Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Book Review: Pedaling Revolution

I just finished Jeff Mapes' Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities, and I want to post a brief review before I have to bring it back to the library.

Mapes is a political reporter at the Oregonian, which means he lives in Portland, about the most bike-friendly city in the US. The book is about the growth of bicyclists as an organized political force over the past, say, 30 years; the benefits of cycling for a city; how various cities (Portland, Davis, CA and New York (!)) have planned so as to make themselves more amenable to cyclists, and chapters on the safety concerns and health benefits of cycling.

One of the early chapters is dedicated to a visit to Amsterdam, considered the mecca for cyclists. European cities have not always been as bike-friendly as they are now; making them so has taken a combination of social contract and government encouragement and support (read: investment). The basic difference between European and American cities when it comes to cycling is that European drivers (and policymakers) accept that bikes have a right to be on the road, and that it is the car's responsibility to be careful of them. In America, most drivers - if they think about cyclists at all - consider them a nuisance at best. The attitude of our society to the biker's right to the road is exemplified when one thinks of bikers killed by motorists and the generally light consequences (to the motorist) that result. In Europe, if a motorists hits a biker, it's a big deal. Here, it's considered that the biker getting what he* more or less deserved.

*American cyclists are likely to be male; in Europe the ridership is more gender-balanced, primarily due to increased safety

The underlying assumption of Mapes and the scholars, activists, and cyclists he speaks to is that there is strength in numbers, meaning that the more cyclists there are in any given city the safer cycling will be - cars will become accustomed to looking out for them, and the city will make the necessary accommodations in planning.

Of course, the easiest thing a city can do to accommodate cyclists is painting lines on the street and inculcating a "share the road" ethos. In some cases where the streets are too busy for that, other options include a cycletrack, which is basically a separated cycle track set off from the road, sometimes between parked cars and the curb. Some cities put their roads on what are called "road diets," taking away lanes to make room for bikers and making the traffic calm down.

As you will read in depth on my mate John's vital blog Cycling in Wichita, most of the biking accommodations in Wichita are recreational, i.e., bike paths that go twirly twirl twirl and don' t you get you from one place to the other very fast at all. If you try to use bikes for travel you find pretty quick that most of the arterials are not where you want to be on a bike. 40 mph, two lanes right up to the curb.

There are some roads which could serve as bike routes with little loss to the convenience of motorists; I think of 1st Street on the east side going downtown. Some other roads would need to go on a diet to be useful, such as Douglas between Rock and the entrance to Eastborough, which is something of a miniature race course.

Which leads to the question of why a city like Wichita should make any accommodations for a mode of transportation which probably accounts for less than 1% of the travel in town. Shouldn't transportation policy be centered around the kind of transportation that most people want to use?

Well, there are a couple of things to say about that. First, surveys consistently show that more people would ride bikes if they were safer and more convenient to use. And as I said before, more is more, and the more people we have riding bikes the more people will see it as a reasonable option and will join them. And this is a topic that I plan to spend some more time on in the next couple of days in another context, but cycling has so many health benefits, as well as benefits to the livability of a city, pollution amelioration, etc., well, it just makes a lot of sense for some of the copious amounts of money the city, county and state spend on road construction and spend, say 2 or 3% of that on improving bike infrastructure.

The final chapter in Mapes' book is about getting children to bike. Let me throw in a quote:
A government travel study in 1969 found that 87 percent of all kids who lived within a mile of school walked or biked. ... That changed over the ensuing decades as traffic become more intense, parents became more fearful, the neighborhood school became less common, and two- and three-car households became ubiquitous. By 2001, only about 15 percent of kids were getting to school under their own power. And... as few as one-third of students who lived within a mile of school walked or biked.
He mentions how traffic patterns can be particularly intense right around schools, and that nearly half of students who are hit by a car on their way to school are hit by people driving other kids there too.

I know all this is true for us. Take a look at this, the location of my kids' elementary school:

Webb is a busy arterial and, just to the south of this picture, Central is one as well. There are hundreds of cars and dozens of buses going in and out every day. We live 1.8 miles away, and I think my wife may have walked it once or twice, but I never have. And there are no bike racks at the school.

As Mapes points out, the people who are the most ardent bicyclists, and the most ardent bike advocates, tend to be those who have good memories of biking when they were younger. We don't have much of that, these days. And that doesn't give one a lot of hope that the kids who never biked will grow up to be the ones who change the paradigm about transport in this city or this country. Something needs to be done about that, before it's too late.

And a good first step is reading Mapes' book!

1 comment:

John B. said...

Thanks, first of all, for the kind word. I've been called many things, but "vital" is a first for me.

I'm working my way through Mapes' book as well, and you've done a good job here of reviewing it. As for Wichita, I see signs, here and there, that thinking about cycling and livability issues is shifting for the good. The City Council has a couple of strong advocates for these issues, along with the new city manager. WAMPO, in its passive-aggressive manner, is promoting improved and expanded transit service and the explicitly bike/pedestrian projects; the two most recently-built bike paths (Midtown and that route from I-135 to Geo. Washington) are part of the Safe Routes to Schools program. The East Douglas Design Group's proposal for that street is a Complete Street design. People are speaking up for these things in public fora. Etc., etc. What's frustrating is that even cheaper projects, such as the re-striping of streets that you mention, would be even more helpful than these more expensive projects, and yet they go wanting. But things are changing.