Bicycles have already become an essential part of our culture, but now they're shaping our urban and social spaces too.
While New Yorkers pride themselves on always being first, the city is just catching up when it comes to bikes. In fact, the bicycle is the most commonly used mode of transportation around the world. Think of a bike as a tool, a toy, a connector and a mode of expression with a low barrier to entry. It's probably the most hackable (and hacked) simple machine on the planet. Bikes not only get us from place to place, they are the focus of a number of conversations about how we organize communities and define and share social boundaries, and how we can harness human power to recycle energy back to the grid. Most importantly though, bicycles are an intrinsic part of how we imagine and design the city of the future. They will play a significant role in shaping identity and communities and influencing social dynamics in urban areas, because they are the next great technology platform.
Mode of Self-Expression
Most people remember their first bike. Mine was a BMX, which immediately gave me a shared identity with the coolest guys I knew. It also made me more adventurous. I felt I could go anywhere and do anything because my BMX gave me freedom not only to roam, but also for self-expression. I customized my bike to look like my favorite BMXer bikes. But it wasn't just about the look; the changing features and functionality I made were my first steps toward creativity and experimentation. I tweaked the bolts on the front axel so they accommodated foot pegs I had fashioned to do certain tricks. I designed and built my own ramps to help me jump higher. Bikes were already inspiring me to add things to my environment. I was becoming a designer.
Here in New York we're seeing that search for self-expression on a much larger scale in the form of subcultures like the Black Label Bicycle Club, a so-called "outlaw bike club" whose members custom-make "mutant" cycles known as tall bikes (two conventional bike frames soldered one atop the other). This community of bikers go dumpster diving for spare parts. They also find vegetables to share at vegan meals, an activity directly tied to ideas about reusing resources wasted by others.
Black Label and similar groups can also be seen as a form of anarchic and anti-consumerist expression, as symbols of freedom. Bicycle culture is their inspiration to live off the grid. My brother has traveled to New York from Nashville several times to participate in Black Label's annual "Bike Kill" tall bike jousting event. He often travels here via a tight network of tall bikers that can be likened to an underground railroad, a community that connects cities.
Go to a bike shop in your neighborhood and you're likely to find a social space where you can not only buy a new saddle, but also get in touch with like-minded members of the biking community. People swap ride stories and repair tips. Bike shops are community hubs, where groups and new friendships are forged and social activism takes root.
Bicycles help create cohesion in communities and aid social services, especially in developing countries. In many African countries -- Zambia, for example, where frog has worked on projects -- bicycles are converted (or hacked) into makeshift ambulances that help voluntary health workers transport women in labor to far away birthing centers. Bicycles are also used to stay in touch with mothers after the birth to ensure adherence to HIV testing programs for the infant, as well to deliver critical services.
Shared Social Space