Bikes and surrealism: when is a bike not a bike?

Magritte would probably say that this (Figure 1) is not a bike.

Figure 1: This is not a bike. Source:

And he would be correct – but only thanks to technicalities. This (i.e. Figure 1) is indeed not a bike: it is a set of pixels on a screen that evokes bicycleness. And ‘This’ is not a bike either: it is the word ‘This’.

I am less literal than Magritte: for me, Figure 1 depicts a bike. This, however, is definitely not a bike (Figure 2), and does not depict one.

Figure 2: This is not a bike

It is a unicycle – or a pixelated evocation of a unicyle for the purists out there. Why is it not a bike? Because a BI-cycle has TWO-wheels, whereas a UNI-cycle has ONE-wheel. Logical.

A bike is not necessarily a bike

BUT – there are two theory-of-bike ( i.e. philokuklical ) issues with the idea that a bike is a bike.

The first issue is logical, and can best be understood by thinking through the following syllogism.

1- Someone who rides a bicycle is a cyclist because they ride a bicycle.

2- Someone who rides a unicycle is a cyclist because they ride a unicycle.

3- Someone riding a unicycle must therefore be riding a bicycle (and vice-versa).

The second issue is legal, but can also be expressed as a syllogism:

1- There are byelaws in most cities stipulating that bicycles should not be ridden on sidewalks.

2- Under these bylaws, people riding a unicycle are ticketed for riding on sidewalks (see here and here)

3- Therefore a person riding a unicycle on a sidewalk is riding a bicycle.

Ontario Ministry of Transport: a unicycle is a bicycle

The Ontario Ministry of Transport has clearly specified that a unicycle is a bicycle (Figure 3), though only unicycles with handlebars (!) are bicycles.

Figure 3: Extract from Ontario Ministry of Transport web site (


Despite syllogisms and surreal ministerial diktats, New York judges suggest that bicycles are bicycles and that unicycles are not.

Indeed, the fine levied by New York City on one sidewalk-riding unicyclist was thrown out, as was another a few years earlier. So, in New York at least, judges accept that bikes are essentially (i.e. it is their essence to be) two-wheeled.


Is a bike a bike? Maybe.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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