Introducing the Black Tie Bicycle Test: does your city pass?

I was in Amsterdam over the weekend for a family trip.  It's the first time I've been to the city as a pedestrian and not ridden a bicycle whilst I was there, and walking the streets of the Dutch capital gave me a totally different perspective.

Amsterdam cyclists of all shapes and sizes, photographed on a trip in 2012

I've always felt that your perception of a city can be influenced by the speed you travel through it, for example a driver racing along an expressway in to a city centre car park is going to have a very different experience to a cyclist gliding through the backstreets.  The human eye is incredibly selective and only uploads to your brain elements of what you can see depending on how fast you are travelling and how much time there is available to sort through the "fine detail" we are taking in.  So whilst you might notice big advertising banners when you're behind the wheel of your car, you're less likely to see the little architectural details, historical plaques and local geographic indicators that you might experience when you are on your bike.

Walking through the city allows you to experience even more, and over the weekend in Amsterdam it was the cyclists riding around me that I noticed the most.

Everyone knows that Amsterdam is a cycling city, but it is only when you stop and stand on a busy street corner and watch the scene for a while that you really begin to appreciate just how much Amsterdammers use their bikes and how much, in turn, Amsterdam as a city relies on them.  In the city centre some 62% of all journeys are made by bicycle, whilst in the wider metropolitan region 47% of all journeys were made by bicycle in 2008, up from 33% in 1991. (See the full stats on David Hembrow's engaging blog here)

With such a high level of all journeys being made on a bike there's naturally a wide range of cyclists undertaking different types of journey.  I saw small kids being ferried by cargo bike, older folk heading to the supermarket on stately upright bicycles, a few lycra-clad sports cyclists, college students riding in flocks to class, and children being taught how to ride on the city roads.  There were glorious glamazons dressed to the nines and drafting the city trams as they texted on their smartphones, pedalling along in high heels.  Businessmen with brief cases riding to client meetings.  Flustered Mums with clutches of kids flocking up and down their neighbourhood roads.  In short, every size, age and kind of cyclists perceivable were riding in an environment that safely accommodated them all.

You often hear how Mums on bikes are the canaries in the coal mine of a successful cycling culture, or that seeing older folk riding is a sure sign that you're doing things right.  But one cyclist that I saw in Amsterdam over the weekend is, I think, the new yard stick that all cities should be measuring their cycling progress with.

On Saturday evening all of Amsterdam was bathed in the glow of golden spring light.  It had been a warm day and the streets were packed with people out enjoying the sunshine.  I set off for dinner and as I turned on to Utrechtsestraat, there cycling slowly and extremely gently up the road was a young man in full formal evening wear; a smart black tuxedo and shiny patent leather shoes.

As any man who has worn a tuxedo knows, they can be exceptionally uncomfortable.  The jet black material traps the heat and makes you prone to overheating, the collar is invariably always too tight and seems to constrict your throat, whilst the primary purpose of a cummerbund appears to be to ride up your tummy.  In short, the most unsuitable cycling apparel you could think of.

But of course one dresses for the destination, not the journey, and if you're going to a black tie event in Amsterdam the chances are you'll be going by bicycle.  You'll be riding extremely slowly, extremely carefully and without rushing at any point, but you'll be riding none the less.  In short, you'll be riding in a sort of magnified and exaggerated style of all those cyclists who are considered key indicators of a successful cycling culture; women, older people and children.  Steady, gently, and very, very slowly. (Of course you could rush and race to your event but you'd be a mess when you got there)

In London I often feel I get a bit sweaty when I'm cycling on especially busy roads, and for a long time I thought I was just unfit.  It took me a long time to realise however that this is not the sweat of exertion but the sweat of anxiety.  I'm not sure how I would feel riding around the Elephant & Castle or Bow roundabout on an upright bike in an evening suit, and maybe that's where London is going wrong?

So when it comes to measuring how good your city is as a place to ride a bike, there's only one key performance indicator to use going forward.  Whether or not your city will accommodate the style of riding needed to successfully cycle in a tuxedo or not is the perfect sign of just what kind of cycling culture you have on your hands.  I'm calling it the Black Tie Bicycle Test.  From now on every city around the world should be asking if cyclists are being asked to keep up with traffic and ride like a motorised vehicle, or if they have the sort of environment where you can successful cycle in a tuxedo.

In London I think we've got a long way to go yet, but in Amsterdam nobody would even think twice about doing it.  The Black Tie Bicycle Test; how does your home town do?

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Paul M said...

I've made the occasional foray on my Brompton in a black tie outfit in London, but on the whole I wouldn't recommend it.

Last time was to a dinner at a restaurant in Queensway. From my office near Fleet St, across Blackfriars Bridge, along Upper Ground/Belvedere Rd, across Westminster Bridge, around Parliament sq, Petty France, Buckingham Palace Rd, across in front of Buck House, Constitution Hill, Hyde Park past the Serpentine, and finally a bit of Bayswater Rd. It took me about 40 minutes, cycling slowly through the parks etc and getting off and walking on the pavement in the hairiest bits.

I doubt a taxi would have got me there any quicker, even with the slow pace and probably about a half-mile of walking on pavements, but if I had a continuous safe/quiet route I would have shaved better than five minutes off the time. Being able to cycle in Kensington Gardens would have helped.

ibikelondon said...

Paul, you're a braver man than I! I would have been a dribbling wreck if I'd done that journey in a tux. The route you've chosen is interesting, and I think you're right that it is probably the quietest. I can't help but feel if you have to go so out of your way to find the quiet routes though then they're a bit counterintuitive and there's probably not enough of them!

HannahC said...

Us women possibly have it easier, in that once you've gotten the hang of wearing short skirts on a bike (which, invariably, flap up in your face, ride up around your waist, or both) you can get away with wearing not much clothing at all, keeping you cool. High heels and dual SPD/platform pedals are a bitch, though, and floor-length silhouette gowns (the fancy satin type, with no stretchiness) are impossible unless you hike them up around the waist and wear shorts underneath.

ibikelondon said...

Hey HannahC! I've seen SPD high heels available before now, so if there's a market for that I'm sure there must be a market for cycleable evening gowns!

Chris W said...

I couldn't work out what was odd about your brilliant photos, then it hit me. Not a single cyclist, in any picture, is wearing a helmet. That's what real safety and security for cyclists means.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I could wear a tuxedo succesfully on or off a bike, but I see the point.

Thankfully we have plenty of routes which don't involve traffic, but these tend to be used by tractors and cows, bringing a whole different hazard to the sartorially elegant cyclist.

Paul M said...

Mark - ref your reply to my comment, crossing to the South Bank to go east-west may seem counterintuitive, and so I thought when a routefinding website (sadly now defunct) recommended it the first time - until I zoomed out the map and saw that in fact that was the most direct line I could make, quite apart from enabling me to avoid Strand, Embankment and other such horrors!

Some time has passed since you posted this item, and I am now just beginning to wonder whether I can hang on long enough for the superhighways on Embankment and Blackfriars Rds. I am beginning to find the road just too hostile now, and I no longer have the confidence that I can sprint out of trouble, so f*** you Franklin and all those t*ssers who make snide comments on LFGSS forum.

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