All Photos by Mark Green / The Urban Country
Our Asia correspondent Mark Green snapped some lovely photographs of bicycles in Vietnam on his last visit to that fascinating country. These photos show how bicycles are used by normal people in normal clothes as transportation – the way bicycles were meant to be used when the current form of bicycle was invented 125 years ago.
We can learn a lot from developing countries. People there use bicycles because they are affordable, useful, efficient and convenient. They don’t worship their bicycles, or even admire their bicycles – rather they see them as a tool that serves a useful purpose.
There are no logos or brands – just bicycles, and people going about their daily business. They don’t need any special gear, and they aren’t racing to their destination.
Unfortunately here in North America, bicycles are seen by many as pure recreation – hence the passion that is ignited whenever we talk about helmets. A common argument for helmets is “I routinely ride faster than 50km/h. I wouldn’t be caught dead without my helmet”.
Nobody on this website is talking about racing bicycles, or bicycles as a sport. That area of cycling is healthy and it’s not in anybody’s best interest for us to advocate for more sweaty men in lycra.
What we’re promoting here is bicycling as transportation. Bicycling in your regular clothes – going about your regular business, saving some money, and getting exercise in return.
Just last night I was told by a suburban Toronto Tweeter that bicycles are for ravines and valleys – not for roads.
“Toronto aint 19th Century France. #velomadness”, this Tweeter quipped.
I suggested that this person stay in his suburban town and enjoy his SUVs, four car garage, and bumper-to-bumper-five-km/h-traffic-congestion. Toronto doesn’t need another ignorant buffoon telling us bicycles shouldn’t be allowed on roads. We have enough of those here – one of which is leading the race to become mayor.
Over in Asia, although car use is on the rise, governments are still doing much more to provide safe routes for bicycles to be used as transportation than most cities in North America.
While exploring China’s bicycle infrastructure earlier this year I discovered special parking spaces for handicap bicyclists in Shanghai. Simply amazing.
Similarly, while touring Vietnam, Mark discovered a wheel-chair-bike being used to transport an elderly lady. Fascinating.
Mark also captured photos of these kids doubling up on their lovely little bikes with front baskets (Here in Toronto, it’s against the law to have two people on a bicycle):
In North America, we look at the automobile as “moving forward”, but in reality the automobile has moved us backwards. It has created fat, stressed out, heart-disease-ridden, gridlocked nations.
Sure, we may have much more material wealth than the average Vietnamese person. But while they are happily enjoying their trip to their destination, most North Americans are staring at the bumper of the car in front of them.
James D. Schwartz is the editor of The Urban Country. You can contact James at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Utility Cycling in China (May 2010)
- Bicycles for Transporting… [fill in the blank] (May 2010)
- Shanghai Cycle Chic (May 2010)
- Pedaling Haikou City, China (video) (May 2010)
- Handicap Bike Parking (May 2010)
Great post, you make the “normalcy” case wonderfully.
I’m interested in the “status anxiety” around bikes though. Do North-Americans think city-biking is just for the third world? Sort of like European royalty wearing silks: I know silk rips / cars are expensive and polluting: by wasting my money this way I show how wonderfully rich I am.
How many “average Vietnamese” people did you ask ? I suspect that many of them would actually jump at the chance to drive a car if it were offered to them.
Just look what has happened in China as soon as cars became affordable and available. There may be some traces of the cycling culture there left, but people are abandoning bikes as quickly as they can.
I’m not happy about this, but I think it demonstrates one thing: It’s a completely different thing to achieve a high cycling rate where people can afford cars than to have one where there is little choice but to cycle.
David, the point of the article wasn’t to judge these people based on whether they would jump at the chance to drive an automobile or not.
The point was to highlight that these people use bicycles because they are affordable, useful and fun. Of course someone who grew up with next to nothing would jump at the chance to drive a car if the opportunity came.
Cars symbolize success and wealth, and when people grow up in really difficult conditions, they can only dream of having wealth.
But the point is, when the wealth increases in these countries, and they are sitting in 100km-long traffic jams, they will remember how good they had it when it was just them and their bicycle.
Yes, the Netherlands is really far ahead of everyone else in the world because they *choose* to ride bicycles – they aren’t forced to because of economic conditions. That’s great, it’s amazing.
But I also like to share stories about how well bicycles serve a useful purpose in other parts of the world – even if the automobile threatens their very existence.
Reverend, you make a good point. People are very materialistic in the western world (especially in cities like LA). But that’s why I think the Netherlands is a great role model even for the most materialistic status-craving individual.
People can still express themselves and flaunt their wealth on a bicycle. When it becomes trendy to ride a bicycle, you will see wealthy (and wanna-be wealthy) people riding fancy Dutch bikes, with fashionable, expensive clothes.
This is already happening in the mainstream media with Hollywood stars riding bicycles – and there are plenty of music videos featuring bicycles as of late.
The ‘Cycle Chic’ movement is contributing to starting a trend in North America where people ride sexy bikes in stylish clothes.
David Hembrow will tell you that people in the Netherlands have no interest in flaunting their wealth, but this is very ingrained in our society in North America, so if we want to sell bicycling to a wide audience, we need to embrace it.
While there certainly are issues of materialism/status in the Western world (and really most of the rest of the world) I don’t know that materialism plays a huge role in why America is not Amsterdam. I think a lot of the reason has to do with how our cities developed.
Much of the growth and development of U.S. cities and infrastructure really happened after streetcars, light rail and then cars made long commutes possible. Couple that with zoning laws separating residential areas from business areas, and most Americans just end up living, working and shopping differently than city folks who can grab a few groceries at a time at the corner bodega.
All of that has been in place for a while, and it shapes our transportation needs — so I think much of our self-flagellation about not being Amsterdam is unnecessary. People commuting an hour each way or more by car in Atlanta, Houston or L.A. or a lot of other cities, or the large portion of the population living in more rural areas, can’t realistically get rid of their cars unless they sell their houses and uproot their families.
That’s not to say that change can’t happen, and there have already been steps in re-urbanization. But change is going to take some time and serious money for some major infrastructure changes.
Rob: Yes, I wasn’t trying to imply that materialism is the cause for us not being more like the Netherlands. I was addressing the question about whether materialism and status could block us from being more like the Netherlands.
While the Netherlands was investing in trains and bike infrastructure, North America was investing in highways. It’s pretty much that simple. Of course the density in the Netherlands makes it easier for train systems to be profitable, and our highway/interstate systems here encouraged sprawl.
But there really isn’t any excuse for our cities not to have bike infrastructure like the Netherlands except for the fact that we built them primarily for automobiles.
In a recent article from David Hembrow, you can see that in the 60’s, the automobile started taking over in the Netherlands. Instead of letting it take over like we did here in North America, they designed their streets to accommodate bikes and automobiles.
There’s really nothing special about this small town in the Netherlands that makes this possible. The photo from the 60’s looks just like an American or Canadian town. They just decided to change it (for the better in my opinion):
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