Defining Utility Cycling

Welcome to Utility The main purpose of this site is to bring clarity to and elaborate upon the concept of utility cycling. To that end, it is important to begin by developing a working definition of the concept. In order to do this, we will use personal experience coupled with Internet research to write our posts. Some of our initial sources in this project include: Wikipedia, Bike Trailer Blog, Spoke and Word, Bike Hugger’s utility bike breakdown, Urban Bicycles, and Flickr.

We will begin by exploring how utility cycling differs from other types of cycling; by elaborating on how utility cycling is practiced and can be practiced across the globe; and by considering why it is important to develop and maintain utility cycling as a dominant category within the broad sphere of bicycling.

What Makes Utility Cycling Unique?

Generally speaking, within the realm of cycling, there are three categories of practice:

  • Recreation: the type of riding done primarily for fun, for pleasure, for the sheer joy of feeling the wind on your face and the secure embrace of two wheels hugging the ground.
  • Sport: the type of riding done primarily for athleticism, for competition, and for the often elusive, but oh-so-sweet, taste of victory.
  • Utility: the type of riding done for any purpose other than sport or recreation.

Indeed, the category of utility cycling is quite extensive. The most obvious subcategory of utility cycling is transportation, but utility cycling may encompass many other activities which utilize the bicycle as a form of advertising, delivery, freight, taxi service, personal mobility, community building, political protest, social action, and much more.

In some cases, utility cycling may overlap considerably with recreational cycling, as the utility cyclist may incur similar amounts of pleasure from riding as the recreational cyclist. However, the utility cyclist always has a purpose or goal in mind other than pleasure or fun when embarking on a trip. Utility cycling may also overlap with sport cycling. For example, if a utility cyclist is also a sport cyclist, then that cyclist may certainly gain some degree fitness and skill by using the bicycle for utility purposes, which might consequently improve the sport cycling aspect of his or her life.

Utility cycling is made unique – in part – by its goal-oriented nature. This is not to say that the sport cyclist or the recreational cyclist is not goal-oriented, it is just to say that the practice of utility cycling usually involves making a trip for a very tangible purpose, such as getting to work or running an errand. The sport cyclist or recreational cyclist may have less tangible goals in daily riding – such as training to win a certain race or to complete a long-anticipated bike tour – goals which are not immediately recognized during the course of a single trip.

How is Utility Cycling Practiced?

Utility cycling is perhaps the most common type of cycling practiced around the globe, and for many, it is the most accessible form of cycling. It is useful to examine some of the ways in which utility cycling is practiced in order to begin to better understand the category. This list is by no means inclusive.

    • Bicycle commuting (ie. the practice of using the bicycle for transportation) is becoming more popular and gaining acceptance as issues such as global warming, energy, and health take the forefront in the popular imagination. Using the bicycle as transportation is quite common in many European countries, some of which have vigorously adopted and embraced the bicycle as part of their national identity, as well as throughout much of the developing world, where the bicycle is the most accessible – and in some cases, the most practical – means of transportation available.
    • Bike Sharing Systems: These systems provide access to bicycles for short-term use in urban areas.
    • General Bicycle Transportation: This includes any form of transportation that does not explicitly include bike commuting.
    • Couriers/ Messengers: Many cycling enthusiasts are somewhat enthralled with the elusive bicycle messenger or courier, who zips through traffic bearing important documents, photos, objects, and anything else that cannot be sent digitally. Bicycle messengers are iconic symbols of bicycling culture in many places, but also play a very important role for many businesses.
    • Food/ Pizza Delivery: Bicycles are a great way to delivery food, especially in crowded urban environments, where car deliveries can be time consuming and expensive.
    • Mail Delivery: Although not as common as it used to be, delivering mail by bicycle can be efficient and fun.
    • Parcel Delivery (UPS & FedEx): Though this may be a less obvious (or perhaps more remarkable) category of utility cycling, it is important to emphasize that the bicycle is a great way to deliver mail and packages.
    • Freight Delivery: Believe it or not, you can even use a bicycle to move an entire household. This sort of operation would likely be much easier with freight bicycles, however
    • Factory/ Parts Delivery: Bicycles can be used to transport parts within large industrial or commercial environments such as factories or even large resorts and hotels.
    • Advertising: The bicycle is often used as a free and convenient source of advertising. Banners flown from bike trailers, signs attached to racks, and flyer pockets in bike bags are just some of the ways the bicycle can be used to advertise.
    • Pedicabs: What better way to see a city than in a carriage pulled by bicycle?
      Bicycle taxis or pedicabs are not only popular for tourists in many places, there are also practical means of transportation in many crowded cities throughout the world.
    • Vendors: The bicycle is also a popular mode of transportation for retail vendors, who might ride their merchandise to a certain location to set up shop for the day, and then ride home when the day is done.
    • Recycling and Trash Service: Really, the extent of utility cycling is extremely vast. You can evenuse your bicycle to help pick up trash and recycling, something that seems so entirely dependent on motorized travel, but which really doesn’t have to be.

    • Trailwork: Trail users such as mountain bikers are often proponents of trail work (which includes both building and maintenance), and the bicycle is often used to transport tools and equipment to different sections of trail where work is being done.
    • Bike Patrol: Bike patrol groups assist in a variety of activities from emergency response to teaching trail users about etiquette to trail work.
    • Mapping: There are numerous mapping opportunities that can be done via bicycle. Perhaps the most notable is the current Google Maps effort to add a “Bike There” feature, and much of the mapping and route finding is being done via bicycle.
    • Land Survey: The bicycle is a useful vehicle in urban environments for land survey in addition to the mapping mentioned above.
    • Research/ Testing Equipment: The bicycle can also be used to transport research equipment for various purposes (such asacademic research beingconducted byfinancially limited graduate students)to remote places.
    • Charity Rides: Rides organized to promote and support charity organizations are very popular for cyclists of all types, but the events always have a very important utility of supporting socially conscious causes and organizations.
    • Cycling Community Events: Riding a bicycle can be a great way to meet new people and make new friends. Social gatherings organized around the bicycle, from scavenger hunts to picnics, are fun and practical.
    • Group Rides: Group rides (such as small, local group rides or larger national-scale group rides)are popular among sport, recreational, and utility cyclists, but there is an important utility to the opportunity to build a community of like-minded individuals and cycling enthusiastsduring group rides.
    • Political Protest: One can’t talk about utility cycling without talking about the utility of using the bicycle as a form of or vehicle for political protest. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is critical mass, but the bicycle has been a vehicle for many other types of protest as well.
    • Social Action: Although somewhat similar to political protest, social action is another important category of utility cycling. Social action rides – for example The Ride of Silence – help bring important cycling related issues to light, using the bicycle as a vehicle for action.
    • Personal Mobility: Personal mobility, albeit a less tangible category of utility bicycling, should be recognized as the bicycle has been a vehicle for liberation and other forms of social movement since its introduction.
  • OTHERS? What other categories and subcategories of utility cycling are missing from this list? We would love for you to post comments with your thoughts!

Why is Utility Cycling Important?

In writing this post, I found myself wondering how I might go about defining myself as a cyclist or what category of cycling I fall into. I have been a bike racer (ie. sport cyclist) for many years, but I am also an ardent bicycle commuter (ie. utility cyclist). Initially, I thought to argue that the type of bicycle dictates the category of cycling that one is practicing, but unfortunately, I am just as likely to be seen commuting on a racing bicycle as I am on a cruiser. So the type of bicycle may not be the defining factor in one’s cycling identity, although it is certainly an important element.

What I slowly came to realize is that the sentiment of utility cycling is what separates it from spor
t cycling or recreational cycling. Utility cycling is not about the glory of sport cycling or the fun of recreational cycling, it is about the simple, practical desire to get things done efficiently, economically, and even gracefully.

Here at Utility, we will seek to better define this important category of cycling. This working definition will continue to evolve and mature as we explore the concept, and we invite you to join us in this adventure!

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