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Toys, or Why’d It Fail?

(Featured photo from Hudson Reporter)

In my first post I said that I understand myself to be in a lineage of primarily urban cycling blogs. I also noted morosely that what seemed like a flourishing movement for “transportation cycling” faded away quietly toward the end of the 2010s. This is something confirmed by Shawn over at Urban Adventure League. What I’m doing here seems a bit anachronistic. The times have moved on.

I have often wondered about why it faded. Was it simply a matter of idealistic youth growing into adulthood? Did some of the figures get roadie-pilled and trade their baskets for Enve forks? I don’t pretend to know why with anything like scientific clarity. And yet I have a quiet sense that urban cycling got swallowed up in urbanism and its adulation for and unqualified trust in what I’m going to call, urbanist toys.

The toys were each a tool in a multi-pronged attack on car culture, we were told. Each Car2Go on a side street was one less car on the road. Because adding cars makes others go away. Likewise each e-Scooter blocking a sidewalk was yet another car not on the road. Just as private fleets of self-driving cars were going to replace single occupancy vehicles and even public transit, so also every bike share program was going to put an additional nail in the coffin of auto-dependency.

But Car2Go has left every US city. Several scooter companies went under in the pandemic, and those that are still around still annoy the hell out of me. I’ve cleared three scooters parked overnight in bike lanes just this week on my rides into work. And I fear the most recent praise for ebikes-as-social-program is but the newest phase in this love of toys.

The coincidence of the rise of toys and fall of transportation bike culture may be a mere correlation. I know my basic logical fallacies. But if I cannot demonstrate a causal relationship, I can at least see where trends coalesced.

If there is a future for “transportation cycling” in the US it will only come through the physical reordering of space; the redesign of our built infrastructure, and not by private consumer toys. As far as what our cities should look like, the goal should be to do a Paris: Rapidly and systematically invest in infra changes.

Paris, France

But there is something else I think “transportation cycling” should happily embrace, and this is the wide tire or all-road bike revolution. In the time since the mid 2010s it has finally become accepted wisdom that when the tire is supple, wider is the way to go. Various flavors of adventure cycling have grown in popularity and there is no reason why a well-designed “urban bike” can’t be perfectly capable of “bikepacking” or of “gravel riding.” The things that make for a good “commuting” bike are pretty much what make for a good touring rig. Which is why I think we can safely leave behind “transportation, commuting,” and even “urban” categories, at least with respect to the kinds of bikes we promote and adopt. It’s why I have used the term “complete bike.” I love a good Oma fiets as much now as I did in 2015, my Rivendell Clem is nearly a variation on one, but in addition to those historic machines we might gain traction by not only emphasizing the merely functional. Let us tap into the exploratory as well.


4 responses to “Toys, or Why’d It Fail?”

  1. Really enjoying your posts! As a texan we are constantly dealing with the pervasive car culture here… always pushing people to think outside the box of what bikes can do for them beyond sport and the fable of “racing”

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Good post again, Tony. While “urbanists” who like new toys may have been part of the Practical Bike Movement of a decade ago, I don’t think most of the bloggers were. I’m pretty sure that most of them were passionate about actual bikes. But “complete” bikes is a small niche. I’m guessing that most of them said what they had to say, then stopped. I never ran into that problem as my blog isn’t just about practical bikes.

    Ironically enough, today I got an email from Car2Go saying that they are back.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I wonder about this, too! A lot of my friends that used to be full-time cyclists and really pushed for urban cycling finally gave in and bought cars over the last, I dunno, ten years? Many of them do also bicycle–to work, to closer errands, for fun. But there’s less energy around cycling.
    Honestly, at least amongst my friends, two things happened:
    1. It become prohibitively expensive for a lot of people to live in close-in Portland unless their income grew a great deal.
    2. A lot of them got married and/or had kids, and living with multiple roommates in a cheap old house just didn’t appeal anymore, and between that and the costs skyrocketing, they moved further out, where everything is a longer, less-pleasant trip on a bicycle. And that’s before you include the pain in the butt of riding with kids.
    I still live in the same place I did when I was 28, in 2008–but I also don’t have kids and prefer living with roommates. I’m in a run-down 70’s-era townhouse that despite yearly increases is below market for being so close-in, and I am in constant fear of losing this place, because once I do I just won’t be able to live this close-in anymore.
    I think people just have less energy, too–I look at my journal entries in the late 00’s, when I was doing multiple bicycle rides every weekend, many of which were drunken party rides, and just reading about it makes me tired!
    My partner has a car, and being able to get a ride to the cheaper grocery store when it’s raining and dark and cold is nice, I’m not gonna lie.
    ANYWAY that was all a very long answer for “we grew up” and “the infrastructure didn’t change so drastically in a positive direction in that time frame, that adults with kids making average incomes could easily bicycle everywhere”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The struggle is real! I do have a car for the record, but I usually only use it a couple times a week, to take the kids somewhere and to do a big grocery run. As you say, it is quite convenient for that, and since I’ve got to shop for four it’s much easier to get a big trip in one go rather than multiple smaller trips, even though that’s what I prefer.

      More than a few of my friends moved to the burbs, which simply requires driving in order to exist. Everyday cycling seems possible only in an urban environment, or at least a town without sprawl. “Old downtowns” could work! But then one would have to live and work in the same town. I think the choice to live in a different city than where one works is an instant death knell to what we do.

      I wish I had more time to do tours, but it doesn’t fit well into my schedule except for special occasions, so the best I can do is a few sport rides a month. Even still I put in about, I estimate, 400 miles a month. That ain’t nothin!


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