The Bicycle Grief

Celebrity is an odd thing in Washington. Typically, it's defined by an honorific, a motorcade, or maybe a bungled appearance at a state dinner. So it was a rare moment when New York City's transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, remarked at a Brookings Institution-sponsored event on urban cycling in December, "We do have a rock-star panel," and meant it literally.

To her left sat David Byrne, the Grammy-winning former front man of Talking Heads. Skinny trousers, blood-red shirt, mad-scientist hair: This was the look that the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) sought to give its newest initiative, a program called Cities for Cycling, designed to highlight good transit policies and eventually take them federal. Byrne had agreed to speak alongside Sadik-Khan and Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, who hails from the bike mecca of Portland and frequently sports a bicycle-shaped lapel pin. It was a dream come true for any urbanism wonk with a well-tended record collection.

Having spent the past two decades touring the world on his collapsible Montague CX, Byrne pointed out the transit problems in certain cities and the fixes found elsewhere. He also demonstrated how bike tourism could provide great blog-to-book fodder; copies of his new travelogue, The Bicycle Diaries, were sold at the door.

The arguments for bike-friendly policy are straightforward and compelling. Cycling emits no carbon, curbs obesity, and reduces traffic congestion. And, as long as you're not buying a Lance Armstrong-quality bike or high-end Lycra gear, it's also a cheap way of getting around -- as populist a mode of transit as any. Rightfully, the panelists were evangelical about these talking points, stressing how cycling promotion makes metropolitan areas more inhabitable and sustainable. As someone who practically lives on my bike, I'm with them.

The driving principle behind most cycling policy is supposed to be inclusivity. Or as Blumenauer put it more colorfully, the goal is to help "all ages, all communities" get around -- everyone from "400-pound sixth-graders" to "aging geezer baby boomers." As head of the Congressional Bike Caucus, Blumenauer has pushed tax credits for bike commuters and introduced legislation that would make it easier for teenagers to bike to school. Meanwhile, Sadik-Khan has helped carve out 200 miles of bike lanes, added more bike parking, and organized family-friendly biking events in New York City. Since she became transportation commissioner in 2007, bike commuting has increased 66 percent.

Byrne, Blumenauer, and Sadik-Khan all stressed that they just want to make it possible for people to choose how they get around, an objective that should be uncontroversial. Yet the urbane cyclists pushing for these changes may be their own worst marketing problem. Bike culture is just too cool and clubby for its own good.

Case in point: this very event. Many attendees wore high-end messenger bags slung across their shoulders. Near the refreshments table, bearded dudes chatted about a recent local group ride in which participants donned tweed suits, argyle knickers, and other dandy regalia. Big screens played cutesy clips of everyone from Meg Ryan to the Muppets riding their bike. Images of idyllic Portland received nods of approval; jokes were made at sprawling Houston's expense. ("How many people right this moment are stuck in traffic on their way to ride a stationary bike in a health club?") There was enough spontaneous applause to prompt one audience member to exclaim, "Talk about preaching to the choir."

The right to travel on two wheels is at the center of an occasionally violent cultural battle. Law enforcement protested Colorado's Bike Safety Act. ("Don't you just love this time of year, when the birds, boats, and cyclists come out? Well, two out of three ain't bad," quipped the Larimer County sheriff.) A North Carolina firefighter shot a cyclist in the head last July because he was furious that the man was riding with his child on a busy road (the man survived, thanks to his helmet). Last summer in New York City, a Fox News writer carried a cyclist on the hood of his car for four blocks -- and then claimed he was the victim of an attack by a "vigilante." Most recently, bike lanes in Brooklyn have caused conflict between the local Hasidic community, which successfully lobbied for their removal, and the scantily clad hipsters who create a "safety and religious hazard" by using them.

It makes sense that cyclists and bike-friendly policy-makers feel as if they are engaged in a perpetual street fight: guerrillas versus tanks. "Contrary to what some people say, we haven't declared war on the car in Portland, but we've made a decision we're not going to surrender to it," Blumenauer said at one point.

"You know, you fight it one parking space at a time," Sadik-Khan added.

It's easy to feel like the moral combatant, too, part of a small band of people rising up against car culture. After all, bikes aren't hurting the environment or cluttering roads. A sense of persecution, a righteous attitude, and an obsession with a fashionable object? All identifying features of the bike tribe. No wonder some -- hi, Dad -- find us insufferable.

The event ended in a sort of group-therapy session, with cyclists airing complaints about everything from bike-hostile work environments to poor engineering. They even whined about the weather. But through the bike-bonding and car-bashing, there were signs that some people at the event actually embraced the inclusivity message.

"It's everybody against everybody else," Byrne said, "and it doesn't have to be that way."

One cyclist expressed concern that, by continually framing bike-ability as an urban issue, advocates were turning off otherwise sympathetic people in suburbs, exurbs, and rural townships. Gabe Klein, chief of the District of Columbia Department of Transportation, seconded the call for an attitude shift and pleaded, "It's time to stop seeing ourselves as outside of the mainstream." As great as the sense of community is among bicyclists, the cult of cool, it seems, may have to be sacrificed if cycling is ever going to be safe, accepted, and truly universal.

In an old newspaper column about New York City's bike lanes, American Spectator founder R. Emmett Tyrrell described the urban cyclist as "generally a crank, either profoundly antisocial or hopelessly narcissistic and following the strenuous life in hopes of achieving immortality or a legendary sex life."

That was in 1980. It's been slow-going fully debunking the antisocial, narcissistic stereotype, but bicyclists are starting to acknowledge that it's important. As for aspiring to immortality and a legendary sex life? I don't think any bike enthusiasts would take issue.