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Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities

By Joe Kurmaskie

Ten years ago, if an established reporter had devoted an entire book to the bicycle as a political statement and tool for making cities more livable, publishers would have greeted it with folded arms and awkward silence. What a difference an oil war, Wall Street excess, $4 a gallon gas and a global recession make. But calling Pedaling Revolution by Jeff Mapes, The Oregonian’s senior political reporter, a happy accident of timing shortchanges it.

To date, Pedaling Revolution is easily the best examination of cycling culture and its connection to big picture issues. It could do for bicycling what Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma did to put food choices on people’s radar, and what The Long Emergency has done to educate people about peak oil.

In less assured hands, Pedaling Revolution could have been a wreck, devolving into a passionate rant short on facts, or a lifeless manual for wonks, devoid of personal stories that circle back to larger issues. Either would have lost Mapes’ intended audience, the middle class living in an urban setting, unaware or misinformed about the nature and growing importance of this two wheeled revolution.

Though Mapes lives, works and commutes by bicycle in America’s most cycling friendly city, he doesn’t fall into the trap of making the book all about Portland. While some sections feature local programs and innovations, alongside interviews with some of the rose city’s influential and colorful characters, Mapes also puts readers on the streets of San Francisco, sends them down Dutch cycle tracks in Amsterdam, races into traffic and conflict around Manhattan, and pedals through former cowtown turned student centered biketopia, Davis, California. It’s all in the service of showing how and why bicycles should be considered as a serious transportation option.

Mapes’ opening shot, which makes an impassioned and logical case for the bike, is followed by a brief, and in places humorous, history of the device. Readers learn how and why it’s yo-yoed in popularity, its role in creating the roads that motor vehicles took over and expanded, and the opposing views of how much pavement or path the bicycle deserves today. The book tracks successful projects around the globe; perceptions and realities associated with bike safety, battles for the streets during the 2004 Republican convention, how the bike is winning over the health industry and why getting kids back on bikes could be a game changer.

Hardcore advocates will even learn a thing or two. Mapes points out that: “If everyone cycled for an hour and reduced their driving by an equivalent distance, the U.S. would cut gas consumption by 38 percent.” The point being, greenhouse emissions would drop below the Kyoto Treaty protocol without doing anything else.

Mapes makes other links to everyday life that most of us overlook such as the connection between the number of parking spaces for cars and the price of items inside the stores that provide “free parking,” and the number of school buses one doesn’t see burning fuel in the Netherlands affected by the number of children who bike to school.

One of the strongest arguments Mapes offers for giving this revolution serious consideration is not environmental, moral, medical, or even economical. Many of his interviewees find themselves riding for a myriad of reasons, but they keep doing it, or take it back up after years, for the joy it. As one of Mapes’ fellow bike commuters tells skeptics, “It’s like being able to golf to work.”

Riding a bike feels enough like play that it gains its own recruits. That those same people have built their love into meaningful numbers on the streets and into a political movement that’s transforming communities and that their simple lifestyle choices are one part of the solution to deep-rooted health, environmental and social challenges ... this is the anatomy of a lasting revolution.

Q&A with the author

Q: When did you decide to write this book and why?

A: I came to it gradually while I was riding to and from work on my bicycle. I started bike commuting in the mid-1990s, which also happened to be when the City of Portland was making a serious effort to improve the bike network. I noticed that my commute gradually got a little easier as the city made the street network friendlier for cyclists. For example, changing the signal light phases at the west end of the Broadway Bridge all of a sudden made it easy to merge into traffic on the off-ramp going down Broadway without worrying that someone heading right to go down the Lovejoy ramp would hit me. When the city built the eastside esplanade, it made me more confident to ride home after dark, and that helped me become a year-round bike commuter.

I became fascinated with how the streetscape was changing, who was doing it and why. So I set out to find out why.

Q: Which cities in the U.S. not in the top 10 for bike friendliness, have a shot at change and why?

A: I think a very interesting city is Boston. For years, it would always make Bicycling Magazine’s 10 worst lists, and then a couple of summers ago, the city’s Mayor discovered how great bicycling made him feel. Now the city has an aggressive bike program and things are starting to happen. Boston has so much potential because it’s a relatively dense city filled with people making relatively short trips.

Q: Why did John Forester agree to be interviewed? What was that interview like?

A: From my experience, John is eager to talk with anyone who will listen. He’s a fascinating, Shakespearean figure (one small hint of that was his complex and conflicted relationship with his father, the novelist C.S. Forester) who has had a huge impact - for better or for worse, depending on your perspective - on the American bike movement.

Q: What’s it going to take to see bikes gain a 30 percent mode share in the U.S.?

A: Well, it would take a national commitment of a level that I would be very surprised to see. What I do expect to see is that some cities - or perhaps more accurately - some portions of cities in the U.S., could have very high mode shares. I think what we’re seeing in Portland is that more ridership spawns more ridership, particularly on the east side. In short, it is starting to go viral. And I think that is inspiring activists and civic leaders in other cities to see if they can do the same thing.

Q: How aware is the average politician to the issue of cycling as a transportation tool?

A: That really varies. If they represent an area where there are a lot of utilitarian cyclists, they’re aware of it. Believe me, one thing politicians are very good at is picking up the cultural dynamics of their district. But there is still a long way to go before the average politician - like the average American - sees the bicycle as a transportation tool. I hope that’s one thing Pedaling Revolution can help change.

Q: Which bike program (safe routes, bike lanes, boulevards, bike rentals in cities, etc.) do you think would have the most impact in changing a community, making it more bike friendly?

A: I think it’s a mixture of things. You can’t come into a city or suburb where there is very little bike ridership, stripe a bunch of bike lanes and expect things to change. In my book, I likened bicyclists to a species that can thrive when given half the chance. But they need a suitable ecology.

In terms of really jumpstarting ridership, I am fascinated by the bike share experiment in Paris, which unfortunately started too late for me to visit while I was doing research.

My sense is that flooding the streets of Paris with 20,000 bikes gave cycling a huge boost. The program has had some problems and it’s not cheap, but it would be fascinating to see a U.S. city make the commitment to a really large-scale program.

Q: Do you think Obama will mention bicycle programs in his next state of the union?

A: No. Most Americans aren’t there ... yet.

Q: Do you think bikes should share the road or have separate designated tracks and space?

A: The reality is that cyclists will continue to have to share most roads. Even in Amsterdam they share most roads. But I loved riding on cycletracks in the Netherlands and I’d be happy to use them if they build some in Portland. One thing I learned writing this book is that traffic engineering is not just a science but an art as well - and the devil is in the details.

Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities.

Jeff Mapes, paperback, 288 pages, Oregon State Univ. Press $19.95.

Joe Kurmaskie rides a bike for the joy of it. His next book, Mud, Sweat and Gears: One Family’s Rowdy Adventure Across Canada on Seven Wheels, will be published summer 2009.

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