July 2, 1993

Auto-Free Bay Area Coalition / 510-849-0770

P.O. Box 10141

Berkeley, California 94709

Re: Appropriate and Inappropriate Uses of the Bicycle; Promoting Bicycling


I will fight anyone over which of us loves bicycles more. I have been bicycling almost continuously for 45 years, ever since my dad bought me (at age 5) my first 1-speed coaster-brake bicycle and taught me to ride it by pushing me around the block holding onto my rear fender (and occasionally secretly letting go). There are in life few sensations greater than "tooling" around the (car-empty) back streets of Berkeley (or a country road) on a crisp Saturday morning, listening to the birds chirping (because you can hear them) and sniffing the air (because you are in it). (By the way, have you noticed how after a night of breathing clean air, you really notice the various obnoxious odors of motor vehicle exhaust?!) Having a vehicle that you can take apart down to the last ball bearing, clean, and put back together is also a joy.

However, a bicycle is still a tool of technology, and like all such tools can be used for good or "evil". There are other values that are important, and may need priority in some situations. As a substitute for the automobile, there is no question that the bicycle is worthy of adoration. However, it would be out of place in a children's sandbox, in a wildlife sanctuary, in a hospital operating room, in a place sacred to native peoples, or inside a Japanese-style home (where shoes are verboten)(well, actually, kinjirareta). Electricity can be used to transmit vital information around the world in minutes, with a minimum of environmental damage; it can also kill you, if used improperly.

I have had peak experiences on a bicycle, and I have also been lied to and literally run down by mountain bicyclists insistent on biking on hiking trails where bicycles are not allowed (for obvious, good reasons). As bicycling "proprietors", we should make sure that bikes are used only for good, and hence are associated with goodness in everyone's mind. (Have you ever noticed what a wonderful, warm feeling comes over you when you unexpectedly see someone in a movie riding a bicycle, rollerblading, or getting on a bus?! And how annoying it is to have to watch people in movies going everywhere by car, and inanely chasing each other around in cars, trucks, and other motor vehicles?!) Let's not let our love of bicycling blot out (eclipse) all other human values!

How can you tell when a given use is inappropriate? I think that one of the best ways is via speed (and weight) differential. Speed (and weight) differences make bicycles incompatible with freeway traffic; it is too dangerous to be in or near such traffic. The same goes for many other roads and city streets. I try to compensate by wobbling and riding erratically, which is pretty effective in scaring drivers into slowing down. However, the first chance I get, I vastly prefer to get onto a street with no motor vehicle traffic. For the same reason, bicycles are incompatible with pedestrians, unless the bicyclists are willing to slow down to almost a walking pace, and always give the pedestrian the right-of-way.

Also for the same and other reasons, bicycles are out of place on hiking trails. But even more important, the value of wildlife (I always include plants) must always take precedence over human pleasures (as distinguished from needs). Wildlife cannot protect themselves from us. We have pushed, and continue to push, thousands of species to extinction, mostly out of plain greed. The apparent human belief that every square inch of the Earth belongs to us, and is available for us to do what we want with it, is stupidity of the highest order. In a situation where motor vehicles dominate, replacing them with bicycles greatly reduces the damage we do. But in wildlife's skimpy remaining "living room", "dining room", and "bedroom", introducing bicycles, and the increased presence of humans that they facilitate, would be a step backwards.

While I am on the subject of bicycles, I would like to make a plea to do whatever we need to do to make bicycling more popular. At the top of my list is making bikes more comfortable to ride. "Macho" features like 18 speeds, "racing" design (rock-hard seat, no fenders, straight or turned-down handlebars, which cannot be made comfortable no matter what you do!), bumpy (high rolling resistance!) tires, and brakes that require the continual use of your hands may appeal to one segment of the population, but they leave most people out in the cold -- or rather, push them into much more comfortable cars! You could learn a lot from the "user friendly" concept that has revolutionized the computer world. Let's stop torturing ourselves in order to "look good" (to whom?), and bring back comfortable, broad seats (pressure is weight per square inch!), handlebars that bend back, so you can sit upright and enjoy the ride and the view and not tire your arms, a few usable, reliable gears, smooth, hard tires with very low rolling resistance, and good, ample front and rear baskets for safely carrying lots of food, books, or whatever else turns you on.


Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.

PS: In Japan, they don't ride the macho bikes they sell us. In front of the train stations are hundreds of dumpy, but very practical bikes with a few gears, comfy seats, baskets, and bent-back handlebars.