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Cultural Indicator


Remember how the Segway was going to revolutionize everything? Back in 2001, pre-launch hoopla proclaimed that it was going to be the biggest breakthrough in transportation since the car, and that entire cities would be retrofitted to accommodate this revolutionary device.

We all know the rest of the story; Segways are now relegated to use by packs of paunchy tourists and the occasional lazy parking cop. What began with so much promise became a subject of mockery, its fate sealed by bans in cities worldwide, by the recent disbanding of the Segway Enthusiast Group of America, and by the unintentional death of the owner of the Segway Company, who plunged off a cliff on his estate while riding – of course — a Segway.

The bicycle, however, has fared far better in recent years. No fancy gyroscopes or price tags. Just good solid 19th century engineering and a growing mass of citizens and city planners contributing to the biggest bike boom since Jimmy Carter was in office. While most of the cycling enthusiasts in the 1970s went for Euro-style 10-speed racing bikes, the latest biking boom was led by an entirely different aesthetic — the fixed-gear bike.

Just as skateboarding started out on the fringes with a few surfer kids in LA, and grew to become a highly commercialized, but still “cool” mega-subculture, fixies came out of urban messenger culture, and in the past few years have taken on a life of their own. Messengers used fixed-gear bikes because they were cheap, fast, and durable. They were essentially the same as 19th century “track” bikes — widespread for racing and recreation before the invention of the derailleur, which allows for multiple gears. Riding a fixie requires a certain zenlike mastery of the bike and the roads — braking requires anticipating stops and pedaling backwards, and coasting is simply impossible. Fixies are more dangerous and difficult to drive than bikes with gears and brakes, but this is part of their mystique. A master fixie rider exudes a skateboarderly sense of balance and rhythm and physical grace, merging the ability to zip through traffic quick, and then come to a perfect standing stop upon the pedals at just the right moment, defying gravity and leaving car-bound onlookers stuck in glacial traffic feeling as uncool as a Segway-rider.

It was only a matter of time before urban hipsters adopted the fixie. They’d already been toting messenger bags around, and this just completed the look. The rise of the fixie tracked along with the rise of the sustainability movement — fashion statements and eco-gestures became one, as people began to customize their beautifully minimalist fixies in obsessive ways that evoked the freshly car-obsessed teens of the 1950s.

Bicycle use in the US is now at an all-time high. It’s gone up 70% in the past decade, much more so in cities that are taking steps to become bicycle friendly. Gas is ever-pricier, electric cars are still mostly a fantasy (and where does that electricity come from, anyhow?), and 25% of all Gen Y-ers don’t even bother getting driver’s licenses these days. While fixies may’ve led the current biking revolution, all bleeding-edge indicators point to cargo bikes as the way of the future. If we look to countries with mature biking cultures, like Denmark and Holland, or to US cities like Portland and Minneapolis, where biking beyond occasional recreation is attaining critical mass (although bike commuting is still only 6% in Portland and 3.5% in Minneapolis), we can see the glimmerings of a full-on cargo bike culture. These bikes aren’t made to be the fastest or the sleekest, they’re made to actually hold the stuff of life — which is what bikes will need to do in order to become part of the fabric of American culture. Long tails and cargo bays allow for bikes to become truly practical — carrying much more than just a single skinny hipster, cargo bikes such as the Bakfiets can haul groceries, kids, pets, freecycled furniture, and even spare hipsters.

As long as we’re dwelling on the bleeding edges, we’ll put out a wild proposal. The next alternative transportation frontier — inspired by the depth of the DIY movement, and encouraged by such websites as AmishOrHipster, as well as the appearance of Amish chic on recent runways and the growing re-aestheticization of the Old West — is the horse and buggy revival. While this may be impractical in hamlets like Portland or Brooklyn, the recent shift of the edgiest creative class out of cities (see yarnbombing) might just herald the rebirth of this one. And if the makers have their way, it’ll look like nothing we’ve seen before.

Why cultural indicators?

© egg, 2012. Excerpt from upcoming book by Hilary Bromberg, The Birth of Neonaturism.