Like other accouterments of our lives—housing, clothing, pets—how we get from Point A to Point B communicates to those around us—and not everyone draws the same conclusions! The following observations are some of the most common (or loudest) I’ve come across; different countries and time periods have had varied observations about modes of transportation. Like most stereotypes and public perceptions, the following are of varying degrees of truth.

As general background: when users have to decide which mode of transport to use (private car, public transport, cycling, walking, etc.) gender is often a more robust determinant than age or income!

Shank’s Mare (A.K.A. walking): the Oldest Mode 

If only we could see what was on the other side!
  • Seldom chosen as the primary or only way to get around
  • People on long pilgrimages (Hajj to Mecca, walking cross country to raise awareness for a cause, Gandhi’s march to the Sea)
  • Depending on other info, may indicate poverty or health awareness

Bicycle: Impressions Depend on Model, Condition, Etc.

Many cities in China have more bicycles than cars.

Bicycles, mopeds, scooters, and motorcycles are almost always two-wheeled vehicles driven and steered by one rider. The distinctions are, like almost everything else, varied around the world and prone to blurring. A bicycle is powered entirely by the rider pedaling; a moped has a small motor attached to assist with pedaling in especially difficult environments. Bicycles are relatively easily modified for people with physical limitations, compared to cars and motorcycles.

  • People are in the best mood when riding bicycles
  • Can be inexpensive or very expensive, depending on type of bicycle and riding gear
  • Environmentally friendly 
  • Difficult to park securely in many places
  • Primarily for physical fitness
    • In fact, the vast majority of regular bicyclists in the US ride for transportation as they cannot afford a car and do not have access to public transit
  • Limited passenger capacity
    • Not as limited as most in the U.S. assume.
    • In Copenhagen, “’Cargo-bike moms’ are gentrifying the Netherlands.”

Scooter Impressions

Scooters are powered entirely by an engine, with a foot well for the seated rider’s legs. Unlike a car, all engine controls are in the handles.

Ambulance scooter with a sidecar for patients
  • Easy to drive
  • Cheaper and slower than a motorcycle
  • No safer than motorcycles 
  • Popular on very rural country rides for teenagers
  • More popular abroad than in the U.S.
  • Easier to maneuver and store in crowded areas
  • Driving permit requirements are often different from those of a car or motorcycle
    • Many areas don’t require permits at all
    • Iran and Saudi Arabia (among others) are questioning whether scooters fall under the same laws forbidding women to drive

Motorcycle Rider Stereotypes

Motorcycles and scooters are very similar, but a motorcyclist sits astride the seat. The engine of a motorcycle is generally more powerful than that of a scooter.

Bessie Stringfield rode her motorcycle from one end of America to the other, and as a dispatch rider in World War II.
  • Violent
  • Gang members
  • Harley riders are elitist and only care about brand; Other riders are effeminate
  • Reckless behavior
    • Stunt hooligans on the road
    • Prone to road-rage
    • Have a death wish
      • Emergency Response personnel sometimes refer to motorcycle riders as “Organ Donors,” but that is more because of the lack of safety gear than specific behavior patterns
  • Car haters
  • Uneducated rednecks
  • All young riders prefer sports bikes
“Dykes on Bikes” motorcycle club at a Pride rally
  • Physically tough appearance
    • Men have long, unkempt beards
    • Tattoos are common
    • Women dress provocatively
    • Lots of black leather, chains, spikes, gang markings, etc.
    • Gear is chosen to look tough rather than for practicality
  • Many of these perceptions are based on Hell’s Angels and other “outlaw motorcycle clubs”

Multi-Passenger Public Transportation

Public transport is much safer than automobiles (the above photo is an exception).  For example, bus and rail travelers are 20 times less likely to die en route than drivers. Even if self-driving and safety technology could reduce car by 90%, fatalities per passenger mile would still be twice as high in private automobiles.

Dogs ride free, right?
  • World-wide, the largest share of public transportation users are women
  • Bus and train riders experience the most negative emotions
    • Bus: poor people who cannot afford a vehicle/gas;
      • homeless/mentally ill people seeking temporary shelter from the elements.
    • Subway: city-dweller
    • Train: long-distance commuters;
      • More common in Europe and Asia, where train systems are much more comprehensive
    • Plane: long-distance (business or pleasure) travelers of means

Individual Cars

Private automobiles are especially dangerous if they don’t obey the laws of gravity.
So happy! He knows he’s going to the park.
  • The second happiest people are car passengers, followed by car drivers
  • Carpoolers: cut down air pollution
    • Lessen expenses of gas/parking
  • Private chauffeur
    • Renting a limousine or similar
  • Driver alone: not sociality responsible
    • Selfish or ego-centric
  • Taxi/Lyft/Uber: short distance trips for those valuing convenience
    • People who cannot drive for whatever reason (inebriation, tourist, moving larger than normal cargo, etc.)
    • Consider the possible conflicts between traditional taxi services and Lyft or Uber style companies, or even the conflict between drivers and management within those companies
  • Car drivers are so common that to dig into assumptions, it’s necessary to get into make and model


Other methods of transportation are more common outside the US. Extreme climates, different resources, and distance have made what we might see as extraordinary into the everyday.

Ferries are common in highly populated areas on the water.
  • Dog sled, snow mobile, cross-country skiing
  • Bush plane
  • Tuktuk, marsrhutka, or any other kind of informal minibus system run by individual drivers
  • Horseback or horse-drawn vehicle (or donkey, mule, camel, etc.)
  • Canoe or kayak
  • Hitch-hiking
  • Rickshaw

BOTTOM LINE for writers: consider your choice and the reason for it!

Exposing Your Characters Through Travel

italy countryside
I’m going to Italy! (Yes, lucky me!) And unlike getting into the car for a day trip, I’m thinking of this as travel. That led me to think about how people travel, where, and why, and the myriad of ways travel exposes the traveler.


How people travel

Consider a character who chooses to drive cross-country rather than fly. Why? Flight phobia or sight-seeing? What about the woman who rides horseback from coast to coast, alone? The man who walked from Rockaway Beach in NY to Rockaway Beach in OR? What’s the difference between a bicycle tripper and a motorcycle tripper? Who chooses a bus tour vs. an ocean cruise?
Even within a mode, consider the differences between someone chauffeur-driven and someone driving a Toyota Corolla. What about someone flying first class vs. a tourist on a plane?


Why travel?

I won’t go into depth, but I’ll mention some possibilities: work, pleasure, a family gathering, attendance at a wedding or funeral or coronation…


Exotic or mundane? City or rural? A safe pace or one edged with danger of some sort? Revisiting a place or seeking something new? A place steeped in history or a modern resort setting?
beach dock at sunset
If you stop here, you will certainly have a much richer character than you would had he or she stayed put. You can have established interests, skills, socio-economic class, work status, maybe something on family status…


But taking it farther is an even greater opportunity. Don’t hesitate to go for personal and quirky! There are issues of style to consider in revealing your characters.
Peg Bracken mentioned a friend in one of her books who traveled with her own martinis: the bottom of her suitcase was lined with individual martinis in vacuum-sealed bags, prepared by her own hand.
What people feel is essential reveals a lot. Consider the woman who travels with ten books, the woman who packed thirteen pairs of shoes. What if it’s the same woman?
I know a woman who prepared for a two-week trip to Europe by planning what she would wear, in what combinations, every day she was gone in order to avoid repeating an outfit. Everything was laid out in the spare room a week before departure. I also know a couple who packed for four months in Singapore at midnight before their morning departure, in two small carry-ons and one big hard-sided suitcase.


travel camera bag
Some people pack everything they can think of that they might possibly want or need, from Scotch Tape to crochet hooks, night lights to batteries, and fifteen OTC drugs. Others pack their toothbrushes and razors, and don’t even stress over remembering those—the philosophy being “I can borrow or buy anything I need when I get there.”


Is your traveler relaxed or drinking to relax? Tolerant of the crying infant or calling the flight attendant every thirty minutes?


BOTTOM LINE: If it’s relevant to your story, bring travel into your character’s life! Even anticipating travel can reveal character traits that just lose their punch when told. And BTW: you can get a mini-version of this by revealing what’s in a woman’s purse/handbag/shoulder bag or a man’s pockets.


Writing Transportation

Whoever said, “Getting there is half the fun” wasn’t a writer. For the written word, getting from point A to point B (writing transportation) can be deadly.


cars on road
Driving holds three potholes for writers.

One is the temptation to “make it real” by including (boring and unnecessary) details about a route driven. Does anyone really care that your character took Three Chopt to Gaskins and merged onto I-64 west, exited onto I-295 to pick up I-95? Ditto with such details as taking Horsepen to Boulevard, taking a right onto Malvern, and a left on Cary St. Local readers might think, “Yeah, s/he knows the territory.” But if these specific turns and streets aren’t central to the plot, find a more dynamic way to establish your credibility!

birds eye view highway

The other pitfall is to have fallen in love with the Pacific Coast Highway, the Blueridge Parkway, the winding roads through Colorado mountains, or some other scenic road and putting one’s character in a car along the way, rhapsodizing at the beauty.


And then there is the typical road trip. We’ve all been there. People cut you off. Road construction slows you down. But unless the trucker who seems to be jockeying you off the road is going to turn up later, don’t mention it!


highway at sunset
Planes are equally tempting.
airplane interior
If your character is flying from Dulles to Frankfurt, you might again be tempted to make it real by describing the drink spilled in his/her lap, the noise, the fatigue. But unless the obnoxious seatmate or the mother with the cute baby will show up later in the plot, don’t mention them. Unless something plot-related happens en route, skip the travel! Put your character on the plan in Dulles (never mind the frustrations of security screening) and get him/her off in Frankfurt, fatigued if it’s relevant.


The same is true of any mode of transportation.

Unless you are writing a travelogue, something like “Walking from Rockaway Beach, NY to Rockaway Beach, Oregon, and all my interesting experiences along the way,” launch your character on their way and skip to the arrival. Anything else just slows the plot line and risks losing the reader.


Bottom line: Unless something or someone important to the plot is encountered along the way, when it comes to writing transportation, don’t!