Monday, September 21, 2009

"Pedaling Revolution" by Jeff Mapes

A pedaling revolution! Where? Did I miss something? That word "revolution" is as abused and over-used as the word "confession." It is an attention-grabber that rarely lives up to its meaning.

Jeff Mapes is a Portland newspaperman who likes to ride his bicycle. He has seen an increase in the number of cyclists in his town and would like to think that a cyclist revolution is underfoot, so he decided to write a book about it.

He traveled to Amsterdam and Copenhagen and New York and Chicago and other locales where people bicycle more than other places. He interviewed bicycle advocates from Congressional leaders to ground-roots activists who like to bicycle naked. His book is thoroughly researched and offers a wide range of convincing and sensible arguments for bicycling, but it is wishful thinking to imagine that we are in the midst of a revolution that will overthrow the prevailing car culture or even make much of a dent in it.

He cites expert after expert who acknowledge that people's perception of the bicycle must change for it to achieve much more than cult status. People aren't naturally inclined to bicycle, they must be made to think it is a cool thing to do. Many of those experts concede that the masses can't be won over by practical arguments, or even money. Bicycle advocates were so desperate to increase their numbers they got Congress to dole out $25 million to four different communities a few years ago to increase bicycling in their region, all places that had Congressional clout--Minneapolis, Marin County, Columbus, Missouri and Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Whether or not such measures succeeded, he does not report.

Many of the experts Mapes spoke to acknowledge that bicycling needs to be portrayed as "fun and sexy" to win converts. That would take an advertising budget close to the national debt to succeed. If that's what it takes, how committed would such converts be? There have been periodic upsurges in bicycling's popularity over the years, but they have all waned. Bicycling was the rage in the early 1900s, but it quickly died out.

The book cites numerous arguments for all to take to the bicycle, if only for personal health. Mapes regular refers to America's obesity epidemic and devotes a chapter to it. It has reached crisis proportions with 34% of Americans considered obese and another third classified as overweight. How could this have happened? The automobile is partially to blame, but the causes go much deeper than that. It can be traced to man's very nature, his inherent lethargy and inertia, the very same reasons people are disinclined to use a bike as their chief means of transportation, preferring the ease and comfort and status of the car.

Cycling advocates at one time regarded Cuba as a cyclist's nirvana. The predominance of the bicycle over the car was called a "Velorution"--that "revolution" word again. I can attest that it is a fine place to bicycle, as few people there can afford cars. Let them have money though and all those cyclists will quickly forget their two-wheeled companion. Such is the case with Viet Nam. When I bicycled from Hanoi to Saigon in 2002, the bicycle was already being drowned out by the motorcycle. Some 95% of the traffic in Hanoi and Saigon was of the two-wheeled motorized variety, when just a few years before it had been predominantly pedal power. And everyone I met on a motorcycle aspired to owning a car.

There is no pedaling revolution going on in emerging economies. India and China are prime examples. Once people can afford a motorcycle or a car, they quickly abandon the bicycle. And once someone has been spoiled by a car, it's not likely he will give it up. It so rarely happens in the U.S., that when it does, it is often reported in the press, as Mapes does himself. Isn't that quaint? Bike to work days in the U.S. are great successes. Most of those who participate love it and say they will make it a habit. Yeah, a once a year habit.

I wish I could be inspired by Mapes' book. Unfortunately, it is a lot of fine writing and reporting, but founded on wishful thinking.


Andrew F said...

George, I've just returned from another trip to Japan. What strikes me about Japan is that cycling is very commonplace because it is the most convenient way to travel a short distance. Extremely high population density, lack of parking, high motor vehicle taxes and the close proximity of pretty much all amenities mean that it is a no brainer. It's almost always easier to cycle to the shops or train station or school. Hundreds of bikes crammed into every nook and cranny outside shopping centres attest to this.

I don't think gbg open spaces like the USA, Canada and Australia are likely to see this...

Stuart said...

I live in Kushiro, Hokkaido, which is surrounded by big open spaces and has lousy public transportation. The car is king here, but the usual "suspects" still ride bicycles: teenagers (too young to get drivers licenses), some housewives (maybe hubby drives the family car to work), old men (also too poor or maybe lost their drivers licenses). When gasoline crept up to $2 a liter last summer, I noticed an occasional "suit" on a bike, besides just me. But deep down, everyone wants a car. I think the Japanese generally disrespect the bicycle. The bicycles Andrew saw in Japan are largely the "Mamachari" (mother chariot) variety, made in China, and sell for about $100. The Japanese abuse them, leaving them out in the rain, not bothering to maintain them, not putting the saddle at the right height, and standing on the peddles rather than using the gears. They ride against traffic, on the sidewalk, talking on cell phones, sometimes holding an umbrella in front of them so they can't see where they are going. This isn't meant to be a rant, but I don't think bicycles will ever make a comeback, get the respect they deserve, until gasoline gets back into the $8 a gallon area. I can't wait.