Tom Bowden is a bike commuter from Richmond VA, a “suit” – a corporate lawyer with an MBA, and a conservative – You betcha! He chairman of Bike Virginia, a bicycle advocacy organization in Virginia that raises money to promote cycling, walking and active lifestyles.
The New World Bicycle Dictionary, 3rd Edition (2012) contains this entry under “velocapitalist”:
velocapitalist — (plural velocapitalists) pronunciation: /vəˈloCAPitalist
1. noun. One who promotes the activity of cycling for transportation, sport, health or recreation and invests in or encourages public investment in cycling infrastructure and commerce.
2. adj. The quality of applying the technology or culture of cycling to acquire wealth or increase individual and societal well-being.
ex. a) “A new breed of velocapitalists is transforming the transportation system in the United States from one based on the power of fossil fuels to one based on human motive power.”
ex. b) “That’s a very velocapitalist approach to the problem, I like the way you think, Wilbur.”
Etymology: from the French velocipede, a term literally meaning “fast foot” applied to precursors of modern bicycles and English capitalist, meaning one who acquires, employs or deals in capital goods, financial instruments or other valuable assets.
Okay, I’ll admit it there is no such Dictionary and yes, velocapitalist is just a word I made up, a mashup of Velocipede and Capitalist that echoes “Venture Capitalist” without really being clear about the similarities or differences.
For that matter, most people probably aren’t too sure about what a Venture Capitalist really is or does anyway, so that’s not very helpful. The word came to me after reading this article about how bike infrastructure and bike share programs were paying their way in Vancouver, Montreal and other cities by helping to fill trains and buses.
They used the term “Bicycle Capitalist” but I found that a little clunky, somewhat uninspiring and generally lacking in impact or potential for controversy. Hence the new word.
Now of course when I say “capitalist” there is a cluster of nerves in the cerebral cortex of some self-styled free thinking liberals that involuntarily starts to vibrate, triggering the release of massive quantities of adrenalin and cortisol, as if capital itself were a bad thing — synonymous with “that which must be regulated.”
But capital can mean different things to different people in different contexts. It usually means money. But it might mean land, or human capital — which can also have good and bad connotations. Good, if you mean the collective value of human capabilities and retained knowledge in an organization. Bad, if you mean buying and selling actual people for money. Context is everything. And capital must be distinguished from Capitalism with a big C, which is either (a) the philosophy that embodies all that is base and corrupt in the world or (b) most liberating political economic philosophy yet devised. Whatever.
Velocapitalism has a long history in this country and others — let’s start with some of the earliest velocapitalists.
How about Kirk Munroe and Charles E. Pratt, who co-founded the League of American Wheelmen and the Good Roads Movement, enlisting capitalists including multiple Vanderbilts, Thomas Edison and J.P. Morgan, to the cause of paving roads to make them safe for cyclists. Highly successful velocapitalists, to be sure. Maybe too successful, as the improved roads literally paved the way for the dominance of the automobile. Chalk that up to unintended consequences I guess, but they get credit in my book just the same.
Then there are those two bike mechanics from Ohio who had the crazy notion that enough bicycle parts, together with a few dozen yards of bedsheets, some sticks of spruce and about a mile of piano wire, strung together just right, could allow humans to fly like birds. If you’ve ever visited the Museum of First Flight in Kitty Hawk and looked at the exhibits, you will see bicycle parts everywhere, The propellers of the Flyer were driven by oversize bike chains, and the trolley that carried the contraption was nothing more than some bicycle hubs rolling on strips of wood laid out on the sands of the Outer Banks. They were innovators in the bicycle business before they were the fathers of America’s aviation industry, and their profits from building and servicing bikes were the seed capital for one of the largest industries in the world.
Around the same time the Wrights were dreaming of flight, Ignaz Schwinn of Chicago was well on his way to creating the company that virtually epitomized the American bicycle. For decades, Schwinn was the premier brand and everyone from newsboys to aspiring track racers dreamed of owning a Schwinn — it was the Black Phantom for the newsboy and the Paramount for the racer. There were others, but at its zenith the Schwinn brand was the equivalent of Xerox — virtually synonymous with the industry it created. Only Raleigh of Nottingham, England rivaled Schwinn in scope and scale.
Speaking of Raleigh, Sir Frank Bowden was a capitalist to the core — a highly successful financier who, after being told he had only months to live, rode himself back to health on a bicycle. His experience lead him to invest in a budding little company in Raleigh Street, Nottingham (as they say in Jolly Old England), and to build it into one of the largest companies in Great Britain, and at one point the largest bicycle company in the world. Employing tens of thousands of skilled craftsmen, Raleigh made virtually every component of their bicycles in a huge complex in Nottingham and built factories around the world.
But what of modern day velocapitalists? Who are they, and what have they done? What are they working on?
And no list would be complete without Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze, Tom Ritchey, Charlie Kelly and Charlie Cunningham who pioneered the sport of mountain biking, which has emerged as a major international sport, and a driver of huge commercial success.
Stepping a little outside the conventional notion of capitalist, I would certainly include Mikael Colville-Anderson, who launched the international Cycle Chic movement with little more than his camera and a keen eye for style.
Mikael has done more for the cause of everyday cyclists than hundreds of activists lobbying their governments for money. He has made everyday cycling hip, chic, totally cool, and dare I say it — sexy. While apparently not in it for the money, he has dramatically increased the level of Gross Domestic Happiness in those cities and countries where Cycle Chic is trending upwards.
In a similar vein, April Economides, promoter of Bike Friendly Business Districts and Mike Lydon with his “tactical urbanism” are showing local merchants and neighborhoods that bikes are good for business and the communities they support.
And Alison Cohen, president of Alta Bicycle Share, is helping cities incorporate cycling into the public transportation system all over the world.
So as you can see, velocapitalism is not restricted to people who start companies that build bikes, or even people who are just in it for the money. Ultimately, velocapitalism is about leveraging the power of the bicycle to improve the quality of life of entire communities and countries.
Who would you nominate as a velocapitalist? Feel free to comment below. Or better yet, go to the VeloCapitalists Facebook page and jump in there.