by Chris Sumpton
Doing a film on cycling didn’t appear to be an edgy prospect. More like putting on a pair of comfortable slippers. After all, bicycles are the friendliest form of transport, besides being non-polluting and way up on the environmentally correct scale. For most people they also represent pleasant memories of childhood. They’re a rite of passage, a much-photographed milestone in growing up that’s shared between parent and child.
But it turns out that bicycles are the focus of heated debate and civic action. In the film we call the bicycle revolution a civil rights movement. The rights of cyclists might be compared to the rights of non-smokers, in the way that a tipping point is being reached and long-standing cultural assumptions (in this case that the roads belong to motorists) are suddenly overturned.
I think the car vs. bike battle is just getting under way. What’s dawning on many people, including civic planners and politicians, is that bicycles are important to the future of the city. Sustainability, livability, accessibility are the words being bandied about at conferences and symposia. It’s about how to ensure cities don’t strangle themselves on traffic and spawn a citizenry alienated from each other by the isolation of automobile-dictated sprawl.
It’s not really about bikes, it’s about the quality of life in the city. As cities become ever bigger and denser, it’s about how to make them suitable for people to interact with each other in public spaces, in other words roadways, sidewalks, squares, plazas, parks. It’s just that bicycling fits in with all that rather well.
The charm of the bicycle also comes from a retro thrill. Bicycles are a rare example of technological progress moving backward. The bicycle as we know it has been around since the advent of the safety bicycle in the early 1890’s: a low-mount structure on wheels of equal size, a chain-driven rear wheel and inflatable rubber tires. A huge wave of people took up mechanized travel at the time, several decades before the automobile age began.
This is the second wave. In this time where the technology we use (who knows how to fix a broken computer?) is increasingly beyond our understanding, the workings of the bicycle are visible and accessible. Simple and cheap, what a durable concept. The bike is the right thing at the right time. Compared to driving a car, its endlessly flexible: now I’m a fast-moving vehicle among other vehicles on the road, now I’m a pedestrian walking my bike down the sidewalk, now I’m riding through a park, now I’m tying up right outside a building where there’s no car parking for miles.
Why do cyclists take it all so personally? Because the bicycle is like a prosthetic device, an extension of our limbs. The power comes from the rider, not the thing ridden. As a method of transport, that’s unique. Not horsepower, not steam, not the electric tram, not the auto engine, but muscle melded to mechanics. And it’s inherently precarious: the whole enterprise takes alertness and attention (consciously or not) to keep from falling off. Plus you’re exposed to the world, putting your flesh and blood on the line.
So the doing the film was a bit like turning over a hornets’ nest. Passions are up, and everyone has an opinion about whether cycling is a good thing or a plague on the roads.