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3 Cultures and the International Language of Bicycles

March 15 2017 – Ezekiel Binns

3 Cultures and the International Language of Bicycles
3 Cultures and the International Language of Bicycles

For some people, growing up, bikes meant one thing: clunky mountain models from the local department store, with rugged tires and gears to help kids climb the hilly streets in their neighborhood. In the years since, road bikes and cycling have of course caught on, but their numbers are minuscule compared to other countries—in fact, it sometimes feels like bikes as a form of true transportation is a nostalgic notion only seen in 80's movies. If you have been around in Europe—and bigger coastal US cities, you will notice that bikes are WAY more popular and more important to everyday lives in other cultures.

3 World Regions, 3 Bike Cultures:

American Cycling

You might be surprised to learn that bikes outnumber cars 2 to 1 worldwide. But in America, that is far from the case. For the most part, bikes are seen as a leisure or exercise item. Padded shorts, pricey models and clip-in shoes are just a few of the belongings you might see lying around a young professional’s apartment.

The average bike commuter in North America is 39 years old, male and has an average household income in excess of $45,000. Not only that, access to a bike rises with household income. (Unless the bike is used as the primary transit vehicle, in which case the household is likely to earn under $20,000.) Bike culture in America can sometimes be seen as a status symbol. Motivated corporate employees changing out of their spandex in the office bathroom, cycling groups made up of attorneys and bankers; even though many of us Americans are cycling, biking and cruising, this image of the competitive middle-aged white man may be what a lot of us think of when we think American Cycling Culture.

Nevertheless, biking is a mainstay of American culture and leisure. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Taking the kids out for a weekend ride on a paved trail, braving a mountain bike trail, renting a beach cruiser and sailing down the boardwalk—can’t get more American than those!

Cycling in Europe

Bicycling through the winding, cobblestone streets of Northern Europe would seem like a dream vacation for a lot of us! But in Northern European countries like Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, it’s casual, everyday transportation. No big deal. It’s smart, it’s fun, and the powers that be are favorable to bikes. They are a respected and practical symbol in Europe. A social equalizer. You might bike to work, but likely so does your boss. In fact, it is now widely-reported that the number of bikes exceeds the number of people in Copenhagen!

In America, depending on where you live, kids riding their bikes to school can be a sight relegated largely to nostalgic 80s movies. But in Denmark, a whopping 44% of schoolkids travel by bike to get there. Denmark is the country with the second highest percentage of biking citizens. Having been there myself, I can confidently tell you that its capital, Copenhagen, is ruled by bikes. Maneuvering a vehicle through the bike-crowded streets requires some white-knuckling. We witnessed frequent “bike parades,” and even protests were held—you guessed it, in the saddle.

Asian Culture on Wheels

Even though the bicycle was invented in Europe, Asia has now become a “hub” for cycling. Over two-thirds of the world’s bikes are wheeling around Asia, with China representing over 500 million of those! Biking has a long and rich history in Asia. Take the city of Beijing for example—as Copenhagen’s sister city, it’s a capital with no shortage on bikes. However, bicycles were once seen as too utilitarian to garner a huge following or craze in any big way. Bicycle fleets dwindled by 35% and car ownership doubled. Air quality suffered. Traffic worsened, with reports of nine-mile-long jams of gas-guzzling vehicles.

Luckily, Beijing has managed to turn this idea around, and biking is bouncing back. Hipster culture is encouraging the young set to bike everywhere—even holding informal back-alley-type cycling races.

No matter what country or culture you’re from, a bike offers unique freedoms and experiences that can’t be found elsewhere. Personal, portable, no-fuss; with a slight turn of the handles and a little skid on the breaks, one can easily change directions and toward their dreams—or responsibilities—at a moment’s notice.