Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

You Say You Want a Pedaling Revolution?

Dateline: 1:49 pm August 14, 2009 Filed under:

Well, you know, we all want to change the world. All apologies to the Beatles, but a revolution is indeed fomenting, and is captured very well in Pedaling Revolution, an excellent new book by Jeff Mapes.

Mapes, perhaps unsurprisingly, lives in Portland, Oregon, a leading cycling town in America. His book takes us through efforts to increase awareness and safety of bicycling. Along the way, we navigate the cycling capitol of Amsterdam, as well as long-time American cycling cities like Davis, California. We also learn of efforts to increase biking in New York City, Chicago and Madison.

Mapes mixes policy and the joy of biking. We ride with him in Critical Mass and the World Naked Bike Ride, and meet several old-time biking enthusiasts. He mixes counterculture efforts and figures with prominent members of Congress, like Minnesota Representative Jim Oberstar, a friend of the biking lobby. Readers will not only enjoy the book, but take away valuable insight as to how to affect change in their city.

I should add that my friend Lewis Dijkstra gets a couple mentions in the book for his cycling safety research with John Pucher at Rutgers. Dijkstra rides to his job in Brussels, and I have fond memories on my visit there of he and I cycling through the city and countryside at the “blue,” or twilight hour, in search of a pub. The musician David Byrne also gets a mention. Who knew he was a bicycling enthusiast?

Among other places, one can find Pedaling Revolution at Powell’s Books.

I have to say, I am witnessing a pedaling revolution in many places I visit, as well as my own Minneapolis. Everywhere I go, more people are biking, especially for everyday trips and errands. Part of it was the gas price spike of 2008, and part of it is improved infrastructure. A recent visit to Chicago proved the latter. I visit often, but only in the last year have I noticed more bike lanes and riders in that city.

Here in Minneapolis, my very own neighborhood could be mistaken for Amsterdam with helmets. Not that bikes outnumber cars, but they certainly are a bigger presence on city streets than in years past. A friend of mine uses a beat up old one-speed to get from home to the train station. I see several older neighbors frequently on two wheels, and my neighbor across the alley uses a ragged three-wheeler to haul scrap metal from a nearby junkyard home to his garage, where he re-machines it. A neighbor family of four (a four and one year old) have no car, and use a bike for many of their trips.

I relish the opportunities to cycle, and although I still use my car for most day to day needs, I bring Ellis to school using a bike and trailer. Given the option, it is silly to start the car twice for a four-block trip. Besides, I enjoy the time spent outdoors.

There are obstacles, and we’re working hard to overcome them here and elsewhere. A few Minneapolis examples (locals may recognize the route, those of you elsewhere will no doubt have similar stories). You can follow along on a visual tour here on Picasaweb.

My trip to Ellis’s school is a test of my cycling mettle. A simple route, 30th Avenue to 38th Street to Minnehaha Avenue, but full of obstacles. We exit my alley and trek down 30th Avenue, which ends in a cul-de-sac at 38th Street. Biking on 38th Street itself is treacherous – the crossing of Hiawatha Avenue (a major state highway) and the light rail tracks is chaotic. Besides, there is no curb cut to get to 38th and no space on the street once you are there. So I use a curb cut for a private driveway to access the sidewalk. To get around the gate arm mounting, the sidewalk wiggles a full width to the right and back, all in a very short linear distance, making doing it on a bike tricky.

I press the button and wait for the walk signal to cross Hiawatha, which doesn’t always appear, even with a green at this 8-phase light. The crosswalk bends around the center island, and cars are frequently stopped in the crosswalk anyway. Then it is up the tiny right turn island, down across the right turn lane (cars rarely yield to me), and up again on to a deteriorated sidewalk. The crossing of the four freight rail tracks is treacherous, as the concrete spacers end towards the right side of the sidewalk and form a jagged pattern, so I must be careful not to drop a wheel of my trailer in the rut.

The rest of the trip is clear sailing. I can scoot in to the street and ride the way I should. Only on my return do I take to the sidewalk again for the entire trip, as I know it is technically wrong, but far safer as a result, as long as I ride more like a pedestrian and assume every vehicle out there doesn’t see me. So far, so good.

The interesting thing is all the parents at Ellis’s school who bring their kids by bike. There are trailers, rear-mounted seats, tagalongs, handlebar-mounted seats, sidecars! All us crazy helicopter parents risking life and limb to save the planet. A revolution indeed!

The other route is to get downtown from my house. There is a wonderful trail from 26th Street to 11th Avenue, the middle of the route, but the beginning and end are the challenge. The first few blocks of the trail parallel to Hiawatha Avenue are fine – a double wide 12 foot sidewalk. Crossings at 35th and 32nd Streets involve curb cuts and some minor turns, and nobody really waits for a WALK signal.

At 32nd Street the sidewalk mysteriously necks down to half its width. The Lake Street crossing involves a wait for a long light and being marooned on an island, and crossing a right turn lane that doesn’t seem to ever have a signal (I could be wrong about this). Once across, there is an odd No Trespassing sign on the sidewalk, right next to, incidentally, the light rail station entrance. It is as if biking and transit are discouraged.

It gets worse. Immediately up the sidewalk, riding against a highway off ramp, in a canyon between a rail and highway viaduct, the sidewalk abruptly narrows to about three feet wide, with the bridge abutment forming the barrier.

Soon you are at 26th Street and the trail, and all is well until you get dumped off at 11th Avenue with a choice to turn right or left but no real good way to get in to the core of downtown, which where most people are headed. You must cross a couple parking lots before finding another bike lane.

All of this is frustrating but not impossible to overcome. One effort locally is Minnehaha-Hiawatha Community Works, an effort led by Hennepin County to solve the areas of which I speak more bike and pedestrian-friendly, among other things. As well, nationwide Complete Streets efforts are helping.

Pedaling Revolution is a great read, and serves to show us all how far we have to go before biking becomes truly commonplace in our cities. Let’s crank those pedals! The revolution is on!

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