Environmentalism and the bicycle


When bicycles first appeared in the late 1800s the Industrial Revolution was fully underway. Bikes allowed factory workers to get quicker into cities and allowed people to work at a factory in places they didn’t live. Unlike horses bikes didn’t require food nor did they take up so much space. In quite a few ways bicycles were the ideal companion to a new city life, until of course cars and motorcycles came along.

Although bikes continue to be used today as a means of transport, they are usually associated with environmentalism, the green movement and the great outdoors more so than industrialised cities and factories and the ways of the Industrial Revolution

Somewhat ironically we see that nowadays bicycles are seen as a solution to over-industrialisation and the pollution factories brings when bicycles themselves are a result, directly or indirectly, of the replaceable parts and the Industrial Revolution.

Now cyclists can be linked with environmentalists. The Critical Mass movement started in 1993 in San Francisco and has since now spread throughout the entire world. Traditionally held on the last Friday of the month, this movement is an organised bike ride through a given city with the intention of raising awareness about the toxic pollution that cars create and tries to offer alternative methods of transport, namely bicycles. So influential has the movement become that directors Elizabeth Press and Andrew Lynn created a short documentary entitled ‘Still We Ride’ documenting the Critical Mass movement in New York City. Nowadays in Asia there are Critical Mass demonstrations in Hong Kong, Taipei, Karachi and Jakarta, and in Europe they’re a regular occurrence in cities like Vienna, Berlin, Bratislava and Brussels.

Not all people who bike are environmentalists. Recently years some cyclists have tried to put distance between themselves and environmentalist issues. They argue that by being closely associated with environmentalists cyclists curtail the appeal of bicycling. Those who don’t share environmentalist values, could be reluctant to take the bike to work, one arguements. These cyclists also say that it’s more about image than ideas in some cases.

On the whole, cyclists tend to have a green world view. Cycling has had a association with progressive ideologies that goes back for a long while. For example, about a hundred ago bicycles were closely tied to the feminist cause and suffragette movement. In a repressive society, bicycle allowed women to be less reliant on men and this allowed them to go places and meet people without needing a male guardian. These days independence is thankfully less of an issue for cyclists but they still often  focus on policies that better society by creating a space for clean living.

Whether one is interested in cycling for ideological reasons or simply for sport it’s clear that bicycles have become an important part of many people’s lives. By allowing inexpensive and fast transportation to next the village over or the opposite side of the city, bicycles are still one of the defining features of our age.