NOTICE: Something strange has happened to the perception of cyclists and cycling in the more than 200 years that they have existed.
Once a novelty, the bicycle has evolved from an essential mode of transport to a pastime for children, to now be seen by the population as an elitist activity.
This was evident after the recent ‘clearing the way’ protest on the Auckland Harbor Bridge. Cyclists who have passed a police barrier and rode the highway have been variously described as privileged, white, licensed and, yes, elitist.
Ask most people what a cyclist looks like and they will more than likely conjure up an image of the stereotypical cyclist – decked out head-to-toe in lycra, absurd aero helmet, wrap-around sunglasses and, of course, a futuristic bike capable of slice through headwinds.
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But this image owes much more to marketing than to reality.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the market was full of cheap and reliable ten-speed steel bikes. They were fantastic commuters with minimal sex appeal. At that time, the stereotypical cyclist was just an average person.
Then the 1980s welcomed the newly invented mountain biking and the world of cycling split into different camps. Road cyclists have broken down into high speed racing, triathlon and long distance sub-tribes. Along the way, marketing and businesses were eager to sell more and more specialized equipment.
But the traditional cyclists have always been there, wearing everyday clothes, obeying the rules of the road and riding modest bikes. Their average contributed to their invisibility. For this general public, however, one thing has always remained constant: the bicycle is cheap.
Low cost and affordable
Cars are expensive to own, especially compared to a bicycle. Thanks to the meticulous research of New Zealander John Meekings, we can directly compare these costs. By tracking his spending since the initial purchase for ten years and over 100,000 kilometers, he calculated that the total cost of owning and using his bike was around 4 cents / km.
Logically, for the bicycle to be an elitist mode of transport, the cost of owning a car would have to be considerably lower. So is he? The Automobile Association did the math using a very moderately priced NZ $ 26,600 car (we’re in Suzuki Swift territory here).
Taking into account variable and fixed costs, with an average annual distance of 14,000 km, the cost of ownership was $ 21 per day. This works out to about 54 cents / km, which is more than 13 times the cost of owning a bicycle.
Unlike this, there is more than enough money left for the average rider to buy a full lycra wetsuit with all the accessories and still spend a lot less than a typical rider pays.
Better yet, cyclists could extend their mobility with an electric bicycle, making cycling accessible to a large part of the population. Even the most expensive electric bike is only a fraction of the price of a new car, not to mention the priceless environmental costs of owning a car. A good e-bike costs less than the credit available under the government’s electric vehicle “rebate” program.
Fair and egalitarian
Cycling is much more prevalent than we often think. Over 50 percent of Aucklanders own a bicycle, and many use it quite frequently. Auckland cyclists come from all corners of the city, not just the wealthiest enclaves.
Cycling is also an accessible and often vital mode of transport for minority populations. Contrary to the charge, cycling is predominantly white and middle-class, for example, recent research indicates that it is just as common among Maori as it is among Pākehā – although Maori may be more addicted to cycling.
Rather than being elitist, cycling is therefore perhaps one of the most equitable modes of transport.
Granted, Auckland’s proposed $ 780 million cycle and pedestrian bridge doesn’t do much to reduce the elitist image, but it’s not what cycling activists have been asking for, either.
Contrary to elitist stereotypes, cyclists do not ask for gold-plated cycle lanes and separate infrastructure. They want a fair share of the country’s existing road network set aside for a relatively safe place to travel – space for which they have paid for through taxes and tariffs.
Even the most extravagant lycra-clad cyclist, let alone the humble everyday pedal pusher, spends less on commuting than the most frugal motorist. By such a measure, if cyclists on cycle paths are elitist, so too are pedestrians on trails.
Timothy Welch is Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning at the University of Auckland.