Why We Fall in Love with Cycling

Seven lessons on cycling's softer side.

The author and her cycling companion. Photo by Shannon Donegan.

Traveling the world’s great bicycle cities, I fell in love with cycling. The ease, safety, convenience… (dreamy sigh)

But as my six-month love affair came to an end, I began to realize the reason for my infatuation: cities like those in Denmark and Holland simply make themselves lovable. They don’t just build cycle tracks; they inject fun, whimsy, compassion, and even romance into cycling.

Certainly, many Cascadians love their bikes, but more of us would if we learned these lessons on cycling’s soft side from the world’s active-transport capitals.

1. Human powered is romantic. I bike home from work with my boyfriend almost every day, and it’s one of the best parts of my day. We talk about what we see along the way or what smells are coming from the Hostess Cake Factory. When it’s sunny, we sometimes stop for a beer along the way. When it’s a crisp winter night, we stop and watch the ships pass under the Fremont Bridge.

Two-wheeled romance. Photo by Shannon Donegan

When it’s raining, we talk about what kind of soup we want to make for dinner. Biking together through the elements bonds us in a way that would never happen if we were strapped into a car. Throughout my travels, I saw all kinds of romance on the cycle tracks—teenagers kissing at stoplights in Paris, older couples holding hands while pedaling in Amsterdam, and a post-wedding getaway bicycle in Copenhagen.

"Just Married" couple on a bike.

A wedding party in Copenhagen.

The average US worker now spends about 48 minutes commuting each day. Despite the billions of hours we collectively spend commuting, we don’t often talk about the way our transportation choices make us feel—physically or mentally.

Maybe we should.

2. You don’t have to be a “cyclist” to ride a bike. Recreational sub-cultures have owned cycling in North America for a long time. That’s starting to change and it’s an important cultural shift. “None of these people consider themselves cyclists,” Andreas Hammershøj from the Danish Cycling Embassy explained to me last June as we stood on a sidewalk watching swarms of Copenhageners pedal across the Dronning Louises bridge, as 10,000-30,000 do daily.

“These are just people getting to work, school, or the grocery store, ” Hammershøj said. It turns out there are Cascadians who, like Copenhageners, would like to get from A to B on their bikes but don’t ever want to ride a century. (They might not even care to know what a century ride is.) That’s fine. You don’t have to identify with the recreational side of cycling to use a bike for transportation.  Just ask Blake Trask, the Statewide Policy Director of the Bicycle Alliance of Washington. “I’m not much of a cyclist. I just ride my bike to work most days.”

A Portland kid in a cargo bike.

This Portland kid doesn’t consider herself a “cyclist.”

Neither do these Seattle siblings. Photo courtesy of Julian Davies.

3. Remember kickstands? Henry Cutler, the Dutch-American owner of WorkCycles in Amsterdam, is convinced that urban cycling will explode once Americans get off high performance bikes and on to bikes that are upright, comfortable, and utilitarian. “Americans ride bikes that are like race cars; Dutch bikes are like Honda Civics and mini-vans,” Cutler joked last July as I admired his fleet of practical bikes. They come outfitted with child seats, baskets, bells, chain guards, and front and rear lights powered by your pedaling. Oh, and kickstands: Why don’t bikes have kickstands anymore?

Losing the clip-in pedals and riding on fat tires changes everything about city cycling. The basket is nice too.

Tom Fuculoro, author of the Seattle Bike Blog, got it right when he wrote recently that buying a bike ought to be more like buying a car. “Most people aren’t fascinated by the technical aspects of car engines; they’re sold by the sunroof or cup-holders.”  David Schmidt, owner of The Dutch Bike Shop in Seattle reports that the useful bike trend is gaining steam. “Ninety percent of our clients haven’t ridden a bike since they were kids. They’re rediscovering cycling because it’s fun and simpler than driving. These aren’t the crusader commuters. They’re just people who want to start biking to the grocery store.”

Outside of the grocery store in Copenhagen

4. Does your city have a bike culture? North Americans all understand what “car culture” means, but it’s a term that increasingly comes with a negative connotation. Cars are now being called an “older generation technology.”  Despite the billion-dollar marketing budgets of car companies, many millennials would rather not own a car. Unlike car cultures, bicycle cultures are in demand. Many of the world’s most vibrant and thriving cities are going to great lengths to support their citizen cyclists because having a “bicycle culture” has suddenly become an asset and an important part of “attracting the types of workers that an innovation economy wants to attract.”

A little taste of the Copenhagen bike culture.

Brian Surratt, business development director at the City of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development, recently spoke about the importance of developing a bike culture because, “demographics is destiny. People no longer relocate for industry. Industry relocates for talent. Seattle wants to be recognized as a bike-friendly city because it simply helps attract good talent. The most successful cities—economically, culturally, and socially—must compete for intellectual capital and talent.”

Seattle’s 5:30 pm Dexter Avenue culture.

5. More cyclists equals more compassionate roads. Numerous studies document the relationship between an increase in the volume of cyclists and an increase in cyclist safety. The relationship between these two factors is sometimes remarkably linear. Odense, Denmark, embarked on an ambitious, multi-year cycling promotion campaign and saw cycling levels increase by 20 percent, while traffic accidents involving cyclists decreased by 20 percent. Why? People behind the wheel become more accustomed to seeing people on two wheels on the roads. Also, it’s often the same people: drivers and cyclists are the same folks at different times of the day, or at least drivers are more likely to have cyclists in the family.

An ad from the Netherlands Safety agency reminding motorists to “drive with your heart.”

Driving “with your heart” becomes a much easier sell when citizens—like in Groningen, Holland—have friends and family members who commute by bike or on foot. Lucky for us, cycling rates have increased dramatically in many Cascadian cities: bike commuting doubled in Seattle and tripled in Portland as a share of all commutes from 2000 to 2010, according to the League of American Bicyclists. This growth helps make roads a lot safer for everyone—even roads that lack cycling infrastructure.

A person in a car drives carefully on a residential street in Portland.

6. We don’t have time to compensate. Most people reading this article are sitting in front of a computer. More and more of us are “knowledge workers” who sit in front of computers for much of our careers. If you also choose to use passive forms of transportation such as driving or taking the bus, doctors recommend that you compensate for your sedentary lifestyle by “working out.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t find much time in my schedule to compensate—and I wasn’t alone. The Center for Disease Control reports that 80 percent of Americans fail to meet federal guidelines for physical activity despite the $19 billion we shell out for gym memberships each year. Why can’t activity just be engineered into our daily lives so that we can stay healthy without the added chore of working out?  Cycling has been the solution for me. I typically burn about 500 calories a day pedaling myself to the places I need to go, and going to the gym is never on the to-do list anymore. Having one less chore means I have more free time to spend with the people I love.

7. Focus on women. Women are the “indicator species” of a city’s cycling ecosystem. Studies have shown that women are more risk averse than men, so a profusion of women pedaling in a city shows that cycling feels safe there.

Mom and daughter running errands in Tokyo.

Women are also far more likely to participate in and benefit from cycling encouragement and training programs than men. A study done in London showed that 73 percent of London residents who participated in on-road cycling training programs were women. The same study interviewed female cyclists and found that “cycling helps bolster a self-confident, independent identity” for many women. An Australian study shows that cycling outreach and support events have a greater positive impact on behavior change among women than among men. Why else is it important to get more women riding? American women make more major household decisions than men and can hence influence the entire family to get out of the car and on to bikes. Some people also assert that more women cycling can contribute to a more visually pleasing urban environment.

Photo by Mikael Colville-Anderson

None of these ideas are revolutionary. I’ve witnessed each across the world. What’s important is that sometimes it’s not just about infrastructure. Getting folks to fall in love with cycling will take more than signage and street paint (although those are important, too!).

What bicycling could really use is a good marketing department.

All photos are courtesy of the author unless otherwise noted.

Chrisitine M. Grant is the active transportation lead at Cascadia Consulting Group.  You can learn more about her travels and see more of her pictures of great cycling cities on Shift, her personal blog. 

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  1. D Nelson says:

    I smile to such a nice blog promoting bike power. Valuable info; hope it inspires many. I get around on my bikes for business or recreation.

    A clip which joyously advocates cycling for all ages, mostly recorded in Amsterdam, “why cycle!: or “go ride a bike” : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ou1AvKDicxA

  2. R MacWilliams says:

    Your arguments are well cited and refreshing to read. As a daily bicycle commuter, I tip my hat to you!

  3. Marcy says:

    I need a bike-riding boyfriend! Love the Hostess factory smell :)

    • Me says:

      What’s up girl?

  4. me says:

    So true. Thank you for this article.

    There is a lot of truth to bike culture missing in the state – personally, I understand that the risk of severe accidents is much higher here, but being forced to wear a helmet takes the fun out of biking for me. Conversely, every time I am home in Europe, one of the most fun first things I do is to take a bike ride to a nearby bakery…

  5. Jonathan Radmacher says:

    I am at the point where I cringe when riding with people without a helmet, but it looks like no one cycling in Europe wears helmets. Are there good safety studies from Europe, about whether there are greater instances of injury and severe injury? Or are we just all paranoid?

  6. M says:

    Why we love helmets:
    They protect the ones we love.
    Depending on others to feed you for the rest of your life is a drag.
    Learning to speak is much harder the second time around as an adult.
    We want to see my kids grow up.
    We want to ride again tomorrow.

    • Andrew says:

      Do you wear a helmet when you get into a car? Do you wear a helmet if you are jogging. If not why not? Because you are just as likely to get head injuries doing both of these. So it must come down to your sense of risk,

      • Steve says:

        You may be right, it just comes down to my sense of risk. But my sense tells me biking IS riskier, and so I where a helmet and then I feel better, then I bike more. My risk sense may be wrong, but the end result is that I bike more. We can agree that’s good?

      • Sportyanne says:

        Andrew, aside from being irrelevant, your statement that head injury risk is just as high for pedestrians and car passengers is completely false. http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/10/655

        Either cite a source or stop making up “facts.”

    • Renee says:

      Why bring the helmet debate into this? That’s not what the article was about at all.

  7. Liz Canning says:

    I love the emphasis here on what cycling makes us FEEL! It was the utter bliss of riding a cargo bike with my toddler twins that inspired me to begin making a crowdsourced documentary on what I hope will become a utility cycling revolution in the US. That and the discovery of a vital online community devoted to sharing their passion for cargo bikes! Now folks from all over the US and the world are sending me stories on video of how cargo bikes are changing lives and communities. Watch the trailer for (R)Evolutions per Minute, find more info, and join the FB group from my website: http://www.lizcanning.com/Liz_Canning_Creative/Cargo_Bike_Documentary.html

    A wise man named Ross Evans (inventor of the Xtracycle) once told me that people buy things for emotional reasons and then justify purchases with rational thinking. That is why I want to make a film about what wonderful fun bikes are, with maybe a footnote on the incredible side benefits! No guilt- or fear-mongering necessary. Join me?

    • Alan Durning says:

      Wow! What a GREAT project, Liz! Thanks for posting about it. We’ll spread the word in our weekend reading feature this week.

  8. Gabe says:

    Great post. I started riding my bike for utilitarian purposes a few years ago – to work, to the store, to soccer games, out to dinner, etc. It’s really grown on me. In a car, the constant stop and start drives me absolutely nuts, not to mention the time wasted spent trying to find a place to park. On a bike, I can ride slowly, take in my surroundings and enjoy the sense of freedom that comes from gliding through the city. But I do think better cycling infrastructure is key, since it makes people feel safer, which helps them start to ride (or ride more), which helps them develop the emotional and aesthetic connection with cycling that you rightly point out as being so important. Keep up the great writing and advocacy.

  9. Lindsay says:

    I’m new to cycling and someone could have preached to me day in, day out about the health benefits of cycling, but they would make little difference to my long term success as a cyclist. What keeps me cycling (other than I’m trying to show my son a better way of life, which is my major goal) is the fun factor.

    Cycling in the US is something that is compared, in people’s minds, to cars or to the stationary exercise bike- when in fact it’s neither. Cycling is about the journey, whereas a car is about a destination. Exercise bikes are about fitness, but my bike is utilitarian happiness…it’s therapy on the go.

    Great article- thanks!

    • Andrew says:

      You are 100% right about therapy, It is the hardest thing to explain how enjoyable it is to cycle one of theses bikes.

  10. Susannah says:

    I’ve never owned a car, and I used to cycle all the time when I lived in Cambridge (UK) for 10 years – one of the best cycling cities in the world. Now I have moved to London for work, and I’ve not been on my bike in over a year. It’s just too intimidating here, even though there is a dedicated ‘cycle superhighway’ right outside my building – it is still just paint on a busy road with taxis and turning cars and other cyclists who see their bikes as urban assault machines. So maybe I am a ‘risk-averse’ female but I know I would be shaking and terrified the whole way. Public transport is excellent in London, but I miss my bike so much.

    • Gabe says:

      What would make you get back on your bike?

  11. John Wyman says:

    What a fantastic blog. Bicycling seems to be doing pretty well here in Columbus, Ohio. Of course, we have a long way to go, but it’s so much better now than years ago. We have some great cycling advocacy groups who are working hard for a better cycling situation for everyone.Peace.

  12. rex burkholder says:

    re: #3 We were so desperate for decent “non-play” bikes that after multiple, unsatisfactory conversions we brought back bikes from Holland in 1993. Was able to finally ride in a suit comfortably. Did we get the funny looks, wearing tweed on bikes before it became an ironic statement, on bikes that weighed 3 times our friends’ racing bikes. I am so thrilled that there are now lots of bikes for normal riding (ie, to work, store and school). love my Trek Soho, 8 speeds in the hub, fenders, upright… and it was hard to choose among all the great models out there today.

    • Genevieve Williams says:

      I found a pretty good “non-play” bike at Cycle University in Seattle, though they mostly carry play bikes and racers and the like (and that’s what I wound up getting because I like the light weight and they’re fun to ride). Still, it was nice to know they were available, and fun to ride too.

      The fun argument should be be made more often!

  13. Mary says:

    Love this story! Therapy on wheels is a great concept! Every day I ride my bike is a better day. If I thought this 67 year old grandmother could make it up the hills between my house and work, my house and downtown I’d happily switch to something fewer than 21 speeds. But for now, whatever it takes . . . ride on! Mary Fellows

  14. Ducks says:

    What’s really sad is the lack of helmets in these pictures. Yes, I love bikes but I also like my brains. The worst example is the mother with her children. If they were for some reason to get hit, her children could see her die in front of them from a brain injury that could have been prevented without a helmet and they could have grown up with a mom. I’ve read far too many stories and seen far too many horrific accidents where people just didn’t quite get the importance of a helmet until it was too late.

    With that said… I loved your story, I just wish it was more encouraging about safety. Far too many people have the misconception that it won’t happen to them or that it’s not cool/trendy/fashionable to wear a helmet, but what is less cool is having brain damage and drooling on yourself.

    • Al Dimond says:

      Wearing a helmet is one thing you can do for safety. Helmets can prevent injury in the case of minor head impacts and probably at least reduce the severity of injury in larger head impacts. I wouldn’t bike without a helmet here in the US. But safety doesn’t start or end with a helmet. Maybe the Europeans that don’t wear helmets would be safer with them, but there are enough elements of their biking culture that lead to safe cycling that they may well be safer than helmeted Americans.

      One element of this is slower riding speeds. Riding slower you’re less likely to crash and when you crash will do so at lower speeds. Another is that there are fewer cars on the road, they’re going slower, and they’re more restricted in their turning movements. Another is that there are more bikes on the road, which makes drivers more aware of what cyclists are doing. And there’s a difference in how bikes are set up and adjusted — in particular, a seat raised high enough for efficient pedal stroke (as typically advocated in America) makes it harder to get your feet on the ground and thus easier to fall at low speeds. Would any individual cyclist not wearing a helmet be safer with one? Probably. Does a culture of helmet-wearing make cycling safer in general? That’s debatable.

    • thumbsup2helmets says:

      I completely agree with Ducks here. I enjoyed the article as well, but I am frustrated by the lack of helmets in these photos, *especially* the one of the mother with her child. Looks like she’s too concerned with her fashion and hair to be bothered with protecting her brain.

      It doesn’t matter if you’re going fast or slow, on a side road or major boulevard. One pothole, train track or distracted texting driver and your skull could be hitting the hard cold ground. That’s not likely to happen as a pedestrian or a driver…

      And to the Lord Upminster’s comment below about gun ownership and the death penalty … please don’t lump us all into the same damn category. This is a widely contentious issue which MANY Americans do not support. I am pro-helmet, anti-death penalty, thankyouverymuch.

  15. Rudy says:

    It’s good to learn about what Denmark is doing. But policy and leadership will have to be drivers too, particularly in Seattle. For instance, a recent bike survey was posted by the Seattle Department of Transportation to allow for citizen input on the Bicycle Master Plan (http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/bikemaster_survey.htm). However, we need to challenge our elected officials and public officials that we are smart enough to know that without dedicated funding, good will and cultural change won’t fully move the needle. A good step for Seattle folks is to do this survey and ask those managing the plan, why aren’t they asking us what level of dedicated funding from the transportation budget should support biking infrastructure. We can and should have surveys that actually provide fiscal/policy choices in the question matrix. Planning-lite surveys aren’t going to move the needle. Keep on biking everyone, and be safe.

  16. sarah butsch says:

    love the pics of you and sean, christine!!

  17. Paul Ahart says:

    Nice article, and commendable. However, the astonishing LACK of helmet use by the cyclists in nearly all the photos hit my hot button.
    I know that few in Holland wear helmets, but here in the USA it is really a safety issue and should not be ignored.
    I commute 10 miles each way to work nearly year-around (especially since installing a generator-powered lighting system on my bike) and would never ride without a helmet, even on San Juan Island’s relatively quiet roads.

  18. Atlanta Biker says:

    I bicycled when I went out to eat on Monday. It was probably about an 8 mile round trip. Given the recent death of an Atlanta cyclist, I was a little tense. However, the route I choose included streets with bike lanes and most of the others were residential streets with little traffic. I knew I would be coming back after dark, so came equipped with lights front and back and a reflective shirt.

    Here are some of the delights of cycling instead of driving.

    People contact — Since I am not that fast, there is time for a quick hello to pedestrians and sometimes other cyclists. There’s something about this that humanizes the trip and raises my spirits. In a car, I am isolated from others. People appear smaller and far away, I certainly don’t hear their footsteps above the roar of the engine.
    Exercise high- Getting someplace four miles away on my own steam requires a level of exertion that speeds up my breathing and gets my heart pumping. After a day at the computer and on the phone it’s a great break.
    Independence – Related to the above, but a little different. I feel more powerful as I muscle my way up hills. It’s just me and my rather primitive machine, churning up this breeze, moving toward my goal.
    Awareness of geography – As you drive, you don’t really notice the changes in elevation. The only requirement is pushing a little harder on the pedal of your car. On a bike, every downhill is a breather. Every up hill, no matter how slight, requires your concentration as you down shift and regain the rhythm of your strokes. Sometimes I imagine how this land might have looked before roads were carved through it. Literally, in the neighborhood I traveled through last night, I am moving through terrain where people fought and died in the 1860?s. They crawled up these hills, perhaps drank from the streams that we have covered with asphalt.
    Awareness of the weather – Would I have noticed how nicely it cooled down Monday night in my car? I don’t think so. Would I have felt the slight moistness in the atmosphere, a left over from the weekend’s rain? I am not isolated from the planet in a tin box, I am right there, on top of this spinning globe.
    Relaxed concentration – Listening for traffic, watching out for obstacles in front of my wheel, staying aware of my surroundings, I am tuned in but not tense.

    It’s not always easy to get on the bike. I have to overcome a sort of inherent laziness. But it’s almost always worth it.

    • Rob says:

      I loved your post. My favorite. I bike commute to work every day and the connection to your environment (even an urban one) is so important. Not to mention the connection to the people – walkers, bikers, and even other cars is so desperately missing in our society. You get a lot of these same things from walking more.

  19. Bob Zimels says:

    I agree with the author, HOWEVER, WHERE are the bike helmets? Even the young mother riding with her son on the back of her bike should be wearing one!

  20. Bob Zimels says:

    I agree with “Lord Upminster”, that guns and the death penalty are bad, but he should realize that many U.S. drivers don’t ‘see’ cyclists, even when looking at them, and automobile speeds on local streets tend to be quite a bit higher here than in Europe.That doesn’t excuse driver inattentiveness. Also, we have a lot more cars on the road than Europe does, and, unfortunately, our cities were laid out , in many cases, to favor automobile traffic.Sometimes I think some folks get their licenses at Sears or J.C. Penny’s.

  21. Gypsy Chief says:

    Saw this article reprinted today on Transition Voice, decided to see the original. I think the article is better when some original pictures are included. Fort Collins is a very bicycle friendly city, we are fortunate to have a supportive city government. My focus is how to live automobile free. Was able to do that in Sacramento via combination of bike and light rail. Now in Fort Collins via combo of bike and extensive network of in-city bike paths and trails, along river, along powerlines, along railroad rights of way.

  22. gopinathan says:

    I am from a place where grown up people generally are a little hesitant of cycling as they consider it a low status activity. I really pity these people.They don’t know what they are missing out.I ride my bicycle everyday.It makes me feel so peaceful and contented.It is life affirming.

  23. Lord Upminster says:

    This is Europe, and we do things differently over here. Try learning to live with it.

    Many aspects of life in the USA strike also strike us as rather bizarre and alarming; such as your nonchalant attitude to gun ownership and your fondness for the death penalty. Both of these sit rather ill, we feel, with your old-maidish obsession with protecting your heads while cycling.

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