In a few cities around the country we've gotten access to bicycles and been able to tour around. This is my preferred method of sightseeing, as the pace is slow enough to take in detail but not so slow as to only see a small slice. You get to stop wherever you want for as long as you want when you do see something cool, unlike with public transit (or even a car, for that matter, since parking is always an issue). We've done some great biking in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Albuquerque, and even rented a tandem bike and cruised down the bike path from Santa Monica to Venice Beach to check out the tchotchkes people have for sale there.
Talking to cyclists, one thing that's been disappointing to us is the derisive attitudes towards electric bicycles. I was hoping this pigheadedness was limited to my own particular circle of bicyclists in North Carolina. Americans, it seems, cannot do any activity without turning it into something competitive. Take Frisbee, for example. Here's a simple sport that anyone can play in a relaxing way. But there's a problem: there's nothing competitive about it. So we have to have Ultimate Frisbee and Frisbee Golf so that someone can win and someone can lose. Random tossing of the disc is frowned upon, unless it's in practice for some future competition. What's the point?
The same macho attitude is prevalent among many bicyclists. Whether you're talking to a spandex-encased century-rider or a grungy fixed-gear messenger, you run into that underlying competitiveness. If you bring up the fact that you're thinking of buying an electric-assisted bike, they cock their noses and look at you like a demented sissy. Even Rebekah, who can't call herself a biking enthusiast, although she does errands all over town on her bike, was an initial skeptic. It's time for the attitude to go.
Basically, I'm sick of going two miles an hour up the hills in our neighborhood. I've done my fair share of riding, and one thing that's always bummed me out is, even though you usually go up an equivalent distance as you go down, the fact that you go down very quickly and up much slower means that you spend way more time going up. And going up sucks. Sure, it's good exercise but, frankly, I get plenty of exercise doing carpentry, gardening, etc. I just want to get the groceries home and crack open a cold beer in the backyard, not sweat like a stuck pig pedaling back from the coop with a few saddlebags full of groceries getting passed by slugs in the grass next to me.
Unfortunately, we have inherited sprawled-out cities from previous generations who were hoodwinked by the romantic convenience of the automobile, as Douglas Morris describes in his volume It's a Sprawl World After All. Although abandoning many of the outer rings of architecturally appalling and poorly-built suburbs and returning them to farmland while we infill our cities is a good strategy over the long haul, the fact remains that many of the places we need to go, especially bus and light-rail stops, are a long ride away. We need to be encouraging people to bike, and telling them to toughen up and pedal harder isn't going to actually get them to ride more. If you haven't ridden an electric-assisted bike, take a ride. Going uphill at 15mph is worth more to me than all the attitude in the world. For more info on living without a bike, check out Chris Balish's How to Live Well without Owning a Car.
The bikes weigh a bit more than non-electric bikes, but can be pedaled easily after the batteries die, something that can't be said for electric scooters, which weigh about three times more and you are going to be pushing up those hills after the voltage drops off. We don't know of a model currently existing that recharges the battery with braking energy, but we're hoping one comes along. Another possibility would be to use an amorphous photovoltaic panel, one of the flexible kinds that can be rolled up, and drape it over your bike to recharge the battery at stops.
Speaking of bikeable towns, one of the last cities on our tour is New Orleans, where we will be July 24th. New Orleans, post-Katrina, obviously faces serious challenges. But now, almost three years after the hurricane, the pace of reconstruction has been so slow that gripping possibilities still exist to remodel the city into a more sustainable place. We're grateful that so many solar companies around the country have sent volunteers to install systems there, and that so many dedicated architects, builders, and regular citizens have also volunteered designs, time, and labor. A top-down initiative for sustainability, rather than for charter schools and overpaid government subcontractors, would have helped expose the silver lining to that large cloud. What's done is done. We prefer to believe that New Orleans remains better positioned than many other large U.S. cities to transform itself into an independent eco-city.
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Stephen and Rebekah Hren live in Durham, North Carolina, where they are both actively involved with renewable energy, natural building, and edible urban gardening.
Books mentioned in this post
Stephen Hren and Rebekah Hren are the authors of The Carbon-Free Home: Thirty-Six Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit