It still is, isn’t it?
It is in some places, less so in others. In Latin America, from Chile and Brazil to Colombia, Panama, Peru, Ecuador, and Mexico, it is going strong. But I had an insight during the two weeks I recently spent in Chile at the Forum Mundial de Bicicleta 5 (#FMB5). Amidst presentations on all matters bicycle-related, from street designs and accessibility, to the important feminist impulse that is pushing many women to use the bicycle as a literal vehicle of personal emancipation (echoing their 19th century ancestors), to countless presentations on urban planning and livable cities, it suddenly dawned on me that we’re living through a very specific period of history. From about 1990-2020 we are transitioning from the twentieth-century commitment to automobiles to a multi-modal approach to urban transportation that foregrounds bicycling and walking, supplemented by public transit.
To be sure there are still strong political and economic forces putting up major resistance to this transition, especially given the central role of the automobile and oil industries in most industrialized economies. But literally millions of citizens across the world are “voting” on this directly by getting on bicycles and changing their daily behavior. This didn’t erupt from a policy decision on-high by some bureaucrat, but rather an urgent need by people in cities everywhere to address the ridiculous irrationality of endless traffic congestion, horrible air pollution, catastrophic collisions, neighborhoods devastated by being engineered to accommodate maximum space for high speed car use and no-speed car parking, perpetual indebtedness to pay for car costs, and so on. As social solidarity has been torn apart in societies everywhere by the horrible consequences of neoliberal capitalism and austerity, a new kind of solidarity around the embrace of the bicycle has helped many to find a remarkably joyful connection to their sister and brother cyclists.
This “bike culture solidarity” is largely a middle- and upper-middle-class phenomenon. Poor people have been bicycling through the whole of the 20th century without making a political or cultural issue of it. Once the bike culture started to catch on during the past generation, it took root among the parts of the population who were perhaps most separated from the kind of everyday solidarity that has always been the hallmark of poorer communities. In places like Mexico, it is still not uncommon to hear people dismiss so-called “backward” small towns as “Pueblos Bicicleteros,” to denote their lack of modernity. But in a delicious turnabout, those towns can now claim to have leapfrogged the stupidity of 20th century modernism to embrace a fully modern 21st century sensibility rooted in a shared and ecologically grounded consciousness, and at ease with self-propelled mobility as a sensible first choice in lieu of oil-and-auto dependency.