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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0 thoughts on “Defining Utility Cycling”

  1. Chloe says:

    I’d like to add a couple subcategories to the discussion. Bike sharing ( may fit nicely under Transportation along with bike commuting. A number of cities (Barcelona, DC, Stockholm, and Paris–“Velib”), college campuses, and employers have bike-share programs that enable people to use bicycles for short trips. The purpose of a bike-share program is to promote and capitalize on the economy and efficiency of bicycling–it’s utility.

    Another category that might fit under Community Building is Family Outings. While a family outing may be a ‘social gathering,’ it’s unique because it implies kids are involved. With all the Burley’s and Tag-a-Long’s on the market, it isn’t that far out of the question to bring out the kids and the bikes for some family time. In this subcategory, the purpose of the outing determines whether or not it’s for utility or recreation.

    On a more general note, I have a hard time separating utility, recreation, and sport as three separate forms of cycling. I engage in all three forms of cycling: I race mountain bikes professionaly, commute by bike, and always ride for the pure joy of it.

    I’d argue my training or ‘sport’ cycling is very goal-oriented with each ride having a specific purpose. My bike commutes are not always the most efficient because there’s an element of recreation that I can’t let go. I also like to think that my ‘sport’ cycling aids my ‘utility’ cycling–because fitness aids bike utility. Right?

    If I had to choose a single word to define utility cycling and its appeal I’d pick simplicity. But this is beautifully said, “…it is about the simple, practical desire to get things done efficiently, economically, and gracefully.”

  2. Melanie says:


    Thanks for the great comment! We are really looking forward to beginning a great dialogue on this site, and we appreciate that you were the first to start it!

    We are definitely planning on looking into bike sharing, but I think you are right that it deserves a line of it’s own. Also, family biking is another great subcategory, which we will look into as well.

    Also, I really like your thoughts on the best word or sentiment to define utility cycling, as I did struggle quite a bit in trying to think about what makes utility cycling separate from the other categories. Perhaps goal-oriented is not an appropriate way to define it, because as a racer, I too, have goals set down for each training ride. However, utility cycling is not always purely simple either, because some utility cycling practices – for example, a search and rescue operation – may be quite complex. Nonetheless, goals and simplicity are certainly both important aspects of utility cycling, so perhaps, there is not one perfect word to define the whole concept, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.

    While all three categories of cycling certainly blend together, our main intention with this site is to make the idea of utility cycling more concrete in order to draw out the elements that make it what it is. Although I have argued that utility cycling is separate from sport and recreation, I realize that the lines that distinguish the categories blurr together, and I am glad of it! The last thing I would want to do is start some sort of unnecessary “border-war” between the so-called different kinds of cyclists. Because, as far as I can tell, we all love the ride, the machine, and the good vibes of riding, no matter what type of cycling we are doing at a given time.

    But I suppose our main goal here really is to talk about the ways in which utility cycling is different from sport or recreational cycling, without forgetting that there are many important similarities as well.

    We look forward to hearing from you again! Thanks for helping us think more carefully about our definition of utility cycling and encouraging us to help the definition evolve.

    Ride on!

  3. John says:

    I used to be car free about 25 yrs.ago,(for about 6 yrs) then I got married got a license and my ex made me sell my bike.

    Last year when gas hit 4.07 I decided to ride a bike the 6 miles to work. My truck only gets14 mpg. I rediscovered the fun and joy of biking, I bought a free radical attachment from the folks at Xtracycle.

    Since then the truck has gone from being MY TRUCK to being the truck. When it was MY TRUCK I would not let anyone else drive it,now I leave the keys in it in case my wife or kids need to use it.

    Any errands that I need to do, I do by bike now.
    I guess that makes me a Commuter/utility cyclist.
    I am loving it,wouldn’t have it any other way.

    I would sell the truck but my wife won’t let me.

  4. Melanie says:

    Hi John,

    It’s great to hear that you have been able to make the transition to commuting and utility cycling, despite the challenges. Sometimes, the best thing to do is lead by example, so perhaps you can convince your wife and kids that cycling is fun and utilitarian by taking them out on a family ride! Thanks for reading, and we hope to hear from you again.

  5. […] to the practice of utility cycling: Utility Cycling is dedicated to defining the movement of utility cycling, which encompasses the bicycle as a means of transportation, function, service, mobility, fun, and […]

  6. Kerry says:

    Let me add another category to utility cycling: Health.

    After a heart attack, people need to exercise. A bicycle covers a lot more ground, with a lot less pounding, than walking or jogging. While it’s possible to attain the same improvements in health using a treadmill or a stationary bike, everyone agrees that they’re boring. A real bicycle is not, and that’s the appeal.

    This isn’t really recreational biking, because it’s done for health reasons than for fun. It isn’t sport biking because your speed is like that of a turtle with arthritis. After a while, range increases, too, and it becomes practical to ride the bike to visit friends, pick up groceries, and do many things for which a car had been used. As people start to use their bicycles as a tool, this becomes utility biking.

    Your website is a good idea, and an excellent jumping-off point to showcase a new idea about the use of bicycles.

  7. Melanie says:

    Hi Kerry,

    Thanks for the great comment. Indeed, we did miss the health category, which, as you point out, is quite separate from sport or recreation. Using the bicycle for health purposes is indeed very common for recovery from a whole range of illnesses and injuries. Thanks for the idea, and we will be sure to discuss that category further in the future.

  8. Carl Cooper says:

    Health is all about cycling in general . I Believe The more you cycle. The healthy life stile becomes more natural. I started Riding 8years ago,I weigh 270 I’m 5 8 in height
    I now weigh 188. My wife started cycling at the age of 60.
    We ride often for recreation and charity. I commuted to work before I retired. Now we have the time to do our errands on our bikes. We haven’t given up our gas burners.
    but our fuel bill last month went from 250 dollars to 40 dollars. We been making use of the panniers and some times the trailer, for errands and camping. My wife has never been athetic, I know that using the bikes and your
    physical being to run your errands, is not only heathy for your body but your mental well being and you will find yourself looking for more reasons to use your bike in a utility way. It has help me a lot and really helped my wife.
    Thank you Carl Cooper

  9. Hi Carl,

    It is really great to hear that you and your wife have been able to use your bikes for utility purposes, save money, and be healthy. Indeed, there are a lot of advantages to utility cycling! Thanks for the comment.

  10. […] the site, an overall view of is our mission over the last year and a half to define the overall spectrum that utility cycling encompasses by bringing to light all of its categories and sub categories in a quest to explore and show the […]

  11. […] into a large range of topics beyond bike trailers and bags.  Utility Cycling is dedicated to defining the movement of utility cycling, which encompasses the bicycle as a means of transportation, function, service, mobility, fun, and […]

  12. […] other trends started by celebrities, riding bikes for transportation is actually… well… not […]

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