The author, not a hard-core cyclist by any stretch, after discovering in the 1990s that his city, Portland, OR, had a substantial bicycle network of roads and paths, began commuting on his bicycle to his job as a political reporter located only a few miles from his home in central Portland. His dedication to bicycle commuting led to this investigation of the extent to which bicycles have become utilitarian vehicles in other cities. The book looks at individual commuters as well as support structures and bodies that facilitate commuting by bicycle. While bicycle commuting is noticeable in some cities, it is an overstatement to say that a bicycling revolution is taking place in the US.
In reality, a few cities in the US, some small, some large, most with special demographic and geographical circumstances, all with concerns of congestion and environmental degradation, and, most importantly, the coincidence of having cycling-centered officials in city planning and transportation departments, have been able to make cycling safer and more enjoyable through a variety of measures such as creating bike lanes along existing roads, improved signage, and in some cases special bikeways. However, the author admits that the peak of bicycle ownership in the US actually occurred in the 1970s. The percentage of commuter trips on bicycles, even with recent upticks, still remains quite small in these few locales. The author does not squarely face the fact that, in the current architecture of American communities, places of work, living, and shopping are not co-located, which makes bicycle usage most impractical. There is no getting around the fact that our communities and lives are integrally tied to the automobile.
The author reviews key legislation and programs, ranging from federal down to cities, which facilitate bicycle commuting. Perhaps the key legislation was The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991, since updated, which required state DOTs to designate a bicycle coordinator. In addition, supporters in Congress, like Rep Jim Oberstar from Minnesota, remain essential. Of more interest is the author’s visits to various locales both in the US and Europe to see bicycle commuting in action. Nowhere in the US do cyclists come close to the standing that they have in Amsterdam and Copenhagen. A culture of sharing the roads exists in those places to such a degree that observing formal traffic rules, like stop signs and one-way indicators, seem to be beside the point for a safe, smoothly functioning system. In fact, helmets are seldom used, attesting to the confidence that bicyclists have in their system. Of course, speed limits within these cities are on the order of 30 km/hr or 19 mph.
In the US, small college towns are the most likely candidates for being bicycle-friendly, if for no reason other than most students do not have cars. Davis, CA is the foremost example with Boulder, Berkley, Eugene, and Madison being other bike-friendly cities. Madison has the added advantage of being home to several bicycle companies including the renowned Trek company. The author focuses on Portland and NYC as examples of large cities in various stages of being or becoming bicycle-friendly. Of course, Portland has achieved a great deal more than NYC, being of far more manageable size and having started decades ago in planning a bicycle network. NYC efforts are really in their infancy, though there has been a considerable shift in thinking regarding cyclists. Cities need to be attractive to prospective, educated residents for economic viability; Louisville has added bicycling infrastructure for just that reason. Some of the smaller cities mentioned, under strictures of contained growth, have become high-priced enclaves that, ironically, attract well-to-do commuters not able to ride bikes to work, essentially diminishing years of efforts by bicycle activists.
Other topics are covered, such as the need to get kids riding bikes again and the obvious health benefits of cycling. These discussions drag with the proliferation of programs and officials. In addition, the squabbling among bicycle activists becomes rather obscure concerning the relative merits and hazards of separate bikeways, bike lanes along existing roads, and simply sharing streets. Interesting terms like “bike boxes” or “road diets” are introduced. The author seems to be overly taken by bicycling as a counterculture and the various mass participation events involving bicyclists. The once-a-month Critical Mass rides held in such places as San Fran and Portland, where hundreds of cyclists ride through city streets effectively stopping automobile traffic, are a questionable, annoying tactic that is waning. And there is bike theater, like the Portland Naked bike ride, which is no doubt entertaining, but more significantly indicates that the bicycling community in Portland will not be ignored.
The book is a nice overview, though hardly comprehensive, of the existence and possibilities of practical bicycling in the US. It is not concerned with bicycling as a sport. The book is more hopeful than realistic concerning the prospects for sufficient support primarily from governments to sustain steady growth in practical bicycling. Being able to point to a few positive examples does not constitute a thoroughgoing movement. The vast majority of bicyclists in the US have no real prospects of cycling in environments like those of Portland or Davis. Most state and local DOT officials have no interest in making communities safe for bicyclists. For example, instead of wide shoulders or bike lanes along highways, bicycle-prohibitive rumble strips are installed. In most locales, the populace is not clamoring for infrastructure to support bicycling.
The book is interesting from the standpoint of what can exist for cyclists but is also frustrating because it differs so drastically from what most cyclists experience and the perception that the author is insufficiently aware of just how unusual his example cities are. In addition, it’s not totally clear as to whom the book is targeted: potential cyclists or planners. It’s rather policy oriented.
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Jeff Mapes has thoroughly researched everything from the history of cycling as transportation to the effect of suburban sprawl on the U.S.'s health. However, as a journalist he clearly knows when to place statistics and personal testimonials, leading to an engaging and compelling read.
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Chris Horne, March 30, 2009 (view all comments by Chris Horne)
A few confessions. First, I fall into the ideal reading demographic for this book. I own bikes. I ride bikes. And I am very interested in transportation issues, particularly as they pertain to bicycles. When Tom Vanderbilt's extraordinary book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) came out, the first thing I did with it was turn to the index and look up all the references to bicycles. (You say "nerdy" and I say "wonky"!)
And I live in the American Mecca (or "Amsterdam") of bicycling, namely Portland, Oregon, as does author Jeff Mapes.
But my most dramatic confession is this: I'm only halfway through Pedaling Revolution. (Eep.)
But at this point in the journey, the rest of the book could be printed in Swahili (I have nothing against the language, besides being unable to read it) and this would still be a five-star read. Why? Well, in a general sense, Mapes has done a fine job of giving me a historical context for the evolution of the bicycle in our society. Fair enough, but surely other books do the same?
They do. But Mapes brings a professional journalist's chops to this assignment. He peppers his account with interviews and human interest angles, and he knows the value of both a well-placed anecdote and statistic. To put it crudely, while Mapes' research was clearly Herculean, he doesn't let you see him sweat.
I'll be back to edit this review upon book's completion, but here are a few specifics that stick out in my mind this far:
By one UCLA professor's estimate, the sum total of all the parking spaces in the U.S. take up an area about the size of Connecticut. (Remember, that doesn't count roads!) Ouch.
Suffragette Belva Ann Lockwood (she twice ran for president in the late 1800s) was often spotted pedaling around Washington D.C. on her largish tricycle. As she said, "A tricycle means independence for women, and it also means health."
Along the lines of quotable quotes, try this one on for size: "The more I think about U.S. domestic transportation problems... the more I see an increased role for the bicycle in American life." George H.W. Bush, U.S. ambassador to China, 1975
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Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities
Used Trade Paper
0 stars -
OSU Press -
by Chris Bolton,
Mapes's fantastic and inspiring Pedaling Revolution deserves to be read by everyone, from the cycle-curious to the cycle-phobic. Love it or hate it, the pedaling revolution is upon us — read all about it!
by Chris Bolton
"Publishers Weekly Review"
by Publishers Weekly,
"In a time of climate change and car-worship, bicycle riding has become a political statement and a policy issue, with its own grassroots movement working 'to seize at least a part of the street back from motorists.' After a dry but brief history of the bicycle and its political significance (Susan B. Anthony said bicycles have 'done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world'), Mapes reports from the world capitals of bicycle culture. Mapes explores Amsterdam, marveling at the ease with which cyclists, motorists and pedestrians share the road. In San Francisco and New York City, he finds cycling groups at their most hip and radical, and joins them on a 'Critical Mass' protest, in which cyclists take to the streets en masse to block traffic and take over rush hour streets; they've caused siginificant headaches for the NYPD, especially during the 2004 National Republican Convention. Focusing largely on the cyclists themselves, Mapes puts a passionate and pragmatic face to the 'new urban bike movement' while connecting the dots between cycling culture and a host of quality of life issues." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
by Joe Kurmaskie, The Oregonian,
"To date, Pedaling Revolution is easily the best book-length examination of cycling culture and its connection to big-picture issues. It could do for bicycling what Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma did to put food choices on people's radar, and what The Long Emergency has done to educate people about peak oil.... Hardcore advocates will even learn a thing or two."
by Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us),
"Writing from Portland, the hub of the American cycling renaissance, Jeff Mapes, brimming with passion, humor and salutary insight, makes an admirably clearheaded, convincing and, ultimately, humane argument for making more room for the two-wheeler, in our lives and on our roads."
"Finally, the bicycling movement gets the serious examination that it deserves." Jane Holtz Kay, author of Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back
In a world of growing traffic congestion, expensive oil, and threats of cataclysmic climate change, a grassroots movement is carving out a niche for bicycles on the streets of urban cityscapes. In Pedaling Revolution, Jeff Mapes explores the growing urban bike culture that is changing the look and feel of cities across the U.S. He rides with bike advocates who are taming the streets of New York City, joins the street circus that is Critical Mass in San Francisco, and gets inspired by the everyday folk pedaling in Amsterdam, the nirvana of American bike activists. Mapes, a seasoned political journalist and long-time bike commuter, explores the growth of bicycle advocacy while covering such issues as the environmental, safety, and health aspects of bicycling for short urban trips. His rich cast of characters includes Noah Budnick, a young bicycle advocate in New York who almost died in a crash near the Brooklyn Bridge, and Congressman James Oberstar (D-MN), who took to bicycling in his fifties and helped unleash a new flood of federal money for bikeways. Chapters set in Chicago and Portland show how bicycling has became a political act, with seemingly dozens of subcultures, and how cyclists, with the encouragement of local officials, are seizing streets back from motorists. Pedaling Revolution is essential reading for the approximately one million people who regularly ride their bike to work or on errands, for anyone engaged in transportation, urban planning, sustainability, and public health—and for drivers trying to understand why they're seeing so many cyclists. All will be interested in how urban bike activists are creating the future of how we travel and live in twenty-first-century cities.
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