Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

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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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Can Cycling Save the World?

  1. Pingback: Today’s Headlines – Streetsblog Los Angeles

  2. Richard Slimbach on said:

    Thanks for this. Inspired and beautifully written.

    I think most good people who truly care about the quality of human and planetary life are stuck with a divided heart (and thus head and body) in their overall assessment of the modern culture. that has produced sprawling, car-centric cities like L.A. On one hand we enjoy longer lives, medical advances, higher education, endless consumer choice, human rights, assorted iThings, and all the marvels of modern mobility: cars, motorcycles, trucks, airplanes and coming soon, spaceships. We’re tempted to view the whole package as merely glorious.

    On the other hand, we have all the maladies you mention, and more. Our existence is less safe, less healthy (mentally and physically), less equitable, and overall less happy than ever. Then there’s the prospect of catastrophic climate change. Experts warn that unless colossal (read: non-incremental) efforts are undertaken now to halt greenhouse gas emissions, those living in places like Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan can expect to suffer from extremes of flooding, drought, starvation, disease, and death in potentially staggering numbers.

    The problem is, we want it all. We want to manage the losses to our lives without sacrificing the gains. So we basically sleepwalk into the future, hoping that somehow, someone, somewhere in Silicon Valley or D.C. will deliver the world from its chronic precarity. I often find myself in the confused state brilliantly described by E.B. White: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to savor the world [save up for that new Tesla] and a desire to save the world [go car-free]. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

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