Once upon a time cycling was a popular activity in my village and many people had their own bike. Being villagers many weren’t rich but the cyclists among us invested a lot into lovingly maintaining and upgrading our own bikes. While there were some douchebag cyclists who would cycle any way they saw fit and parked everywhere by and large there was a polite and courteous cycling culture.
There were also a few village bicycles- bikes that those who didn’t have one for various reasons to share for short distance rides. Those were beaters that people would have their fun with and after leave exposed to the elements. While many of them started out pristine and shiny from the shop they soon became worn out, damaged and abandoned.
The cyclists in our village would shake our head as we saw these rusty abandoned bicycles lying around, overgrown by grass. Sometimes someone might rescue one and restore to original condition with much TLC but that was difficult and expensive due to the condition of the bikes. Sometimes they were just too damaged to restore. While sad these shared bikes were the minority and most people were responsible cyclists with their own lovingly maintained bicycles.
Then the bike share came.
It started first as a trickle- a shared bike parked haphazardly outside a house there, another lying on it’s side in the grass, signs that things were about to change. They were often ridden by people who barely had any idea how to cycle, and they would often bring in more bikes and leave them where they found them. These were different from the village bicycles everyone was used to which were considered one off anomalies.
These were village bicycles on a large scale.
The identical bikes starting to clog up the bike stands and spill over onto the streets and spread everywhere. It wasn’t long before there were so many that just about anyone could have access to a bicycle at the drop of a hat. Some said this was a revolution in cycling, cycling would no longer be the reserve of bicycle owners, it would truly be for anyone, anytime, anywhere.
But deep down everyone had their reservations. The people who used the shared bikes weren’t cyclists in the traditional sense of the word, they just knew how to ride a bike and didn’t care much for one beyond it getting them from point A to B. Their relationship with the bicycle ends the moment the trip did. They knew little about how to cycle safely, what was proper etiquette, or how to maintain and keep bicycles in good working order. The shared bikes were just expendable, disposable tools, discarded after they were used, abandoned to the elements for newer, fresher models. No one could trust them to work properly, so parts were often stolen just in case and bikes missing parts were left abandoned.
They were everywhere. Proper cyclists could no longer park their bicycles due to the shared bikes clogging up racks, nor could they enjoy a safe and leisurely ride due to the sheer number of bad riders around. It was a mess. We wondered if this new state of affairs really improved cycling. Some had argued that the shared bike would increase the number of committed cyclists who would go on to get their own bikes and learn the ropes on proper cycling but what seemed to have happened instead is that the shared biked simply made people start to treat bicycles as disposable objects and bad cycling as acceptable. Some committed cyclists gave up entirely stop cycling, the experience just wasn’t the same anymore.
My cousin came down for a visit during Chinese new year and remarked on how messy and dangerous our village was from all the shared bikes. I told her that things weren’t that way before and our village used to have a good cycling culture. Something had changed from all this, people no longer viewed cycling as an endeavour where one would lovingly maintain a machine that would take him on all sorts of adventures. Instead cycling had been turned to a series of short-term anonymous casual encounters with bicycles one couldn’t care less about. Abandoned the moment there was another identical, but newer bike available.
The village bicycle, and the village bicycle way of riding had become what cycling is in our village.