Tuesday, January 15

Would a cowboy ride a bicycle?

It's funny how certain modes of transportation find themselves mapped onto various cultural narratives we tell in the United States.

Over the weekend, Chrysler cooked up an over-the-top publicity stunt to introduce the new 2009 Dodge Ram. They hired some authentic cowboys from Oklahoma to herd 120 long-horn cattle through the streets of Detroit - all of this as an entourage for their new truck model. The message hardly lacks any subtlety: the modern pick-up truck is the natural heir of the trusty steed, a symbol of rugged individualism and the rancher's ethos. Never mind the fact that cattle don't belong in cities.

And then, on the other hand, there a bicycles. Loek Heseman, from the ministry of health in the Netherlands, recently made a trip to Vancouver and Portland to learn about bicycle promotion in America. He found that bicycles were often symbolically wrapped up in an "alternative lifestyle" package.

"Cycling in North America is clearly a leftist thing, although it ties in with conservative North American values like independence, freedom and the ability to manage for oneself."

How did we end up with these particular associations? Are they intrinsic to trucks and bicycles themselves or have we just haphazardly layered our stories on top of them. I believe that culture matters, and these stories play an important role in how we have opted to structure our cities.


jhwygirl said...

I think that owning a car has been tied, intrinsically to success. Original marketing of cars - back to the Model T - was tied to wealth.

Almost any story that you read about any small town anywhere in the United States will have a "My father bought the first Model T in town" type of reference.

Car manufactures still do it - whether it is a Ford Focus or a Cadillac, there's always someone visibly successful behind the wheel. Of course, now they throw in youth and sex with it - but the bottom line basis is "wealth" and "success."

Can't be successful in America without a car, or so they'd have you believe. In other words - you're a loser if you don't have one.

jhwygirl said...

Oh - I forgot. In answer to your headline, I'd say that the answer is "Yes."

I've known many a real cowboy - crap covered boots, 10X hat, wranglers and big belt buckles. They'd ride a bike - sometimes it's quicker to get from the sleeping quarters to breakfast on a bike than it is to walk, and I knew many that got there via bicycle.

Daniel Nairn said...

I agree that status must play a major role here. Cars are entirely visible to the public, and since they are already an expensive purchase, they offer a great opportunity for folks to display wealth. I can get any name-brand clothing at T.J. Max, but I can't fake a nice car.

Carol Minjares said...

You can't pull a 4-horse trailer with a Scion.

Daniel Nairn said...

I think you're right, Carol. Plenty of rural folks need a truck for their livelihood, and I bet the new Dodge Ram would be useful for them. But doesn't the image of cattle being herded through city streets strike you as peculiar. It can't be good for either the cattle or the streets. The trouble I have with this story (that a truck automatically makes you self-reliant, tough, etc.) is that lots people try to apply it to cities. And that's what's a problem, in my opinion. What works for rancher's doesn't necessarily work for urbanites.

jhwygirl said...

How's this for embracing large vehicles for no real reason other than liking big trucks?