I love the world and have had the pleasure to have worked in a variety of countries. I also like to bike and it’s interesting to see the different bike cultures that exist in different nations. I will attempt to summarize my observations of bicycle commuting from the last three places I have lived: Ecuador, New York, and England (current—notice the Oxford comma).
As a child I rode a bike but only after moving to Ecuador when I was 23 did I ride with any frequency. I bought a mountain bike for $30 at the market and started riding to work. I was living in the center of Latacunga, a small Andean city, and working as an English professor at a university a few miles away. The commute was slightly faster than taking a bus—and saved me the 18 cent fare.
In Ecuador, at least where I was, very few people bicycle commute. In fact, while I did know people who rode bikes, in three years living there I cannot recall meeting anyone who regularly commuted by bike. There wasn’t a single bike lane in the entire city and I rarely passed another cyclist on the cobble stone streets downtown. For all intents and purposes I was treated as a car. I always took the lane and tried hard to keep up with the flow of traffic which moved in fits and starts.
While walking a borrowed street bike with a flat-tire down a sidewalk in Queens an old man came out from his house and asked. “Hey! You need a bike? I’ve got two old ones in my garage that I bought for my kids thirty years ago.” He then simply gave me a rather nice, if old, street bike. When I got a job at the UN I started cycling over the East River and Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan. At forty-five minutes and seven miles it was the longest commute of the three places, but took roughly the same time as the subway and saved me the $2.25 fare.
In the three years while I was in New York the bike commuter culture grew by leaps and bounds. Bike lanes were popping up in new places all the time and I could make most of my trip to work in them. Problem was many people did not respect the bike lanes. Cars drove or parked in them and pedestrians walked through them without looking. Even while more people cycled and the infrastructure improved many people were hostile to cyclists. Cars honking at cyclists was common place. Once, a few blocks before arriving at work, a pedestrian took the effort the step off the curb and yell, “Get a job!” while I passed.
Perhaps because of both the hostility and also the growth of cycling in general, New York is the only place I felt a real cycling community. That’s where I most felt like being a cyclist was a category all on its own. With that camaraderie there is a bit of self-policing, if a cyclist rides the wrong way down a street he should expect to be yelled at by a passing cyclist and riding on the sidewalk is unheard of. It’s also the only place of the three where most people dress different for the ride. Almost everyone wore a helmet and many people wore spandex or otherwise had special clothes that they would change out of later.
Last year I moved to Norwich, England to go back to school. The university held an auction of over a hundred abandoned bikes it had seized over the previous year and I bought one of the cheapest street bikes of the lot for $100. By far, this place is where bikes are the most expensive. This is also the first place where I have cycled on the left side of the road which took some getting used to. My university is about three miles away from my flat downtown and the bicycle gets me there about ten minutes faster than the bus and saves me $4 each trip.
Of the three this is where commute cycling is most common. My university has a ridiculous number of bikes, so many that I may pass multiple bike parking areas with a hundred slots each before I find a free space—which is both exciting and annoying for a cycling enthusiast. (The above photo is taken from my school and is what bike parking typically looks like there.) There are some bikes lanes around but most streets do not have them, though both cars and pedestrians are very conscious and respectful of cyclists. You don’t need bike lanes here. Occasionally people ride on the sidewalk–though people are either too polite to say anything or just don’t care.
Bicycle commuting is normal to the point of not mentioning. People wear their regular clothes—even when suits or other formal dress—to commute. Few people wear helmets, though interestingly neon safety vests to wear over your clothes at night are somewhat popular.