Yesterday I went over to the Pedal Nation
show at the Oregon Convention Center. Mostly a bicycle trade show for the public, I nonetheless found a few items of interest that our shop might want to carry. What I didn't find very much of was my own excitement around bicycles and the bike industry. I walked through the entire show several times in two hours and in the end left feeling sort of underwhelmed and glad I hadn't actually paid to get in.
There were some lovely things on display: craft-built bikes of all shapes and sizes, some sharp-looking clothing designed to be comfortable on the bike and stylish enough to wear to a restaurant, and some interesting new technologies (including a hub with gradual, clickless shifting). I had brought some money in case I found something that caught my eye, but in the end I left without buying anything. I work in the industry, of course, so what could I possibly need at the show that I couldn't buy for cost-plus-ten at work -- or that I couldn't find a way to make myself out of repurposed materials? (Instead of selling bags of repurposed materials, why not teach classes so folks can learn to make their own stuff out of repurposed materials?)
On another level, this felt deeper, older; I felt a lot of longing for the days when Citybikes was a shop that sold only used bikes, and when everyone who worked at Citybikes was of one mind regarding making bikes not only sustainable, but truly affordable. We all dressed down, wore old and sometimes ratty clothes we'd gotten at Goodwill or found hanging on a nail at a construction site; every committee and general meeting was catered by potluck and we broke early to go for a bike ride somewhere. And we felt a little more relaxed about dealing with the many homeless and truly destitute folks who came through our doors, and felt happy when we could get them back on a bike and down the road.
Today our shop sells mostly new bikes ranging in price from roughly $500 to $1500 each, and a smaller quantity of refurbished/overhauled used bikes for around $350 and up. Although we still welcome anyone who comes in to buy a bike or accessories or to get an existing bike repaired, there's a tension now whenever someone who is obviously destitute comes in, because we have far fewer things in the shop that person can actually afford. And when someone comes into our shop, see what the bikes are going for, and walks out again with a frown and a sad shrug, and I KNOW it's because we've gotten more expensive, I feel sad.
I feel sad because we're no longer the kind of shop that encourages folks to build their own cargo bikes or trailers out of shopping carts, no longer the kind of shop that says yes, you CAN ride your bike all day in blue-jeans if that's what you've got and it won't kill you, and look, see how you can make your own messenger bag out of inner tubes or repurposed advertising banners.
We can't encourage all that creativity if it means folks won't buy the ready-made stuff from us. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.
I went to a bike show yesterday where no one was talking about $200 or $300 bicycles, but $200 and $300 components
for bicycles; where a pair of bike shorts that looked rather like a pair of ordinary walking shorts but with a center crotch panel and a pocket for your mini U-lock retailed for $90 a pair; and where I saw a beautiful front-loading cargo bike that would retail for just under $3,000 fully built.
Don't get me wrong; that we can now see a cargo bike for just under $3,000 is an indication of how affordable these things are becoming, and I am glad that we're moving in that direction. But we need to move there faster, and without a shred of pretension.
What I want to see -- and what I think we need to see -- is a time when we see really well-designed, utilitarian cargo bikes for under a thousand bucks. Because today you can get a used car with bad paint and a decent engine for just under $3,000 these days, and it's that kind of comparison that we're up against when we try to sell bikes as transportation to the masses. The masses may not be interested in whether a frame is craft-built or factory-built, they may just want a good bike for an affordable price. They may not be so interested in cool, hip, natural-fiber clothing that's sutainably made, maybe they just want a bike they can ride somewhere in whatever they pulled off the top of the clean laundry pile that morning.
Or -- and this is what I really fear is happening -- The masses DO want style and fashion and a sense of bike chic, they DO want the fancier bike and bike clothes because it makes them look cooler than their neighbors -- because designers and advertisers and marketers have taught them to want it. What's more, anyone with a decent paycheck is willing to pay for that chic without looking further and deeper. And that feels worse, somehow.
I fear that what's happening today with bicycles is what happened with punk -- it got co-opted by marketers and advertised and got turned into something so "cool" that it's in danger of becoming a parody of itself.
We need a bike culture that is no longer a "culture". I saw too much culture at the bike show yesterday and not enough substance, not enough reality about bicycles and their part in re-fashioning a world to make it more affordable and sustainable, and more fair
. I want a bicycle culture that is about making change for all, not only for those with fat wallets. I want bikes to become truly punk again.