Getting there from here: America’s cycling renaissance needs to be about more than fun and fetish

“America is seeing bicycle as a reasonable and respectable way of transportation.”

click to enlarge BACK IN THE SADDLE: Tallahassee’s Bicycle House is focused on cycling as necessity rather than recreation. - Cat Modlin-Jackson
Cat Modlin-Jackson
BACK IN THE SADDLE: Tallahassee’s Bicycle House is focused on cycling as necessity rather than recreation.
Steps away from the Florida State University campus in Tallahassee there’s a 6,000-square-foot warehouse known as Bicycle House. Inside, hundreds of bicycles line the floor, surrounded by walls of tools and wheel rims dangling from the ceiling. There, founder Scot Benton works with volunteers to fix up used bicycles for locals. The fee? Free. The operation is entirely donation-based.

Benton, a sinewy man with a serious face, described Bicycle House as a “non-hipster kind of place” where people on a fixed income can get an affordable means of transportation. The longtime cyclist is out to promote the bike as a vehicle for empowerment.

The deep-seated American reliance on auto transit relegates bicycles to the back seat, said Benton, who laments what he describes as a gambling mentality that sees millions of Americans put themselves in debt for the sake of owning a car. In spite of increases in bike ridership, he sees the relatively insignificant use of bicycles for regular transportation as “a missed opportunity.”

It’s a surprising comment from someone running a shop practically surrounded by well-traveled bike lanes. Tallahassee was recently named one of the 50 Best Bike Cities by Bicycling magazine, due in part to efforts by a growing community of cycling advocates. The city is host to a slew of groups trying to raise awareness about bicycle safety and push for more infrastructure to support bike transit.

But they’re missing the point, said Benton, who railed against “overeducated white people playing baseball in the streets.” He explained that those folks don’t understand what it is to truly depend on a bicycle as a primary means of transportation. That’s problematic, said Benton, because a lot of the people who stand to benefit the most from everyday cycling have yet to embrace the bike. Furthermore, they aren’t the ones being heard. 

“Bicycle infrastructure in America needs to be there to nurture people who are blighted out of their neighborhood... [It] doesn’t need to be a bike path for people who are yuppies.” 

Further complicating the matter are tenacious stigmas about the bicycle as either a motorless jalopy for bums or an expensive toy for lawyers in Lycra. But while perceptions of bikes and bike riders are shifting, America is working to counter an automobile-reliant culture wreaking havoc on wallets, nerves and the environment.

The bicycle’s role has ricocheted over the past century. At the turn of the 20th century, bicycles were all the rage because they offered riders unprecedented levels of efficiency and autonomy. Luis Vivanco, author of Reconsidering the Bicycle: An Anthropological Perspective on a New (Old) Thing and cultural anthropologist at University of Vermont, explained that the bicycle ultimately laid the groundwork for the American automobile boom. 

Vivanco described how bicycles “created this incredible experience that people really hadn’t [had] before, which was effortless speed.”

By the 1920s Americans were hopped up on the need for speed. Auto ownership nearly tripled in less than a decade, but the Great Depression marked a dip in ownership. It wasn’t until after World War II that the car became a symbol of wealth and status.

The postwar development boom created the freeway system and urban sprawl. Folks with cars could afford to ditch the cities and live in houses with white picket fences. Americans moved further from their workplaces, depending on a car to shuttle them to and from work. The bicycle was demoted from vehicle to plaything. 

Now nearly 90 percent of American households have a car, a commodity that comes with the cost of gas, insurance, upkeep and, for many, a car payment. The financial burden stifles what Benton described as a “financially un-empowered working class” that could benefit from rethinking the auto as a luxury and the bike as a necessity.

American attitudes are moving in a bike-positive direction. Vivanco described a “zeitgeist” of people reconsidering the bicycle as “a tool of socio-political, environmental and cultural change.” Bike ridership is on the rise, and in spite of stereotypes about cyclists’ lifestyles, bike riders consist of folks from various economic backgrounds. 

One thing’s for sure: Bicycles aren’t just for hipsters on fixed gears or gearheads in spandex.

John Garza is a lean man in his early 40s, often scruffy and not particularly tall, but the pile of worldly possessions stacked onto his 25-year-old bike with a duct-taped seat make him hard to miss. Garza has biked for several years, but he makes a point to clarify that he’s “not another gearhead.” 

Last November the St. Pete Beach resident hopped on his bicycle with a few essentials and headed west from Florida in what he describes as more of a spiritual journey than a cross-country bicycle trip. Years of the grind had worn Garza’s spirits, something he attributed in part to the insatiable American appetite for the next best thing. 

“There’s always something coming up, that as soon as we do it, life will get good. People say life will get good once I get this car or life will get good once I get this job,” the cyclist said. “In the meanwhile life is escaping us.”

click to enlarge WHEELS OF CHANGE: - Journeyman cyclist John Garza. - Courtesy of John Garza
Courtesy of John Garza
WHEELS OF CHANGE: Journeyman cyclist John Garza.
Now he’s on a mission to spread kindness and encourage people across the nation to “get your hopes up and help others get their hopes up, too.” 

From the flatlands of Florida to the mountain passes of the southwest, Garza’s been traversing the roads of America for six months now. In that time he’s been a source of ire and inspiration for folks he’s encountered along the way. So far he’s been chased by dogs, hugged by strangers, run off the road, invited into homes, screamed at, befriended and heckled. Reflecting on his roadway experiences, Garza noted, “America’s beautiful but the drivers suck.”

He’s highly attuned to the American auto obsession.

“One thing I see millions of Americans do all across the country is grab a few thousand tons of steel, fill it with fuel, and drive it all over the country, just racing each other,” he said.

A man with many stories, Garza gave CL the rundown of some of his best encounters with bad drivers. 

There was the texting driver who ran him onto the curb. Garza wasn’t hurt, but a video he posted on Facebook shortly thereafter shows him visibly shaken — and angry.

“I don’t know what the fuck is so important with the phones,” he barked. “Put them away. Shut them off in the car. Put them in the back seat.” 

There was the driver who got out of his car and slapped Garza for cycling in the traffic lane, a practice that divides bike riders. Some consider it the safest practice. Others think it a dangerous move. 

Then there were the multiple UPS drivers who ran him off the road. For whatever reason, they seemed to have it out for him.

In spite of his encounters with difficult drivers, Garza speaks highly of most of the people he’s met along the way, noting that they are often intrigued by his bike use and curious to know his story. 

“The bicycle is a novelty,” said Garza. “It gets people to talk to me and then we can start sharing our lives together. I feel like I’ve created this giant loving family across America.”

In his cross-country journey, Garza has noticed that while having two wheels instead of four was once seen as inferior, now “America is seeing bicycle as a reasonable and respectable way of transportation.”

Americans’ perspectives on transportation reflect an overarching shift in values concerning health, wealth and sustainability. Local governments, particularly those in urban areas, are working to keep up with a growing population looking for alternatives to driving.

Use of the bike as a mode of non-recreational transportation is on the rise. The number of people commuting to work by bicycle has increased by more than 60 percent since 2000. Cities are investing heavily to develop infrastructure that supports the growth of multimodal forms of transportation and alleviates the dangers of car traffic.

Even in cities like Austin, where bike infrastructure is highly developed, cyclists trying to travel more than a short distance continue to compete with automobile traffic. While rolling through Austin’s hilly streets, Garza marveled at the many cyclists cruising down partitioned bike lanes. But he faced a dangerous exit when he tried to leave the city limits. “There’s no safe route,” Garza explained. “Many cities around the country can’t support the growth.” 

Meanwhile, Florida remains the deadliest state for folks on bikes. The Florida Department of Transportation is developing several initiatives to reduce traffic fatalities, like implementing the Pedestrian and Bicycle Strategic Safety Plan and establishing the Bicycle and Pedestrian Council, a statewide effort to redirect the focus from auto-centric to multimodal transportation.

But infrastructural developments are only part of what it takes to get people to swap cars for bikes. The rest has to do with attitude and community dynamics. 

“Culture often trumps infrastructure,” noted Vivanco, who studied bicycle culture and politics in Bogota, Colombia, a city known for its sophisticated bike transportation system. There Vivanco observed that despite the “beautiful world-class infrastructure,” only about a third of the city’s cyclists actually used it. The rest took alternative routes.

Back in Tallahassee, Benton maintains that, on the whole, American communities need to take bikes more seriously in order to reap the sustainable benefits of bike transit. He encourages people to take “a sober look at bicycling as transportation” by rethinking the bike as a necessity and the car as a luxury. 

Putting the car in the back seat could yield tremendous progress in communities across the nation, but there is a lot of work to do before America shakes the auto-reliant mentality of the 20th century, and its accompanying debt. Perhaps the redevelopment of America’s socio-economic landscape entails reconsidering the ways to get by. It’s a modern movement, and the bicycle’s taking the lead.