In Defense of The Cyclist

A little under a year ago, a fellow contributing writer at The Colgate Maroon-News published an Unpopular Opinion article titled “A Bone to Pick With Bikers,” which aimed to convince readers that cycling is not just an overrated activity, but that cyclists are reprehensible for their “attitude.” 

The article makes some well-argued points, but at a fundamental level, I would argue it’s not at all an unpopular opinion to dislike cyclists. For car drivers especially, who happen to be the majority of Americans, there’s a stereotype of cyclists as aloof, ignorant of traffic laws and a general nuisance on the road. Regardless of whether this stereotype is accurate, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t the consensus image when people imagine cyclists. I hope to offer an alternative perspective that biking is a valuable activity more Americans should do and that the toxic relationship between cyclists and drivers is more a product of poor civic design than any attitudes inherent to either group.

So why bike? Obviously, the health benefits of cycling are well documented, and the popularity of fitness subscription services such as Peloton shows the high demand for this low-impact form of cardio. Regular cycling has been proven to increase aerobic fitness along with muscular strength and endurance. Along with the obvious physical benefits, it has been linked to better mental health and lower stress levels. Cycling incorporates two activities that naturally produce endorphins in the body: spending time outside and exercising, and these hormones curb feelings of depression and anxiety in the brain. Even beyond the health benefits, the beauty of cycling lies in the various ways it can be enjoyed, as there are those who ride competitively, for commuting, or just to get out and enjoy nature. For each type of rider, there is almost always a community of similar-minded people who are willing to answer questions about equipment or recommend the best local bike shops. Group rides on the weekends can be a great way to meet people in your community, and the social aspect of biking is one of its most underrated qualities. Furthermore, the environmental impact of cycling is carbon neutral, while cars are one of the leading causes of climate change due to the CO2 they produce. Many climate scientists and climate activists argue that the expansion of biking as a means of transportation will be a crucial part of curbing global CO2 emissions.

Given all of the positives associated with cycling, we now arrive at the ever-divisive question of why more people don’t bike and why drivers so malign cyclists. To the question of why bikes, especially in the United States compared to other countries, lag so far behind cars as a means of transportation, the answer has a lot to do with urban planning and the design of the American road. The author of the aforementioned “A Bone to Pick With Bikers” article generally disapproves of biking in all its forms, but admits that it makes the most sense in an urban environment given its affordability and convenience. I would add that biking in rural or even suburban areas for leisure can still be very rewarding, but commuting by bike is only really possible in a dense urban environment due to the short distance between work and home. Unfortunately, American cities were designed with solely the car in mind, and for many living an hour away from work in the suburbs, driving or public transit is the only feasible way to commute. A culture of cycling can only flourish in cities with high population densities, supported biking infrastructure, and well-maintained bike lanes. Proof of concept can be seen in the commuter cultures of Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Antwerp. While these cities do benefit from decades of bike-friendly design and the absence of sprawl, there are steps which can be taken to help American cities become more bike-friendly.

When looking at the current state of our roads, the fact of the matter is they can be at best unfriendly towards cyclists and at worst actively hostile towards them. Take for example the roads around Hamilton, which could be classified as the latter. People are more likely to bike when roads are safe, and it’s a rare sight to see a cyclist or a group of cyclists on the roads around town largely due to the generous speed limits and absence of bike lanes. The unfortunate reality for most drivers and cyclists in Hamilton and across the country is that by design they must share the road, to generally mixed results. It should be noted that people seem to be more likely to commute by bike when roads are safe, and by neglecting the safety of bikers through poor road design, the only groups foolhardy enough to brave the road are typically amateur competitive cyclists. These are the folks who are willing to break traffic laws in the name of getting the fastest local times, and it’s unfortunate that they shape the stereotype when most who ride do so abiding by the rules of the road.

Nonetheless, biking to commute or as part of a daily routine is a foreign idea for many regular drivers, and for those driving to work or on errands the common attitude is: “why should your hobby take priority over my necessity?” While this attitude might seem reasonable at the moment, if we reflect further we can see how the ambivalence towards cyclists can contribute to unsafe roads, in turn causing fewer people to commute by bike while only the most ambitious cyclists remain on the road. This sad state of affairs need not be our reality, however, as by creating more incentives to commute by bike, like safer roads and less car-centric urban designs, we can help cycling transition from a niche hobby to a realistic way of navigating around one’s community.