Thursday, May 14

Jeff Mapes' Pedaling Revolution

I'm trying to decide whether the title of a new book, Pedaling Revolution is an overstatement or not. The onset of bicycling as a serious transportation option certainly has not been as cataclysmic as, say, the Bolshevik revolution or as comprehensive as the industrial revolution. Bicycles rarely make front page news, and in hard statistics the number of bicycle commuters in the U.S. is still quite small. Yet somehow, over the course of the last several decades, this humble mode of transportation has catalyzed an entire subculture, developed political muscle in some cities, and built a slow wave of momentum particularly in recent years. Mapes is a worthy tour guide through every epicenter and every eclectic character of this movement. Hailing from Portland, he seemed to find his way into the thick of it all.

Mapes catalogs everyone from mothers letting their elementary school children ride to school for the first time to organized booze-soaked naked bike rides through city streets. There are proud law-breakers and certified safety instructors. There's the carefully-crafted advocacy for more transportation options, and the critical mass rides sometimes resulting in violent clashes with police. He takes us to some of the pioneering U.S. cities - Davis, Portland, New York - but also throws in anecdotes from some of the more challenging cycling environments. Mapes manages to respectfully engage, and even ride along with, each of these very different cohorts.

If I could pull out one theme from the book, the one largest obstacle for American cycling, it would be safety - and maybe even more so the perception of safety (it's at least possible that its more dangerous to drive than to bike, due to the increased health risks from lack of exercise). Sure, the rushing cars and busy intersections do attract some, mostly young males, to ride for the sheer adrenaline, but for cycling to ever have a significant travel mode share it will have to attract the more risk-adverse among us. This is how European cities like Amsterdam can get half the population on a bike on any given day - without helmets nonetheless. The street environment is quiet and safe.

So what do we do? There are different strategies floating around the cycling community, some of them in contradiction with each other. The hard-core cyclists insist on maintaining vehicular speeds and riding right in the middle of traffic. Bike lanes are useless to them, or, even worse, a subversive attempt to get them off the street. There is definitely some logic to their point of view. The more you act life a car, the more cars know what to expect. And its just faster - that is if you can stomach the traffic.

The other side argues that cycling will never become a mass movement unless bikes can effectively be removed from the streets and onto a different network entirely. They want separated cycletracks to be developed thoughout American cities, but some american engineers worry about the intersections of the car and bike network. In between, are a whole host of planning solutions from bicycle boulevards to bike boxes which give cyclists a head start at intersections. All evidence shows that even imperfect strategies do get more people on bikes.

The strongest safety variable of all is strength in numbers, which Mapes thinks helps explain the evangelistic fervor many cyclists have to increase the numbers of their fold. Having more cyclists on the road could literally save your life. Cars grow accustomed to looking for you, and more political will is generated to enhance infrastructure. This is the hopeful place Pedalling Revolution leaves us. Each new person contributes to the positive cycle of making the streets that much more inhabitable for the next person. However small the numbers of bicycle commuters are now, there may be a tipping point looming out there for many American cities.

1 comment:

jhors1 said...

Great article about the movement of cycling and mvoing into the mainstream. As things become more common they are often excepted more, which may make a case yet for cycling.