The author, not a hard-core cyclist by any stretch, after discovering in the 1990s that his city, Portland, OR, had a substantial bicycle network of roads and paths, began commuting on his bicycle to his job as a political reporter located only a few miles from his home in central Portland. His dedication to bicycle commuting led to this investigation of the extent to which bicycles have become utilitarian vehicles in other cities. The book looks at individual commuters as well as support structures and agencies that facilitate commuting by bicycle. While bicycle commuting is noticeable in some cities, it is an overstatement to say that a bicycling revolution is taking place in the US.
In reality, a few cities in the US, some small, some large, most with special demographic and geographical circumstances, all with concerns of congestion and environmental degradation, and, most importantly, the coincidence of having cycling-centered officials in city planning and transportation departments, have been able to make cycling safer and more enjoyable through a variety of measures such as creating bike lanes along existing roads, improved signage, and in some cases special bikeways. However, the author admits that the peak of bicycle ownership in the US actually occurred in the 1970s. The percentage of commuter trips on bicycles, even with recent upticks, still remains quite small in these few locales. The author does not squarely face the fact that, in the current architecture of American communities, places of work, living, and shopping are not co-located, which makes bicycle usage most impractical. There is no getting around the fact that our communities and lives are integrally tied to the automobile.
The author reviews key legislation and programs, ranging from the federal down to the city level, which facilitate bicycle commuting. Perhaps the key legislation was The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991, since renewed, which required state DOTs to designate a bicycle coordinator. In addition, supporters in Congress, like Rep Jim Oberstar from Minnesota, remain essential. Of more interest is the author's visits to various locales both in the US and Europe to see bicycle commuting in action. Nowhere in the US do cyclists come close to the standing that they have in Amsterdam and Copenhagen. A culture of sharing the roads exists in those places to such a degree that observing formal traffic rules, like stop signs and one-way indicators, seem to be beside the point for a safe, smoothly functioning system. In fact, helmets are seldom used, attesting to the confidence that bicyclists have in their system. Of course, speed limits within these cities are on the order of 30 km/hr or 19 mph.
In the US, small to medium-sized college towns are the most likely candidates for being bicycle-friendly, if for no reason other than most students do not have cars. Davis, CA is the foremost example with Boulder, Berkley, Eugene, and Madison being other bike-friendly cities. Madison has the added advantage of being home to several bicycle companies including the renowned Trek company. The author focuses on Portland and NYC as examples of large cities in various stages of being or becoming bicycle-friendly. Of course, Portland has achieved a great deal more than NYC, being of far more manageable size and having started decades ago in planning a bicycle network. NYC efforts are really in their infancy, though there has been a considerable shift in thinking regarding cyclists. Cities need to be attractive to prospective, educated residents for economic viability; Louisville has added bicycling infrastructure for just that reason. Some of the smaller cities mentioned, under strictures of contained growth, have become high-priced enclaves that, ironically, attract well-to-do newcomers who commute by driving to larger cities. In essence, that unexpected development is a setback to the bicycling movement.
Other topics are covered, such as the need to get kids riding bikes again and the obvious health benefits of cycling. These discussions are overloaded with too many programs and officials. In addition, the squabbling among bicycle activists becomes rather obscure concerning the relative merits and hazards of separate bikeways, bike lanes along existing roads, and simply sharing streets. Interesting terms like "bike boxes" or "road diets" are introduced. The author seems to be overly taken by bicycling as a counterculture and the various mass participation events involving bicyclists. The once-a-month Critical Mass rides held in such places as San Fran and Portland, where hundreds of cyclists ride through city streets effectively stopping automobile traffic, are a questionable, annoying tactic that is waning. And there is bike theater, like the Portland Nakid bike ride, which is no doubt entertaining, but more significantly indicates that the bicycling community in Portland will not be ignored.
The book is a nice overview, though hardly comprehensive, of the existence and possibilities of practical bicycling in the US. It is not concerned with bicycling as a sport. The book is more hopeful than realistic concerning the prospects for sufficient support, primarily from governments, to sustain steady growth in practical bicycling. Being able to point to a few positive examples of bicycling does not signify a thoroughgoing movement. The vast majority of bicyclists in the US have no real possibilities of cycling in environments like those of Portland or Davis. Most state and local DOT officials have little interest in making communities safe for bicyclists. For example, instead of wide shoulders or bike lanes along highways, bicycle-prohibitive rumble strips are installed. In most locales, the populace is not clamoring for infrastructure to support bicycling.
The book is interesting from the standpoint of what can exist for cyclists but is also frustrating because it differs so drastically from what most cyclists experience and there is the perception that the author is insufficiently aware of just how unusual his example cities are. In addition, it's not totally clear as to whom the book is targeted: potential cyclists or planners. As typical for a reporter, there is factual overkill which makes the book seem somewhat like a policy or program manual. Real cyclists get shoved to the background in this account.