Has Machismo Harmed Bike Culture In America?

In the struggle to reform roads to cater to bicycles, one factor has not been looked at: Bike culture machismo.

As the bicycling movement continues to move slowly in gaining prominence and legitimacy, and tries to make roads useful and safe for bicyclists in America, problems continue to plague bicyclists and their culture.  Due to irritated car drivers, especially those in cities, efforts to add bike lanes that have barriers that separate them from regular road traffic have stalled in many places.  A couple activists have gone so far as to suggest organizing politically for bike interests.  However, these belated efforts, in addition to the activist's suggestion that bicyclists organize like the NRA, beg the question:  Is masculinity and manliness a big reason bicyclists lack the resources and infrastructure in America now?

When the last bicycle boom occurred in the 1970s, bicycle sales were primarily being driven by children, who saw the bicycle as a recreational vehicle, as well as means to get to a neighbor's house quickly.  Cars remained the culturally (and economically) dominant form of transportation for adults.  As a means to support the notion that riding a bicycle can be a legitimate means of riding as an adult, California cyclist John Forester pushed efforts into making "vehicular cycling" a mainstream means of transportation.  However, to achieve this, Forester asked that, essentially, bicycles be treated the exact same as cars, without any exceptions whatsoever. 

While ostensibly, the purpose of making bicycles equal to cars on the road was to show that bicycles can be an acceptable form of transportation, John Forester's agenda seemed more built on machismo than actual sense.  At the same time of Forester's publication in 1976, countries in Europe were rebuilding their roads with either wider sidewalks or a grade separated lane to accommodate for bicycles.  These changes allowed for bicycle riding to become mainstream in those countries well after the bicycle boom ended. 

John Forester and followers heavily resisted these lanes being put in place, preferring the open road instead.  In doing this, Forester essentially played into the hands of car drivers who hated bicyclists then: They preyed on his fear that bicycling was considered a children's activity, not something real men would do.  Forester could not garner support among actual and potential cyclists because the very notion of being treated equal to cars scared a lot of people who knew that cars could essentially run them over and kill them.  Thus, the cause of improving roads for bicyclists died with the bicycle boom, and did not resurface until the last decade.

The same fear that drove John Forester could be said of Leslie Bohm, the late founder of PeopleForBikes who pushed for high-level political lobbying for bicyclists.  Instead of comparing the efforts to a political organization that is more agreeable with people in general, Bohm advocated being more like one of the most polarizing political organizations in the country, the National Rifle Association.  Regardless of the actual structure and operations of the NRA, the problem with using them as a model for political lobbying is that many of the very people that support bicycling are exactly the type of people that are turned off by the NRA's tactics.  The response to the idea that Bohm and his protege Kristin Butcher present is not "What, you want us to pack heat publicly?" but "What, you want us to act like those lunatics?"

Again, what drives Leslie Bohm's idea is pure machismo: What better organization to compare to in terms of adult male behavior than the NRA, a supposed advocate of gun owners?  While far more passionate and equally successful political organizations exist, particularly Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Chamber of Commerce, very few match the utterly macho attitude that the NRA exhibits.  When Bohm was thinking of the NRA, he was merely using their political organization as an excuse to hide the fact that he feared his own bike riding made him look like a "pussy" against motorcyclists and car drivers.

If there is one thing stopping bicyclists from progressing, it is this macho attitude dominating the discourse of biking culture.  You can see it in some of the commuter cyclists who ride to work each morning: They always wear biking gear rather than any resemblance of work attire, as though wearing those items would make them superior to the rest of the commuters, or even normal getup commuter cyclists.  This is not to say they should not have a place in biking culture, but they need to take a step back.  While resistance by car drivers remains the primary reason for slow progress for bicyclists, the overly masculine attitude of some cyclists are only helping car drivers, not the rest of us.

(Image Source:  Elvert Barnes)

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