While bikes are on the rise in many cities across the US and Europe, there’s a bit of alarming news lately. Thought of as the most bike-loving city in the country, Portland, OR has stagnated at only a 6% mode share for years. Even worse, a new quasi-scientific poll found that students at Portland State University, the city’s largest academic institution, were actually ditching their bikes in favor of driving more.
Such news typically sends the educated cycling masses into fits of over-analysis and explanation: either the data is inaccurate, the change is temporary, the numbers will improve once projects XYZ are finished, or they simply accept the cause is lost due to lack of political will or failure to frame the cause sufficiently. It’s a little like watching the 5 stages of accepting death, but all at the same time.
Active transit advocates cling to statistics like gospel in some cases and dismiss them as heresy in others. We know cycling to be one of the lowest possible causes of head injury – while helmets do next to nothing to project the head from a motor vehicle collision. Yet these facts are routinely ignored in favor of anecdotal evidence about one guy one time who swears his life was saved by a Styrofoam hat, so you’d be foolish not to wear one all the time too, right?
Some argue this obsession with promoting safety has actually done it’s own harm to the cycling movement. The more safety is the focus, the more people fear riding bikes. I’ll let others debate whether this is statistically true, as it’s largely wasted energy. What we can take away from the safety-patroller toolbox is their utilization of anecdotal evidence. Therein lies a new way to measure cycling’s success.
Rather than calculating exactly how many people ride each and ever day, instead count the number of new friends you’ve made from riding. Count the relationships you’ve maintained over the years due to bikes. Better yet, don’t even count, just ask yourself how many it feels like.
Is that number increasing or decreasing? Chances are the more you ride, the more friends you’re going to have who ride – likely you’ll have more friends period. That’s a very favorable thing, because it illustrates the undeniable proof of the positive social networks that bikes have a unique ability to construct.
These connections are the very essence of community – they’re why we choose to cram ourselves into polluted, noisy cities in the first place. Here lies the true value of the bike, beyond it’s money-saving and planet-greening capacity. This is how we should be metering our success. While the number of people riding may stagnate or even drop occasionally, there’s solid evidence the social circuitry of bicyclists continues to strengthen.
So let the data-miners scrutinize their charts and scratch their heads. Let’s go use our bikes to find even more comrades. Help encourage a few novices you know to start riding more, offer them mechanical assistance, teach them what you know to keep their ride safe and fun. Invite someone to a ride who might otherwise not join on their own. Introduce them to people you care about, they’ll likely leave with a positive experience they’ll want to repeat. It’s the basics that work the best.
Most basic of all, do what you do best – just keep cycling.