Nov 142011

The question of what constitutes a real cyclist—or bike rider, or person on a bike—seems to come around in various guises again and again on bike blogs (for example, on Kent’s Bike Blog and on Mia Birk’s blog). As I’ve written before, I think labeling people who ride bikes in various ways divides unnecessarily and does us all a disservice.

A while back this discussion popped up on BikesideLA in a post entitled Practical Cycling and ‘Lifestyle’ Choices—a title that immediately sets off a little red flag for me because putting something in quotation marks like this signals loud and clear, “My reasons for riding a bike are ever so much more virtuous than yours.”

My context for reacting, for those who don’t know: I’m the founder of Spokane Bikes (formerly Bike to Work Spokane) and served as a member and chair of the city’s Bicycle Advisory Board. I now serve on the board of our region’s metropolitan planning organization (and all thoughts here are 100% mine, not affiliated with any of my various roles).

I thus work on–and value–both the rah-rah events side of trying to get people riding even if it’s just one day or one week a year, and the bike and transportation policy side where I hope to facilitate genuine lifetime mode shift.

Personally, I have experienced the profound mental shift from “I ride my bike sometimes–when weather is perfect and it’s not complicated” to “I am someone who rides a bike for transportation nearly all the time.”

The beautifully written LA blog post rubs me the wrong way even though we’d probably agree on some of the underlying issues about unnecessary consumerism.

The dismissal of “lifestyle” riders serves only to alienate people who can be allies in advocating for sorely needed infrastructure improvements. If you’re telling them that only the pure of heart are the real bike people, you’ve lost the soccer moms and weekend coffee shop riders who can be your most effective advocates at a city council meeting, especially because they’re not the usual suspects in Spandex.

We should welcome and encourage people who ride because it’s fun, not because they want to make a political statement.  Going all holier than thou on them about their superficial reasons for riding is hardly the way to win hearts and minds.

So what if they think they look cool riding a bike? They’re riding a bike, not driving a Hummer. We should celebrate their “lifestyle “choices, not look down on them, given that those choices could so easily take another form (like a stretch Hummer limo).

As anyone who has ever organized a political rally knows (I’ve held elected office so this is firsthand knowledge), you’ll usually only get the diehards for the deep-thought sessions.

You’ll get a larger crowd for something that energizes and teaches gently rather than smacking them upside the head with The Way The World Should Be According To Self-Righteous Me.

And you’ll get an even bigger crowd if you serve food and beverages, tell them to have fun, focus on things you agree on, and stay away from the preaching.

Are these people your “real” supporters or your “lifestyle” supporters? Sure, the diehards vote (or bike) at a higher and more consistent rate. But—here’s the key—they were going to vote/ride anyway.

Any campaign consultant worth her salt will tell you that you don’t spend time on the people who are 100% for you. You don’t waste time on the people who are 100% against you. Your goal is the undecided middle. And you sure as heck don’t get to them by telling them they’re shallow.

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