GM just went bust.
The Highway "Trust" Fund went bust a few months ago.
The repo man is busy, busy, busy.
No better time than today to introduce a great book that celebrates a better way: Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities, by Jeff Mapes.
Pedaling is an amazing read. It is encyclopedic. It is well researched. It is a complete statement of the state of the bike movement today. For those of us who have been involved in bike advocacy (including yours truly), it is a mesmerizing read. The book is broad in scope; so much so that it becomes clear that our trials and tribulations here on the local level are, in fact, echoed on the national level.
Even for non-bike geeks, the book provides a sense of adventure, almost in a Huck-floats-down-the-Mississippi sort of way.
Mapes, a political reporter in Portland, took a leave from his statehouse duties to divine the Zeitgeist of cycling, circa 2008. First he traveled to several successful bike cities in the U.S.-and even across the Atlantic. He observed the two-wheeled action. Then he set out to interview the people who helped create the conditions for successful biking in their localities.
Powerbrokers take note: It is no coincidence that a political reporter took up the task of writing this book. Indeed, it was a natural. The emerging political power of bicyclists animates this book. Many states and localities bemoan the loss of their kids after they've graduated from college. Well, it might behoove them to check out the places they are losing their kids to. This book provides a nice, shall we say, bike route map for creating places which attract and retain a thoughtful, creative and just plain competent populace. Smart people don't like to live in places that suck. Bicycle-friendly places tend not to suck. (Note to the recession-ridden: Your giant highways suck.)
To give the reader a feel for how far cycle advocacy has come, Mapes takes a trip on the Way-Back Machine to interview the old bulls of the bike world--the likes of Dan Burden, Bill Wilkinson and, of course, John Forester. By bringing us all the way up through the history of the movement to the present, Pedaling illustrates just how far we've come since Effective Cycling was the be-all-end-all of bike advocacy. Not that there is anything wrong with EC; I am, after all, a League Cycling Instructor. But there is a lot more to changing the world than just learning to effectively defy death on auto-centric roads.
Though Mapes essentially confesses to being a partisan at the outset of the book (he is a dedicated bike commuter), he does a marvelous job of even-handedly teasing out the oft-conflicting factions within the bike movement. (He is a journalist by profession, after all.).
The book celebrates characters like the inimitable Reverend Phil of Portland, the wacky connoisseur extraordinaire of all things bike culture. And to be sure, it is heavy on analysis of what makes the hip bike capitals the hip bike capitals they are (the Portlands, the Amsterdams, the Davises, etc.). But I found the book most compelling, in a glimpse-into-the-future sort of way, when Mapes picks the minds of unlikely proponents of bicycling:
- The Mayor of patently un-hip Louisville, Kentucky, who sets out to build hundreds of miles of bikeways, with an eye toward creating an environment that retains and attracts an educated and creative workforce.
- A world-renowned Safe Routes to School coordinator who came to bicycling via asthma.
- Public health professionals/academics who finally "got it" in the late '90s (yes, Virginia, there is a connection between land use/transportation policy and health).
- An old-line New Dealer in Congress whose district probably doesn't need much bike infrastructure given its rural nature, but who fights like mad for bike and pedestrian funds nonetheless.
- The former Parsons-Brinkerhoff (yeah, that mega-highway building concern) executive who is single-handedly taming New York's mean streets -- as an appointee in a Republican administration! -- to the benefit of cyclists and pedestrians.
- The tech entrepreneur who sees beyond his own fast growth business but uses that tech prestige to leverage better bike conditions -- i.e., a better world around him.
The bicycle-wielding barbarians have crashed the gates. Indeed, they are in the king's court. Mapes notes with relish that Barack Obama is the first president to have specifically included bicycling as a major component of his transportation platform during a campaign (results TBD, of course).
The one quibble I have with the book is Mape's heavy reliance on the paid and professional. It is kind of like a car mechanic diagnosing a sputtering car by only looking at the engine block while ignoring the spark plugs. The folks who actually show up at city council meetings don't get their due here.
This is too bad because, after all, it was their dreaming and political pressure that brought about paid positions for the bicycle professionals in the first place. The individuality of the professionals comes through loud and clear; the civic volunteers, not so much. This complaint notwithstanding, the auto-centric world has much to learn from this encyclopedic look at the cities winning with a bicycle-centered strategy.
Michael D. Barrett is a land use, transportation and energy efficiency analyst with UrbanThoreau LLC. Read more about creating places that don't suck on his blog.