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Reality bikes
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Earlier this month bicycle advocates all over the country called out General Motors over an advertisement published in college newspapers.

Beneath the headline “Reality Sucks,” the ad featured a young man on a bicycle sheepishly trying to shield his face from the gaze of a young woman. She’s laughing at him from the window of a passing car.

The ad’s message is clear: Bikes are for dorks. The GM College Discount can help you avoid the humiliation of riding a bike, help get you a new Chevrolet, Buick or GMC, and help you get the girl!

General Motors quickly responded to waves of criticism from cyclists and discontinued the ad, with company spokespeople suggesting the aim was humor, not derision. The sequence of events is predictable: Corporation makes gaffe, offended consumers complain, corporation pulls ad.

What’s different here is that bicycle advocates have done GM a considerable favor. They alerted the automaker that it is increasingly out of step with the audience it hoped to reach.

Let’s ignore the likelihood of the average student–loan–debt–saddled undergrad being able to make payments on a new car and focus on the image of cyclist as nerd. While persistent and reinforced in decades of popular culture, the stereotype is becoming less relevant.

To understand how this is happening, consider the Chevrolet Silverado pictured in the ad. Bringing that thing to many campuses is like having a giant, messy roommate who takes up a lot of space, eats all your food, drinks all your beer and constantly borrows money from you.

Increasingly, students are saying no to the hassle and expense of keeping a car on campus. The trend is reflected in stories like one recently published in USA Today that reported on a veritable explosion of bicycles on campus.

The main reason bikes are big on campus is practicality. When it comes to bringing a car to colleges, paying for the car itself is just the beginning.

Students, who have grown up in suburban environments where “free” parking is the norm, will be in for a shock when they discover that many colleges and universities are beginning to charge for this finite resource.

After all, operating surface and structured parking facilities is a surprisingly expensive proposition. Why not pass the costs on to the students who use them?

Yet the financial incentive is not the only thing putting people on bikes. Part of cycling’s recent popularity is related to the youth culture that developed around it in the last decade. One could also point to the increasing presence of the bicycle in fashion and design.

When a sizeable portion of a population engages in an activity, it ceases to be a source of ridicule. It’s akin to poking fun at students who carry book bags. The gibe falls flat when something becomes the norm.

Is bicycling becoming mainstream and thus immune to the negative connotations advanced by the GM ad? Maybe not quite yet. Tom Vanderbilt, author of the excellent book Traffic: How We Drive and What is Says About Us (and blog of the same name), has written about the social categorization of people who ride bikes as an “out–group” and how this may factor into negative perceptions.

Bicycling and the Law author Bob Mionske goes even further, suggesting cyclists may be viewed by some as “a seditious group trying to push a social agenda on society.”

It’s certain that some people are indeed trying to push a social agenda. But many, many more are adopting cycling and other sustainable practices as part of everyday life.

Habits learned in college, good or bad, tend to stick with people long after graduation. The same holds true of students who discover bicycles are viable modes of transportation providing freedom of movement, freedom from debt, and freedom from the notion of cars as status symbols.

As they stop driving and start pedaling, they create a new reality. In it, cycling most definitely does not suck.

John Bennett is vice chairman of the savannah bicycle campaign.