Pedaling Revolution: Book Review

Many Aussie cyclists are skeptical that we can ever change our car-obsessed national identity. ‘It’s all right of Europe, they are cycling-centred.  We can never be like Copenhagen or Amsterdam.’

If possible, the people of USA are even more wedded to their cars than Australians. (Where else do you drive your car to the supermarket complex across the freeway from your house because there is absolutely no other way to get there than by motor vehicle?)

A recent book by Jeff Mapes Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities shows that, even in the land of the Chev and the home of the V-8, there is a move to get more people out of their “steel cages with air bags” and onto  “whispy two-wheeled exoskeletons”.

In the introduction, Jeff Mapes says that there is “a grass-roots movement to seize at least a part of the street back from motorists.”

Jeff Mapes is senior political reporter for The Oregonian, a dedicated cycling commuter and bicycle advocate who lives in Portland, one of three ‘Platinum’ cycling cities in the USA.

He covers many aspects of how Portland, and many other cities in the USA, are becoming havens for commuting and recreational cyclists.  The writing is well-researched and documented but the book is both entertaining and informative.

Mapes describes how cyclists created a political movement, and ‘New Urban Bike Culture’ but does not over-ice the cake.  He briefly outlines the history of the bicycle in the USA, eloquently putting today’s movement into context.   He acknowledges that there are multiple stumbling blocks, and that different cycling groups have differing views on what cycling infrastructure is needed and even differing views on how to ride in traffic.  (One group advocates that there should be no separation or bike lanes for cyclists, who should ride as if they are part of the motor traffic.  Other groups advocate separate facilities for cyclists.  Many concede that while some cyclists are confident and assertive riding in heavy traffic, others require quieter cycling routes separated from motor vehicles either by lane markings or on separate cycleways.)

To put the American cycling experience into context, Jeff Mapes did a trip to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, a place where a majority of city travel is by bicycle.  He rode with the commuters and recreation riders, and commented that both the cost of fuel and the registration expenses for cars are vastly higher than in the USA.  He also visited Paris with its incredibly successful Velib’ (velo libre – free bike) system which in 2009 included twenty thousand bikes and 1,450 bike stations.

Case studies – of people and places – illustrate the changes that are occurring in cycling in many American cities.  For example, one family, the Durnings of Seattle, decided to have a “Year of Living Car-lessly” (outlined on the Sightline blog).  He also features Davis (a college town in California) and Portland, Oregon (a city of more that half a million), two urban communities that have been awarded ‘Platinum’ cycling status (cities are rated – bronze, silver, gold and platinum based on their level of cycling usage, cycle friendliness and infrastructure).  Oregon made the commitment that one percent of all road funding should go to cycling infrastructure.  Despite Portland’s climate (average winter maximum temperature around 8 Celsius, with snowfalls common), 6% of commuters travel by bicycle.  Jeff Mapes titled Chapter 5 Portland Built it and They Cameto show that when there is cycling infrastructure, people will use it.  He also describes the various types of facilities needed – not just on direct road bike routes, but cycleways, quieter urban routes designed to be cycling friendly, and also the vital need for end-of-trip facilities like secure cycle parking, change rooms and showers for commuting cyclists.

In Biking in The Big Apple, Jeff Mapes describes how cycling is becoming mainstream transport for many commuters in New York, mirroring trends in European cities like London.

Many people are afraid to cycle – fearing a collision which would leave them gravely injured or dead.  Once again, Jeff Mapes illustrates this real threat with the case of two Oregon cyclists killed in separate incidents by trucks turning right across their paths at intersections (akin with vehicles turning left in Australia).  Better infrastructure leads to more people cycling.  The greater the presence of cyclists, the safer statistically they (and other road users) become.  Mapes makes the point that the presence of cyclists may reduce the overall speed of traffic enough to reduce the number and severity of collisions without any real effect on travel times.  He states that most cyclists aren’t taught how to ride safely in traffic – learning as they ride –  and that many also ride unsafely and break road rules.  He discusses the pros and cons of bicycle helmet laws.  The case study is included of Ian Walker, a Cambridge UK researcher.  Walker electronically measured how close motorists came to his bike as they passed.  He found that motorists gave more leeway when he wasn’t wearing a helmet, but even more space when he wore  a long blonde wig so he looked like a woman.  Mapes concludes “maybe the best thing I can do is to keep wearing my helmet, but add a blonde wig.”

The chapter on cycling safety is followed by one titled Health and the Bicycle .  Mapes uses his own experience of how taking up cycle commuting led to loss of weight which had been gradually building up since college days.  He touches also on the perception that cyclists inhale high levels of air pollution and cites studies that show that, except where cyclists share a lane with diesel buses, the levels of pollutants inside a car are greater than those outside.  Perhaps we should give cuts in the Medicare levy to cyclists who are lighter and healthier than their motoring neighbours and have a much lower risk of obesity-related illnesses.

Many of us rode bikes as children.  Jeff Mapes is concerned that children today are more likely to be chauffeured to school than to walk or ride a bike, and that many children don’t cycle.  He describes various programs to promote cycling and walking to school, commenting that cyclists and pedestrians are eyes on the street – making our streets safer.

In the final paragraph of the last chapter Jeff Mapes states:

Humans are social animals and most of us want to cluster together in some fashion.  And to me that’s one of the great things about the bike.  It provides a vehicles that enhances the city’s streetscapes instead of degrading them; houses sell for less if they’re on arterials, but they hold their value just fine on bike boulevards.  And bikes can be a lovely way to experience the city.

I recommend this book to anyone who shares the dream of a transport system that includes a more important place for bicycles, and a transport culture where the bicycle has a legitimate place.  For any cyclist, it shows what is possible when people are prepared to work towards more liveable cities through a more balanced transport model.

Jeff Mapes, Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities, Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, 2009.

My copy came from The Geelong Regional Library.

Changing Gears: A Pedal-Powered Detour from the Rat Race

Expecting a book about bicycle touring of the east coast – from Melbourne to Cairns, I was surprised to find that there was so much more to this book.  Indeed, Greg Foyster’s account of this eight month journey of discovery, was a personal quest for self.    The trip culminated with an invitation to view a total eclipse of the sun at the Aboriginal settlement of Yarrabah in Far North Queensland.

For years before the tour, Greg Foyster had been torn between his highly successful career in advertising, and his belief that the world was over-materialistic.  Finally, in 1998, this caused him to leave his job and become a freelance journalist, writing about environment and sustainability issues.

The whole purpose of the tour was to research alternative ways in which people live, sustain themselves, and nurture and impact upon their environment.  Along with his cellist partner Sophie, and using the necessaries of life postulated by 19th century American philosopher Henry David Thoreau as a guide, Foyster set out to find the possibilities for shelter, community, food, work, clothing, technology, money, health and spirituality and environment.

The book is about the people encountered (deliberately and by chance) along the way, and the communities and alternative lifestyles explored.  All this, travelling in a sustainable way, by bicycle, with a budget of just $10 per day.

Greg was a commuting cyclist.  Sophie was not a cyclist at all.  So preparations included purchase of bikes and gear, including a tent (a second hand Aldi tent for $50 which was barely adequate but, apparently, lasted the distance).

After a training trip to Tasmania, and forays to look at sustainable lifestyles and housing in Melton and central Victoria and community living at Murandaka co-housing complex in Heidelberg Heights and Moora Moora commune near Healesville, they were finally off through Gippsland towards the border with New South Wales.  Initially, the whole adventure was difficult.  It took two days to leave the suburban sprawl, there was, as yet, no routine for cycling and camping and a knee injury led to an enforced stay in Koo Wee Rup.

As they travelled, they focused on Thoreau’s needs.  In Bega, a farmer’s market yielded fresh local produce and Greg pondered on our manufactured need to have all things available everywhere, with huge transport costs and ignorance of what is actually local and in season (and cheap).  Even roadkill was on the menu at one stage – and this from a pair who were vegetarian.  As they cycled, their philosophies changed.

From Bega, the pair faced the formidable climb of Brown Mountain to the Monaro Plains.  In Canberra, Greg researched the rat race, with the average citizen on a treadmill to produce enough money to live an affluent lifestyle based on acquisition of ever more ‘stuff’.  Visits to downshifters followed (after a visit to ‘Workaholics Anonimous’ for Greg).

Even in the most affluent suburb of Vaucluse in Sydney, Greg and Sophie visited Alexia, who lives in a flat and practises and teaches permaculture.  Greg also did a spot of unsuccessful dumpster raiding for food before visiting ABCs Costa Georgiadis and his community verge vegie patch.

After Sydney, the pair continued north through Tamworth, Armidale, and spent time in the alternative lifestyle ‘Rainbow Region’ around Nimbin.  On the way they met John, who has been walking the highways between Queensland and Melbourne for many years, living off the coins and leftovers he finds on the side of the road.

Warnings abounded, once in Queensland, that it would be suicide to attempt the Bruce Highway between Townsville and Cairns.  There was little alternative and the ride was achieved (with the usual detours to visit interesting people).  By this time Greg was passionate to learn more about the flora and fauna of the region through which they travelled.

After their eight month trip, Greg and Sophie made their date with the eclipse, before loading the bicycles on the train for the journey home.  Greg Foyster concludes the narrative with a list of adages like ‘Work with what you’ve got’, ‘Time is life’, ‘Ignore the c-word’ (can’t), ‘Stuff breeds stuff’ and ‘Simple living isn’t so simple’.  Sophie’s contribution is a list of ‘Eleven stupid things Greg did’.

The book is entertaining, enlightening and amusing.  It’s a true cycling book – about cycling as part as a lifestyle – without being a book about cycling.  Highly recommended.

My personal conundrum.  In trying to be sustainable, I prefer to use libraries rather than constantly buy new books.  But how can I make a contribution to an author of a book I really appreciate if I’m not paying a royalty?

Heels on Wheels: A lady’s guide to owning and riding a bike, Katie Dailey

Book Review

“The bicycle is the most civilised conveyance know to man.  Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish.  Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.” Iris MurdochWhen I picked this book up from my holds at the library, I was ready to be disappointed.  The cover image is cute and I was ready for yet another expose of all the reasons why women just don’t do cycling as seriously as men.

How wrong I was.   From the first pages through to the index, this book is for anyone who wants to use their bike as part of their regular lifestyle.  Though targeted at women, the information is relevant to all.

‘The bicycle is just as good company as most husbands and, when it gets old and shabby, a woman can dispose of it and get a new one without shocking the entire community.”  Ann Strong, Minneapolis Tribune, 1895

The book starts with several pages of quotations by women about the impact of cycling.  Katie Dowling then introduces herself as a Londoner and cyclist commuter and writes about the superiority of the bicycle over other methods of transport in the urban environment.  For example:

It’s easier to be punctual – once you’ve been cycling for a while you’ll know roughly how long it’ll take you to get anywhere, without having to factor in public transport delays or heavy traffic.  

However, Katie Dowling acknowledges the pitfalls of cycling and gives a list of tips:  Cycling in the City: Five things to look out for when you’re cycling in the big smoke.  These include potholes, garbage trucks. crazy taxi drivers, car doors and inexperience riders.  

After a humourous description of some ‘typical’ types of cyclists (are you a fashion victim, earth mother, speed demon or retro rider?), complete with delightful illustrations by Clare Owen, Dowling moves on to choosing the correct bike for your needs, including tips for checking out second hand bikes.

Chapter 2 is titled ‘How to Incorporate Cycling into your Lifestyle’.  It covers issues of hair and make-up and how to cycle in a skirt, as well as gender-non-specific issues of helmets, gloves and glasses, being seen, wet weather gear, shoes, lights, carrying gear, bells and, very importantly, avoiding being a smelly workmate.  While the focus is female, the information is all practical and presented lightheartedly.

Then it’s onto the bike vicariously as Katie Dowling outlines some essentials for staying safe on the bicycle.  These include such things as being visible, taking lessons for skills and confidence, following road rules, forward planning, being assertive and taking your road space, coping with intersections and potentially inattentive drivers.  Some riding tips include being wary of buses, scanning to the side and rear regularly, never riding in ice or snow, braking, medications, and staying off the bike when affected by alcohol.

‘Don’t take for granted that any driver knows what they’re doing though.  Never assume a motorist has looked in his/her wing mirrors; they might not have.  When cycling alongside white vans, try to make fleeting eye contact with the driver so you can be sure they’ve seen you.’

The next chapter is about keeping your hard-won bicycle – where and how to park your bike, bike locks and bicycle insurance.

I thought of that while riding my bike.”  Albert Einstein on the Theory of Relativity.  

Should I cycle when pregnant?  Can I give a friend (or a pet) a lift on your bike?  Should I listen to music or the radio whilst cycling?  What should I do if there is an accident?  Chapter 5 is more practical advice answering these and other potential cyclist questions.

The final chapter deals with basic bike maintenance – puncture repairs, pumping tyres, simple adjustments and bike cleaning.

This little, beautifully illustrated and presented book kept me entertained all the way to Melbourne on the train.  It’s aim is to demystify cycling for women, and support them to become confident enough to incorporate cycling in their every day lives.  Even for those of us who use our bikes as regular transport, there are new perspectives.  It’s worth reading for the numerous quotes like:

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling.  I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.  It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.  I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel … the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”  Susan B. Anthony, 1820-1906, abolitionist and leader of the American women’s suffrage movement.