasionally at odds with each other. Still, someone decided that they were a “community.”
One way to look at this is from a practical standpoint. In order to improve conditions on the road, cyclists must stick together. They must support one another and the idea that they have a right to use the road. Otherwise, cars will continue to dominate the roads, and nothing will ever change.
On a more abstract level, road cyclists can be regarded as a minority group whose members are bound together by virtue of their minority status. As with all minorities, the members of the group are diverse, but their point of commonality dictates their experiences. For example, whether an individual cyclist frequently runs red lights or not, he or she is likely to be stereotyped as a red-light-running cyclist and a scofflaw to boot. And, even if cyclists never run red lights, they will, at some point, be yelled at, accused, and possibly accosted by irate drivers who believe that all cyclists run red lights and disobey traffic laws.
For these reasons, cyclists must form a coalition to defend themselves from individual attacks for perceived, rather than actual, infractions. They must stand up for their rights, protest their innocence, and demand better facilities and treatment. There’s just one problem with this: cyclists have no unity and no leaders.
It could be argued that bicycle advocates are the leaders of an amorphous bicyclist movement, but, in reality, different advocates have different agendas, and collectively, they’re bogged down in politics. Therefore, just as the cyclists are an abstract community, so are the advocates abstract leaders.
What are the practical implications of having an abstract cycling community with abstract leaders? The first thing that comes to mind is the inefficiency of this approach. Abstract entities are unlikely to accomplish much in the real world. To accomplish anything, the community and leaders would have to be made concrete. This has yet to happen, and possibly never will.
To complicate matters, many cyclists question whether there is a community at all, and further, whether they need a community. It has been suggested that cyclists will have achieved the goal of being integrated as road users when they are no longer a community. Proponents of this line of thought see cyclists as individuals who should be as unique from one another as drivers and pedestrians are. In an ideal world, where cyclists were an integral and accepted part of the transportation landscape, this could be achieved. Yet, today, and for the foreseeable future, cyclists will remain a minority.
The key to eliminating the concept of a cycling community is the pervasiveness of cycling. Cyclists would have to take to the roads in large numbers, so large, in fact, that their numbers would have to rival those of cars. A number closer in size to the majority is the only way to shed one’s minority status.
In America, as in many parts of the world, it will be many years before this happens. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, it may never happen. The average American is averse to physical exertion. This trait, along with poor eating habits, explains our current obesity epidemic.
Persuading Americans to give up effortless automotive transportation will be a difficult task. Consequently, while the number of cyclists is likely to grow in the future, their numbers will always pale in comparison to drivers.
This brings us back to the notion of community. Can cyclists be a concrete community, and will they accept this situation in lieu of the individuality that’s afforded to majority group members? At present, this question is virtually impossible to answer. Much of it will depend on how cycling evolves over the next decade. It will take at least that long to assess the popularity of cycling as a form of transportation and analyze the utilization of existing bicycling infrastructure.
In the meantime, cyclists will have to carefully consider their options. A concrete community will offer them support and strength in numbers. The advantages of community are the ability to demand more cycling infrastructure to accommodate cycling as a form of transportation, the ability to join together to speak out in favor of cyclists’ rights, and the ability to demand justice for cyclists who have been killed by reckless drivers. Without solidarity, most, if not all of these objectives will be difficult to achieve.
As with most things in life, there is no simple solution. Perhaps the best approach is to begin with a concrete community for the purpose of asserting cyclists’ rights, and then strive to dissolve the need for community, should cyclists ever exist on our roads, in large enough numbers, to blend in with the crowd.