Monday, July 30, 2012

Making cycling an accessible form of transport

In Japan, nearly everyone uses a bicycle as a form of transport at least some of the time. In Japan, nobody wears Lycra to get to work, or wherever else they might be going; Lycra wearers are rare and seen only on weekends when they're out for a ride. Everyday cyclists just wear whatever they're going to wear at their destination, be that jeans and a t-shirt, long flowing skirts, or a business suit.

In Australia, very few people use a bicycle as a form of transport. In Australia, Lycra wearers make up a large proportion of regular adult cyclists. Even those who aren't wearing Lycra frequently wear sporty clothes (and a hi-vis vest), and get changed when they reach their destination.

My bike has a brown seat and handles
When I returned from my year in Japan, I ditched my mountain bike and bought a vintage-styled bike. It's not a particularly good bike. It's not even good as the bike I had in Japan, despite coming with less included and costing more. It's pretty heavy for a start, and the gearing doesn't have as much range as I'd like. Unfortunately, bikes like the one I wanted are uncommon in Australia, and there's not much choice except beautiful but $1000+ European brands rather than the plethora of $100-$200 choices available in Japan. Despite all these gripes, I wouldn't swap my rather cheap new bike for either a top-of-the-line road or mountain bike. What it gives me is freedom and flexibility and comfort:
  • The step-through frame combined with a chain guard means that I can wear a skirt or dress when cycling. My wardrobe is not limited by what is bike-safe. In Japan, men use step-through frames too, because it allows carrying a large load on the back (or, frequently, a passenger), without having to swing one's leg over the load.
  • I have a basket in the front, and have just added one at the back. I can carry my uni books or a small grocery run, and won't get a sweaty back from wearing a backpack.
  • The upright posture is much more comfortable. My neck doesn't get sore from having to look up to see in front of me, I'm naturally looking out rather than down. Also, I don't need to worry about exposing (and burning) skin where my shirt meets my pants.
  • No more sore bum, even with the standard seat. Also, I found that my bike in Japan with suspension only in the seat was more comfortable to ride over rough ground than Hunter's mountain bike with full suspension. This was mostly because on an upright bike, your hands aren't weight bearing, so you don't get jarring through your arms.

A lot of effort is being made by various groups to try and increase the number of cyclists and thus take cars off the road, but they're doing it all wrong. The message that people receive is that in order to ride a bike to work, they need a fancy expensive bike and get kitted out in full Lycra. This is bound to intimidate more people than it encourages. There needs to be a greater range of options, to suit different attitudes to cycling, and the Japanese/European styled commuter bike has the potential to appeal to a much broader cross-section of society than the high-end bikes. If instead cycling is made accessible to the ordinary person, by showing them how simple it can be to just jump on a bike at point A, and hop off it again at point B, without the need for a change of clothes, a shower, or a race against the cars, how many more people could we take out of cars and put onto bikes?

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