Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Review: Viva la Bicycle!

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I chanced upon Jeff Mapes Pedaling Revolution while scanning the titles in the NYTimes Book Review, and I am pleased because I’ve reconsidered some of my anger towards inconsiderate drivers. Mapes analyzes the current popularity of cycling in American cities and how cyclists (and alternative transportation methods) are responsible for the direction of urban development. As an avid cyclist, Mapes has an obvious agenda, but as a middle-aged man, he doesn’t promote the riffraff that many young cyclists seem to embrace.

Amsterdam seems to be the benchmark for urban cycling as a popular form of transportation. Mapes, who travelled to Amsterdam and interviewed various local officials, finds that cycling is an efficient and safe means of traversing the Dutch capital. In the Netherlands, few people wear helmets, and intersections often garner yield signs as opposed to full stops; yet accidents involving bicycles are much lower than in the United States. Crowded streets are often lined with cycletracks that run parallel to the streets designed to keep cars and cycles separated. These cycletracks keep bikes away on congested streets but still visible to motorists who may be sharing the road with them on the next street.

Mapes follows his study of Amsterdam with case studies in Davis, California, Portland, Oregon, and New York City. Each city has a distinct method of dealing with cyclists, but Mapes stresses the need for more educated drivers and cyclists. Young cyclists seem to ignore traffic laws out of rebellion—you might have seen these riders each month as they crowd the streets during Critical Mass rides. Critical Mass comes from the idea that Chinese cyclists crowd busy intersections until there is a critical mass of riders large enough to stop the flow of opposing traffic. Throughout America, Critical Mass riders take to the streets in protest of what they deem unsafe riding conditions, but many riders drink and party on the route which sends the wrong message.

Cycling culture is growing and is affecting the way cities are being designed. Roads are being redesigned with green boxes in front of traffic lights which create space for cyclists to line up in order to avoid right-turning vehicles. Other changes involve attempts to prevent suburban sprawl by seriously limiting development beyond certain distances from city centers. The hope is that within a certain number of miles people might be more included to bike or use public transportation.

What I felt was missing throughout this book was an account of the policeman who violently shoved a rider during Critical Mass ride. Maybe the story was only news in NYC, but I still thought it perfectly exemplified how when cyclists and the public are at odds no one wins.

This review might feel more like an essay, but I think Pedaling Revolution touches on very important subjects. This is a worthwhile read for anyone in a city who either rides a bike or has been angered by an aggressive cyclist. No side is right and no side is wrong.

1 comment:

Salvatore said…

This sounds interesting. Even in the UK, I cycled without a helmet and most drivers were considerate to cyclists. Usually cyclists were even encouraged to ride in the centre of the lane. And only once did I see a slight accident (on a roundabout).