Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the month “April, 2017”

Book Review: Can Cycling Save the World?

The eye-catching title of Peter Walker’s new book, How Cycling Can Save the World (2017), would probably have been enough to pique my curiosity, but my familiarity with the author’s excellent bike blog for The Guardian compelled me to snag a copy of the book.  I was not disappointed.

Is the title hyperbolic? Perhaps a little. But it is certainly true (and Walker has the data to back it up) that whether we’re talking about public health, road safety, social equity, air pollution, climate change, stress reduction and general happiness, or just overall livability, more people switching from cars to bikes would be a major improvement.

Walker lays out the health, economic, and environmental benefits of cycling in a compelling manner, drawing on a growing body of studies that support his thesis. The more cities turn to cycling, the more data we have to show the benefits of a shift away from car-centric cities. While his grasp of the academic literature is impressive (far too much to summarize here), it is often the personal stories that resonate the most.  For example, how riding to work makes him feel “not just physically invigorated but more cheery, with a greater sense of mental balance and well-being,” or how he can feel his body “untensing” when he moves from a street without bike lanes to one with them.  These and many other personal reflections make the book not only enjoyable, but personally relevant to many people who ride. These personal insights will also help those who don’t ride understand what the fuss is about.

He addresses the resistance of the political culture as well as anti-bike attitudes embedded in popular culture and media representations. One of my favorites was his chapter entitled “If bike helmets are the answer, you’re asking the wrong question,” which skewers the pervasive blame-the-victim mentality that accompanies many “safety” campaigns. If your answer to vehicular violence is to make vulnerable road users dress for combat, you’re designing your streets wrong. Time and again Walker returns to his central theme: the beneficial and transformative importance of building separated, continuous, and intuitive bike infrastructure in cities as the foundation of any effort to shift toward healthier, happier, safer, and more sustainable communities.

If all of this seems like the ultimate no-brainer (and it does to me), then why aren’t we moving more quickly to build what has been shown to work everywhere it has been tried?  Walker suggests it can be boiled down to vested interests, inertia, and lack of political vision (or as I like to say, the lack of leaders who “get it”).  Bogged down by the these all-too-real barriers to change, we are left with an excruciatingly slow process of ever-so-timid incrementalism that leaves us with partial, piecemeal scraps of half-assed bike infrastructure and huge gaps where bike infrastructure is nonexistent. And if that weren’t bad enough, we have to fight like hell for the scraps while multi-billion-dollar freeway projects and car-centric developments seem to move forward on autopilot.

Part of the problem of incrementalism, as Alex Steffen has written, is that it maintains the ills of the old system while not yet providing the goods of the new system.  In other words, you don’t get a truly bikeable community until you actually have a network of bike infrastructure that works for cyclists from ages 8-80 (protected, continuous, and intuitive) and is integrated into a good public transit system.  These have to be knitted together in communities (not just streets) that are oriented around walking, biking and transit.  In this respect, ambitious steps are preferable to incrementalism.  In the absence of a bold—dare I say revolutionary—vision, inertia and even reactionary reversal may become appealing political modes. We don’t have decades to dawdle.

Since WWII, we have given our minds, bodies, and public space to the automobile monoculture.  I would argue that acting boldly to reverse this is imperative given the looming intemperance of climate change. The good news, as Walker shows, is that people in cities all over the world are pushing for change, slowly remaking their cities around bikeability, and it works.

Yes, it would seem that in a variety of interconnected ways it’s not a stretch to say cycling just might be able to save the world, or at least make it a much better place.  Peter Walker “gets it.”  Read his book and you will too.

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Good Rides

Last week was a week of good rides.

My regular commute now takes me to the Metro Gold Line station that is a 15-minute ride from my house (20 minutes on the uphill return trip).  About halfway through my morning ride early last week, I noticed how smooth the ride was going.  The reason?  Spring break at two nearby schools. Streets normally choked with cars during the morning drop-off time were blissfully—almost eerily—empty of cars.   The difference was huge.  Several intersections that are normally stressful because of traffic and impatient drivers were virtually stress free.  With no cars blocking my lane I was able to fly down to the train station in record time.  It made the entire week’s commute a breeze and stands as a reminder of just how much traffic danger (and pollution) is generated by parents driving their kids to school.  The added stress of these additional cars on the streets is, in turn, a deterrent to more kids walking and biking to school.  It’s a stark illustration of how the car culture itself is a self-fulfilling reinforcement of the dominance of the car, which in turn deters the number of people willing to walk and bike.

This morning’s ride to the farmer’s market was also a good ride.  Saturday morning traffic was pretty light and, in addition to waving to neighbors along my route, I fell into a nice conversation with another cyclist at a stoplight.  The ride home (almost all uphill) was invigorating in the cool morning air, and I returned home with fresh fruit and vegetables and a mood much improved from my morning grouchiness (caused by reading the day’s news).

It’s been a good week. Now, if we could just lighten the traffic every day.

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