Cycling and the Professional Image
Kern Trembath

In the June issue of The Bike People, I wrote a short article [Cycling and Service] about what it is like to be a cyclist in America (or at least in Indiana), which I combined with reflections on what it is like to be a vegetarian and a university professor as well.  Richard asked me to contribute a few more thoughts on the professional image of a cyclist to this issue, and, as before, I am honored to think that he and you might be interested in them.

There are several images that come to mind, of course, when I think of professionals who cycle regularly.  In no special order, they are caring, healthy, sacrificing, and activist.  In spite of what I just said, "caring" is probably the most important of these simply because, in my experience at least, it is the core value that is relentlessly present when all sorts of impediments arise to resist getting back on the saddle.  Rain, poor surfaces, mean motorists, extreme temperatures, and lots of other factors conspire (sometimes singularly, sometimes in the aggregate) to discourage me from riding, and the most constant value I rely on to combat them is, I have noticed, care.  Sometimes it is care for the environment, or for the motorists who will have one less car blocking their drive to work, or for the county politicians who tax me at motorists' rates but do not have to worry about my degrading their roads at motorists' rates, or for my body both now and years in the future, or for my family who will not (I am gambling) have to worry about spending buckets of money to keep dear old Dad in a long-term nursing home.  But it is the same essential "care" that is at the core of all of these.

Regular cyclists are also activists -- in the political sense in addition to the more obvious physiological.  I honestly don't know why this is.  But it is a fact that I do not know a single cycle-commuter in the South Bend area who is not also a regular participant in political and social events.  Much of the time, not surprisingly, these events involve cycle-promotion.  But in several instances that I can think of, the activism takes the form of politics, or social work, or religious commitments, or environmentalism.  As I say, I do not always know why this happens, but "coincidence" seems the least likely rationale.  Maybe the additional time spent riding rather than driving gives the mind more time to think of these things...and commit to them.

Anyone reading any issue of The Bike People already knows this much -- and probably a great deal more.  What I would like to spend more time on, therefore, is the professional image of the cyclist as seen by non-cyclists.  What do others think, that is, as they glance at us through windshields?  Once again, several images come to mind.

I have been cycling nearly all of my life, but it was only in 1990 that I made a deliberate commitment to ride instead of drive wherever reasonable.  (True confessions time: I bought a '68 912 Porsche in the fall of 1996, which I sold in early winter of 1998.  My annual bike mileage, normally between 3500 and 4000 miles, inexplicably dropped to 1200 miles in 1997.  That cured me of thinking that I could maintain my commitment to cycle while owning a loveable car!)  In those years, I have noticed a change in drivers' habits around here that may also be evident elsewhere.  The best way to describe that change is to report the results of a very personal and unscientific survey I made in 1991 and '92.  During those years, my health was endangered, on average, every 100 miles, and my life was endangered every 225 miles.  I have not continued keeping those statistics (after a while, they got depressing!), but I do know that this year, they are vastly more encouraging.

This signals a change in something.  What, is not quite as certain.  I tend to think that most motorists are increasingly aware that the factors which prompted most of us to convert to cycling are themselves reasonable: health, congestion mitigation, air quality, diminishing oil reserves, and fun.  (Yes, fun.  Adult fun.  Cycling gets you to work in a mood that is noticeably different from that which driving leaves you in.  This isn't trivial.)  While they are not yet ready to make the same conversion themselves, they are less convinced that it is unthinkable.

Two more matters related to this point.  First, while many boomers-cum-yuppies-cum-SUV drivers still think of bikes as Sting Rays with banana seats, and adult riders accordingly, the increasing sophistication and cost of cycles today make that stereotype less holdable.  No two ways about it: if a driver passes me with any idea of what I shelled out for a safe and sturdy bike (to say nothing of the peripherals I opt to include to get my clothes and lunch safely to my office), she is far less likely to think of either me or my bike as disposable.

Second, I can't finish without a grateful plug for TEA-21, and the thousands of cyclists (and others) who drowned Congress in protests against the once-certain demise of ISTEA.  (More truth in advertising: I am the cyclists' representative on the Indiana Trails Advisory Board, the name that this state gave to the group mandated by ISTEA to advise the Departments of Natural Resources and Transportation to officially receive and distribute ISTEA funds.)  TEA-21 is the successor to ISTEA, notable in the first instance for its mere existence, but in addition for the much larger pot of federal dollars available for trails enhancement and non-motorized transportation over the next 5 years, and the simultaneous greater leverage that local communities have over these federal dollars.  (ISTEA required 50-50 federal-local dollar sharing, while TEA-21 improves that ratio to 80-20.)  This too signals a change which impacts the professional image of cyclists.  Before ISTEA, there were next to no federal dollars pushing local intransigents to consider cycle enhancements.  Now, but especially by the time TEA-21 comes up for re-authorization in 2003, there will be hundreds of billions of such dollars floating in the eyes and budgets of those intransigents.  Any wonder why their ranks are slowly shrinking?   In this area as in so many others, money talks.  And what it is saying with increasing volume is: it is anti-American to be anti-bike.

None of this will be of much comfort to you the next time an urban assault vehicle pushes you off the road that your tax dollars paid for.  What it means, though, is that this country is in the midst of a paradigm shift that promises fewer and fewer such drivers in the upcoming years and decades.  As with so many other areas of American life, we are learning that getting to work deserves to be as enjoyable and creative as the job itself.  And we are learning as well that stereotypical professional ways of getting to work are as valuable in 1998 as were professional ways of dressing for work in 1958: darn close to zero.

If you cycle-commute regularly, keep it up.  If you do so irregularly, try increasing your rate one or two days per week or month.  When drivers or colleagues look sideways at you, remember that they are on the wrong side of the paradigm shift.  And remember, too, that they are more than a little envious of your commute miles in contrast with theirs.

See you on our way to work.

Kern R. Trembath, Ph.D.,
Assistant Chairman
Department of Theology
The University of Notre Dame