Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Review of "On Bicycles"

Here's a review of the book "On Bicycles" I contributed to a quite ambitious and wide-ranging transportation website. My review was a little too long, so this includes the final few paragraphs.

George Christensen Critiques Our book “On Bicycles”

By On January 2, 2012 · 2 Comments


Christensen, left, with bike racing great Christian Vande Velde – photo by Bike_Ema

For many Grid Chicago readers, George Christensen needs no introduction. A longtime Chicago bike messenger, George is one of Chicago’s best-traveled bicyclists, having toured dozens of countries on two wheels. A movie buff, he attends many of the world’s great film fests as well, and every year he rides the entire Tour de France route. You can read about his amazing adventures on the blog George the Cyclist. When I asked Christensen to write a guest post for Grid Chicago he offered the following review of On Bicycles (New World Library 2011), a new anthology by Amy Walker, to which local author Greg Borzo and I contributed chapters.

‘Tis the season for reading and there is no shortage of bike literature out there these days. The best selection in the city can be found at Barnes and Noble at Webster and Clybourn. Besides a slew of bike magazines, it offers nearly two shelves of books on the bike, covering it all--racing, touring, fitness, mechanics and advocacy.

One that encompasses a range of topics, appealing to perhaps the widest demographic, is On Bicycles: 50 Ways the New Bike Culture Can Change Your Life. An equally appropriate subtitle, as suggested by Where to Bike Chicago author Greg Borzo, one of the book’s 34 contributors, might have been “50 Ways To Leave Your Car.” The book is a collection of 50 articles, 25 by women and 25 by men, edited by Amy Walker, a true cycling evangelist, who wrote nine of the pieces. Walker co-founded the bicycling magazine Momentum in 2001, and served as one of its publishers, editors and writers for ten years.


Book cover

She could have easily written this book herself, but instead enlisted the expertise of a host of authorities: many journalists who have written on bicycling for years along with various specialists including a lawyer, an architect, a professor, a few planners, a mechanic, and an “enchanted unicorn.” Many of the writers are from Vancouver, where Momentum is published, and the U.S. West Coast, especially Portland, but Chicago is represented by not only Borzo, but John Greenfield, a name familiar to those who follow this website.

It is a fine mix of informative journalistic pieces and poetic odes, some that could serve as sermons to be read aloud at congregations of those faithful to the bike. They all share a passion and commitment to the bicycle. Even the more whimsical and wacky pieces offer well-reasoned and convincing arguments why everyone should bicycle more.

The book is divided into four sections: “All the Right Reasons,” “Gearing Up,” “Community and Culture,” and “Getting Serious.” There are practical, informative, advice-laden pieces on subjects such as biking with children, how to behave in a bike shop, cargo bikes, folding bikes and so on. Walker describes herself as someone who likes to bike in the rain and has a chapter on that subject. There is also a chapter by a former bike rebel who writes of the joy of completely coming to a stop at every stop sign she encounters.

There is a good balance between heavily footnoted articles (Kristen Steele had the most with 17), and those that are just breezily entertaining. Nothing was so ponderous, except perhaps the article on internal hubs, that I was anxious for the next article. There were times the writing sent me to Google to find what else the author had written.

Despite the heavy West Coast influence, Chicago is not ignored. Greenfield’s article profiles West Town Bikes as an example of a non-profit earn-a-bike program. He says there are about eighty of them in the United States and roughly twenty in Canada.

John Pucher, a professor at Rutgers University, praised Chicago’s bike rack installment program and the bike station in Millennium Park. Chicago’s supply of bike-parking spaces of 1,121 per 100,000 residents outnumbers most American cities. Portland has 725, San Francisco 466, and New York a measly 75. But they are all measly compared to Amsterdam’s 30,271 and Copenhagen’s 6,960.

However, Chicago lags behind when it comes to bike routes physically separated from motor vehicles, with just two kilometers per 100,000 residents. San Francisco has six and New York three. Once again American cities are quite pitiful compared to Europe. Copenhagen has a staggering 76, Amsterdam 61 and Berlin 33.

Borzo’s thorough article on bike-sharing programs around the world lists a handful of entities in Chicago that offer bike sharing to their employees, tenants and students: the Field Museum, SRAM, the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Chicago, Saint Xavier University and Loyola University.

An article on traveling with a bicycle by Shawn Granton gave a brief description of cycling in seven American and Canadian cities. Here’s what he said about Chicago: “The traffic can be intimidating, but there are scads of bike routes and fun settings of postindustrial decay. And it’s flat.”

Chicago receives one other mention in a highly entertaining semi-rant on freak bikes by Megulon-5. He traces the manufacture of tall bikes back to the late 1800s in Chicago. They were built for lamplighters to ride to turn streetlights on and off.

The book is mostly a positive screed extolling the virtues of the bike, though there is a certain amount of anti-car rhetoric. Lori Kessler, an architect, in a piece on designing cities for bikes wrote, “Hell isn’t other people, as Jean-Paul Sartre suggested. Hell is other people’s cars.” Another article quoted an American Automobile Association statistic that Americans spend on average $9,641 each year on their cars. Other authors cited the tons and tons of pollutants cars spew. One of the wilder statistics was the amount of space it would take to park all the cars in America–about the size of New Hampshire.

But the gloom and doom of the automobile are countered with one affirmation after another for the bicycle, none stronger than Mykle Hasen, the enchanted unicorn, stating, “Like a hammer or a telescope, the bicycle gives you superpowers.” Carmen Mills, a “bicycle bodhisattva,” is equally fervent. She says, “Bicycles are karma-generating machines, relieving suffering for self and others.”

As thorough and as fine a rallying cry as "On Bicycles" is for the bicycle, it overlooks one aspect of the bicycle movement that all such books ignore, the decline of the bicycle in former bicycle bastions such as China and Vietnam and before long Cuba. At one time bicycling advocates held these countries up as prime examples of a people embracing the bicycle. Unfortunately, once those countries began to enjoy some prosperity its citizens immediately abandoned their bicycles and upgraded to motor cycles and then automobiles, defying the supposition that one who has enjoyed the many positives of the bicycle will embrace it for life.

Two years ago I spent two months bicycling three thousand miles all over China. I hardly saw anyone on a bicycle until I reached Beijing, where some vestiges still hold out. The most stunning site I saw during those travels was a French-style bike rental program in Wuhan, a car-clogged city of ten million people. The Chinese government had the sense to try to get people back on the bike, but they weren't succeeding very well. These were people who less than ten years ago were all bicyclists. Instead, they were now all confined to cars creeping along at a few miles per hour while I and one or two others flew by on bicycles. Those motorists should have been abandoning their cars in righteous indignation left and right and flocking back to their bikes. Theoretically, they were a people who knew the sense, if not the joy, of the bike, but unfortunately they had forgotten.

The Chinese are a very practical people, but also as status-consciousness as any, preferring the misery of their proof of success to the sensibility of the bicycle. They are as prone to that all too common misconception that it is nicer to be sitting in the so-called comfort of a temperature-controlled car listing to the radio or talking on a cell phone than breezing along on a bike, getting some exercise and feeling free and not harming the environment. Walker and her gang can make countless arguments trying to reason with such a mentality, but not to much avail.

"On Bicycles" and other such books presume it is enough to give people adequate bike lanes and parking to get them on a bike. There is much more to overcome than that. Thousands get a taste of bicycle bliss during Bike to Work Day and Week. Nearly all rave how much they love it, but hardly any stick to it. David Bryne in his "Bicycle Diaries" said he couldn't convince his teen-aged daughter to bike, largely because she didn't think it was cool. There is a huge perceptional barrier to overcome. That and human nature. Let's face it, people are inclined to sloth and comfort and their present predicament. We who do bike know how practical and logical and energizing and uplifting it is. But that is a personality trait not common to all. Even in the cycling mecca countries cyclists are a minority. The best cyclists can hope for here is to be less of the microscopic minority than we are now. "On Bikes" is a book that can increase our numbers, though probably not by much.

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