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14 January 2012
Bicycles as cultural artifact

Like so many of the topics we cover, bicycles are less a single cultural artifact than a multitude of them—from the pink bike with tassels and streamers your little sister learned to ride when she was 4, to Lance Armstrong’s lean mean hill-climbing machine, an extension of the lean mean man himself. There are road bikes, mountain bikes, and (collapsible) subway bikes, fixies and freewheels, tandems and tagalongs.

In whatever form, though, bicycles are perhaps the most basic instance of transportation technology, imparting a surprising amount of freedom, speed, and delight while drawing on nothing more than the strength in our legs and the simple efficiency of wheels and gears. Ride a bike and you experience your own capacities extended; you also discover how much more power has been available, untapped, in the world than you might have imagined. The 4-year-old teetering and weaving down the road is discovering that beautiful perilous abundance, and the exhilaration of that moment means that chances are she’ll never forget, any more than you did, when she learned to ride.

What do bicycles make of the world?

1. What do bicycles assume about the way the world is?

that the world is too big for just walking. or that walking is not always fast enough.


There has actually been research (a PhD thesis) done on the impact of bicycles on East African culture. Unfortunately, I have not read the manuscript yet.


A world is navigable via wheels, which collapse medium distances intonshort distances while remaining human-scaled.

Noel Weichbrodt

that sometimes speed of movement should be related directly to the speed of our breath


That our mind’s desire to explore can extend beyond our body’s ability to carry us.


Nothing. Bicycles are incapable of thought and therefore assume nothing about the world. Except for my friend Larry’s bicycle….
Her name is Margaret.

Charles Churchill

Technology can leverage our power to do much more.


There’s more, if I could just go a little further.

David Grills

They assume - or hope for - proximity, that everything we need will be within biking distance: friends, family, shopping, recreation, and public space.

len hjalmarson
2. What do bicycles assume about the way the world should be?

that we were made to go fast! I wanna go fast!

Ricky Bobby

That we ought to be able to move, to be mobile, to get around in reasonable amounts of time.  This assumption is carried into the making and use of cars.  But bicycles, while technically machines, are human powered and thus less “mechanistic” than cars.  Their mechanics are simpler to learn and repair.  Because they cost a lot less than cars, they assume everyone should be able to move.  Cars limit the class of people that can move, but bicycles allow mobility to the poor, and the young who can’t get a license.


that human beings must have autonomy yet take their place into the larger flow of individuals going places

3. What do bicycles make possible?

I read somewhere that they made possible the feminist movement at the turn of the 20th century.  It allowed women to go out and about and still wear dresses. 

In my world, it gives me a chance to exercise and get where I want (and need) at the same time.  I also do ride just to ride, but I like the flexibility of the bike as transportation and exercise.  It is also faster than driving - the route I take has fewer lights and I don’t have to fight for parking.


meeting neighbors a few blocks away


As mentioned before, the bicycle comes in many forms. What is especially remarkable is that it’s ability to multiply human effort has even inspired great machines like the airplane.


Biking also provides transportation that is low impact to both body and environment.


To catch the pleasant aromas of passing restaurants and neighborhood gardens.


I’ve ridden fixed-wheel since my teenage years (I’m now 68) and enjoy the increased level of fitness such a choice gives and produces. I haven’t driven my car for more than two years, and don’t want to drive again. I live in rural France - a country which is very bicycle friendly, so have no fears on these less crowded roads and, as Alex posted above, the smells are an added pleasure… not to mention the many sights which I’m able to stop in front of (and photograph) having two narrow wheels to park instead of four wide ones.

Ed Buziak
4. What do bicycles make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

Laziness, inability to get around (reasonably close)


The abilty to gaze into each other’s eyes.


1. Playing banjo,
2. treading water,
3. the concurrent promulgation of the species.


Arriving at work in a neat and non-sweaty fashion.

5. What new culture is created in response?

They were an ingredient of the emergent `post modernism’ of the middle of the last century. `My White Bicycle’ actually charted in the UK pop charts some time in the mid 1960s….and was a song based on the activities of the `kabouters’(sp?)  and Provos in Holland, who left `free’ white bikes in strategic places in Amsterdam for anyone to use.

steve scott

Importantly, bicycles create the ability to transport people distances otherwise unreachable by foot while still encouraging cultural scaling at the human, and not machine, level.

Noel Weichbrodt

Training wheels.

Mike Hickerson

Where there are bicycles, there must be parents or siblings to teach the next generation to ride them. Bicycles are one of the many focal points of tradition, of wisdom deliberately passed down from generation to generation, and thus also the locus of countless memories and stories of the joys and trauma of learning from our elders.

—R Micikas

In Toronto, response to the bicycle has created BIXI, a subscription based bike sharing program. There are 80 stations and 1000 bikes in various locations around the city. Whether this new cultural artifact will catch on is unknown. I’m not in downtown Toronto often, but during my occasional visits to the city I’ve never seen a BIXI bike in action.

—Chad Short

A friend has a Facebook page that connects—

len hjalmarson