A few weeks ago, I was asked to take a French radio producer on a tour of Portland’s “environmental obsession.”
One of the first things that came to mind was the city’s bike culture, which I presumed had a lot to do with environmental concerns about burning foreign oil and contributing to climate change. But it appears I might have been mistaken.
I arranged for the producer to interview Jonathan Maus, publisher of the BikePortland blog and chronicler of the city’s bike culture for the past six years. And he said, basically, biking has moved beyond environmentalism to the point where the two are only marginally entwined.
“In the 1970s, there were lots of people who biked for environmental reasons,” he said. “But that’s totally changed now.”
Now, he said, people bike because it’s practical, it's cheaper than driving and taking public transportation, it’s a “stylish” way to get around, it keeps more money in the local economy, and it’s a source of exercise and enjoyment.
“People think the environment is such a big reason,” said Maus. “But the reality is much different. It’s a minor reason. Especially in cities like Portland which have gone way beyond the environmental crowd.”
In fact, he said, a lot of cyclists shirk the environmental label because it can be divisive.
“Cycling should be free of labels,” Maus said. “When you’re told about cycling in a reasonable way – not because you’re with The Sierra Club – you get a lot more respect and good feelings about it.”
Rob Sadowsky, executive director of the cycling advocacy group Bike Transportation Alliance, said his group has done focus groups with around 70 people and asked what entices them to bike. Biking for environmental reasons and economic reasons were consistently at the bottom of the list, he said. At the top: Spending time with family and getting exercise.
“Green doesn't completely sell,” he said. “We already know if someone is composting or taking environmental actions they’re more likely to bike. But they could have a bumper sticker on their Prius that says “My other car is a bike” and not use it. At a core level, it has to connect to them emotionally. And the emotional connection is rarely environmental.”
Sadowsky said environment advocates and cycling advocates sometimes take the same side on political issues – like the Columbia River Crossing bridge project, for example, or gas taxes. But it’s not necessarily because cyclists are biking for environmental reasons, he said.
“Obviously each person is different,” he said. “I'm an environmentalist, but the reason I bike is because it makes me feel good.”
Michael Andersen, who publishes the low-car transportation newsletter Portland Afoot, said the move to separate cycling from environmentalism may be a conscious rebranding effort by advocates trying to attract new recruits.
“There’s not as much force in environmentalism as there was five years ago,” Andersen said. “It’s not as sexy to be associated with. So cyclists who want people to be associated with their movement may be saying ‘We don’t want to be wrapped in this green flag anymore.’”
Andersen said environment may be “the last of the usual suspects” for why people bike, but it still factors in.
“The fact that bicycling is obviously succeeding is due to this mix of factors, some of which are traditional: How fast can I get from A to B? And some of which are squishy, warm, fuzzy things like: How do I feel about my role in society? Even if environment is the tertiary thing. It still looms in peoples minds.”
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