Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities Paperback – Mar 1 2009
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In a world of increasing traffic congestion, a grassroots movement
is carving out a niche for bicycles on city streets. Pedaling
Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities explores the
growing bike culture that is changing the look and feel of cities,
suburbs, and small towns across North America.
From traffic-dodging bike messengers to tattooed teenagers on battered
bikes, from riders in spandex to well-dressed executives, ordinary
citizens are becoming transportation revolutionaries. Jeff Mapes traces
the growth of bicycle advocacy and explores the environmental, safety,
and health aspects of bicycling. He rides with bicycle advocates who
are taming the streets of New York City, joins the street circus that
is Critical Mass in San Francisco, and gets inspired by the everyday
folk pedaling in Amsterdam, the nirvana of American bike activists.
Chapters focused on big cities, college towns, and America’s most
successful bike city, Portland, show how cyclists, with the
encouragement of local officials, are claiming a share of the valuable
An essential primer on the bicycling advocacy movement.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
And I live in the American Mecca (or "Amsterdam") of bicycling, namely Portland, Oregon, as does author Jeff Mapes.
But my most dramatic confession is this: I'm only halfway through Pedaling Revolution. (Eep.)
But at this point in the journey, the rest of the book could be printed in Swahili (I have nothing against the language, besides being unable to read it) and this would still be a five-star read. Why? Well, in a general sense, Mapes has done a fine job of giving me a historical context for the evolution of the bicycle in our society. Fair enough, but surely other books do the same?
They do. But Mapes brings a professional journalist's chops to this assignment. He peppers his account with interviews and human interest angles, and he knows the value of both a well-placed anecdote and statistic. To put it crudely, while Mapes' research was clearly Herculean, he doesn't let you see him sweat.
I'll be back to edit this review upon book's completion, but here are a few specifics that stick out in my mind this far:
By one UCLA professor's estimate, the sum total of all the parking spaces in the U.S. take up an area about the size of Connecticut. (Remember, that doesn't count roads!) Ouch.
Suffragette Belva Ann Lockwood (she twice ran for president in the late 1800s) was often spotted pedaling around Washington D.C. on her largish tricycle. As she said, "A tricycle means independence for women, and it also means health."
Along the lines of quotable quotes, try this one on for size: "The more I think about U.S. domestic transportation problems... the more I see an increased role for the bicycle in American life." George H.W. Bush, U.S. ambassador to China, 1975
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.
I live in a city with a bike culture in its infancy. It's inspiring to read of how bicycles have been integrated into other cities; to learn from both the success and failures of others.
If you've been a regular reader of Bicycling Magazine, Dirt Rag, or even the Associated Press, then you'll probably have a few moments of deja vu: "Wait a minute, haven't I read this before?" Jeff is a professional journalist, and so the themes, if not content, of his shorter works have been recycled and collected into a larger tome.
I haven't finished "Pedaling Revolution" yet. The book was just so darn good that I had to get out and ride my bike!