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Dec 23 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Velo Love

“Bicycling, once largely seen as a simple pleasure from childhood, has become a political act,” writes Jeff Mapes in his new book, Pedaling Revolution–How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities.

Mapes, a Portland-based reporter for The Oregonian who regularly commutes by bicycle, offers a thoughtful account of the bike scene, past and present, with a glimpse of the future.

I read the book after the UN Climate Change talks broke down in Copenhagen. Bikes, Mapes notes, could play a crucial role in shrinking the U.S. carbon footprint. He cites some startling data. “If everyone cycled for an hour and reduced their driving by an equivalent distance, the U.S. would cut its gasoline consumption by 38 percent,” he writes. “Greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by 12 percent, which is greater than the reductions called for in the Kyoto treat.”

But Mapes isn’t naïve about getting every American out of a car and onto a bicycle. It was his love of bicycling that inspired him to write the book, not a churlish attitude towards cars.

Mapes fell in love with bicycling as a kid, but didn’t think seriously about it until the 1990s when Portland embarked on an ambitious program to build a network of bike lanes, trails, and bicycle boulevards that crisscrossed the city. “The improvements helped turn me into a daily bike commuter,” he writes.

He first traces the history of bicycle advocacy in the United States. Then he tours around the world, stopping in bike mecca Amsterdam, Davis, California, and New York City.

One of the things I found compelling about the book is Mapes’ analysis of the two philosophical camps within the bike scene: those who want to bike on the roads like a vehicle and those who advocate for separate space.

The number one reason why more people don’t bike is safety. “As long ago as 1996, the U.S. surgeon general, in a landmark report on physical activity, said that 53 percent of people who had cycled in the previous year said they would commute to work by bike if they could do so on ‘safe, separated designated paths,’ ” Mapes writes. 53 percent!

Separate paths of bikeways may be the future (some cycle tracks already exist in Portland and New York City). Currently the most popular and cheap way to accommodate biking is bike lanes.

While critics say bike lanes can give a false sense of security, there is some safety in numbers. Mapes quotes Jane Stutts, a retired safety researcher from University of North Carolina, who acknowledges a paucity of hard data. “About best you can do is show [bike lanes] increase bike traffic without increasing crashes,” she says.

After reading Mapes’ book, it seemed to me that we need more bike lanes, more bike ways, and more cycle tracks.

It’s a sign of the “mainstreaming” of bicycling that funds from the stimulus package include spending on improvements for bicyclists and pedestrians. Republican Senators John McCain (AZ) and Tom Coburn (OK) attacked the funding as “pork.”

Streetsblog reports:  “McCain and Coburn released a report criticizing 100 projects being funded by the Obama administration’s stimulus law. On the senators’ hit list were three bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure projects, in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota.”

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood fired back at McCain and Coburn’s report  on his blog:

“We’ve worked hard this year to get our Recovery Act dollars out to the states quickly and effectively. Yes, some of those projects include bike paths, a key ingredient in our livability initiative to allow people to live, work, and get around without a car. . . . We don’t call that waste; we call it progress.”

It is progress! Bikes may only get 1 percent of the transportation budget, but it’s something.

The book ends with a chapter called “Bringing Kids Back to Bikes.” Too many kids do not ride to school, often because their schools lie on the outskirts of cities near dangerous intersections. He suggests bike clubs, held after school. Kids would get the exercise they need and learn to become safer riders.

What I appreciated most about this book was the tone. Mapes does an exemplary job explaining the arcane workings of federal funding and offers readers a ride through cities we may never get to visit. He also describes the sadness of a memorial ride for a young cyclist who was killed by a cement truck turning right on red.

But he has no fury towards cars. At the core of the book is joy—Mapes really does love his bicycle.

(I interview Mapes on WORT-FM on December 23. Click here to listen. It starts 45 minutes in.)

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