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Scene from the movie 'The Book Thief' with Liesel and Rudy playing the street.
Scene from the movie 'The Book Thief' with Liesel and Rudy playing the street.

How Bicycles Can Help Reclaim Our Streets for Everyone

Momentum seems to be building in America to wrest control of our streets back away from a century of domination by the automobile, but it will be a long campaign convincing more than half the nation that riding a bike more often is good for you, your community and the nation.

Here's the good news. According to a recent YouGov.us poll, 94% of Americans claim to know how to ride a bicycle.

The bad news is 51% of them say they never ride one. Only 17% say they ride one more than once a month; and the majority (53%) claim to do it purely for recreational reasons: keeping fit, and the real biggie: as a leisure time activity. Those who actually ride bikes as an alternative to driving a car barely register on Mother Nature Network's chart.

As an interesting side note, the higher your level of education, the more inclined you are to ride: high school grads or less, just 1% ride a bike; post-grads, 6%.

So, what's the deal, America?

A significant part of the reason has to do with history. Eben Weiss, better known as the Bike Snob NYC blogger, writes in a recent Washington Post oped entitled "Don't make bicyclists more visible. Make drivers stop hitting them":

About 100 years ago, the auto industry pulled off a neat trick:

It stole the public roadways from us.

By end of the the 1920s, Weiss laments, "cars (or more accurately, their drivers) had killed more than 200,000 people"

As a consequence of this quite literal carnage, city fathers passed stricter traffic laws and better enforcement; and in the process, they 'criminalized' walking in the street.

"Effectively, we’ve lost equal access to the public roadways unless we’re willing and able to foot the hefty bill for a car."

Last night, my wife and I watched 'The Book Thief," a coming of age drama about a young foster child, a pre-teen girl growing up in Nazi Germany. The movie had personal poignancy because my own mother - now in her mid-80's - similarly grew up during the Hitler era in a rural village east of Kassel. A stray Allied bomb meant for a factory in a nearby town, killed a family just a few blocks away. The concussion of the bomb turned a shock of my mother's hair at the nape of her neck pure white. Her teenage brother went off to war and never returned.

But what struck me the most were the streets of the town in which the movie, based on a novel by Markus Zusak, was set. They weren't overrun by automobiles. People walked in them, played in them, biked on them. They were safe places to be.

Of course, it could be argued that a paucity of automobiles in depression-era Germany - and remember Volkswagen was Hitler's pet project to make automobiles affordable to the common man - was a reflection of the dismal state of the economy in a country impoverished by war reparations and torn by political turmoil that eventually brought the National Socialists to power.

My grandfather, who served as a medic in the First World War, never owned a car. It was one of the proudest days of his son-in-law's - my uncle by marriage - life when he could afford to purchase his first motor vehicle: a tiny 'Go-Go-Mobile,' a tandem two-seater powered by a motorcycle engine. This was in the late 1960's when I visited them during my junior year as an exchange student going to college in England.

America alone isn't to be blamed for succumbing to the temptation of the automobile and the freedom it promised, but never really delivered on if you consider the economic burden they impose as well as their heavy environmental footprint. Pretty much so did the rest of the developed world with the exception being Netherlands, and even here the Dutch briefly flirted with relinquishing their streets to the beast until they came to their senses in the wake of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. If you want to read a fascinating account of how the Dutch not only resisted the bike-stealing Germans in the Second World War, but also the domination of car culture, read "In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclists" by Pete Jordan.

Back to the Bike Snob. Weiss argues that the imposition of helmet laws on cyclists, and wearing reflective clothing at night, is just a continuation of the auto industry's efforts to retain control of our streets. He accuses both car companies and the insurance industry of complicity in the plot:

"Here’s why the auto industry, the insurance industry and the officials they lobby want helmet laws. First, forcing people to wear helmets shifts responsibilities onto cyclists and absolves governments from having to build better cycling infrastructure and drivers from having to obey traffic laws. 'Want to be safer? We’re not gonna build any bike lanes. They take up too much free parking. Put this foam dunce cap on your head, you’ll be fine!'

Clearly, Weiss is not a fan of helmet laws; and frankly, neither am I. I agree we need more and better infrastructure if we're going to see that lamentable 51% of people who never ride a bicycle start to decrease. But for that to happen, we need planners and politicians with the courage to budget for those improvements, and an educated populace committed to supporting those decisions, not screaming in opposition for taking away parking or putting streets on 'lane diets.'

Toward that end, the Guardian in the UK ran an interesting article recently in support of more people cycling you might want to review. It's entitled, "10 reasons hopping on your bike is the best thing ever."

The interesting thing is, that as I talk to more people about Quikbyke and e-bikes in general, the more I hear people tell me, "I live three miles from work. I could ride one of these to work."

Yes, you can. And the more of us who do, the less mean our streets will become; and maybe, just maybe, the healthier, wealthier and happier we'll all be.

Posted By: Bill Moore [18-Apr-2015]

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