Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities


"A growing number of Americans, mounted on their bicycles like some new kind of urban cowboy, are mixing it up with swift, two-ton motor vehicles as they create a new society on the streets. They're finding physical fitness, low-cost transportation, environmental purity-and, still all too often, Wind West risks of sudden death or injury." -from the Introduction
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"A growing number of Americans, mounted on their bicycles like some new kind of urban cowboy, are mixing it up with swift, two-ton motor vehicles as they create a new society on the streets. They're finding physical fitness, low-cost transportation, environmental purity-and, still all too often, Wind West risks of sudden death or injury." -from the Introduction
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Editorial Reviews

David Byrne
…for those of us who occasionally find ourselves on the defensive, Mapes provides names, dates, facts and figures. He details how cities from Amsterdam to Paris to New York to Davis, Calif., have developed policies encouraging cycling in recent decades, and how other towns are just beginning to make way for bikes. He lays out in an easily digestible way a fair amount of material on trip patterns, traffic safety and air pollution. He quotes the relevant studies and shows how those studies have been either heeded or ignored. All this information is great ammunition for those of us who would like to see American cities become more bike-friendly but may be a tough sell for the people on the fence
—The New York Times
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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

As Americans consider how to solve the problems of global warming, traffic congestion, high gas prices, and health problems linked to physical inactivity, bicycles have received a lot of attention. Mapes (senior political reporter, the Oregonian) provides a deftly drawn portrait of contemporary bike culture and politics, together with a concise history of the bicycle's roots and its early influence on American society. He profiles bicycle use and transportation policy in Amsterdam, Portland, New York, and Davis, CA, to illustrate how regular bicycle riders, transportation officials, politicians, and grassroots activists have attempted to promote cycling as a way to calm traffic, boost inner-city development, aid public health, and decrease pollution, among other things. The book is readable and engaging, but perhaps the most compelling sections are the chapters on the safety and health aspects of bike riding and on efforts to encourage cycling among kids. Here Mapes weighs various methods of measuring traffic fatalities, considers the complex social effects of kids cycling to school, and details various theories about whether it is safer for commuters to ride in the street with cars or on separated bikeways. Highly recommended.
—Emily-Jane Dawson

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780870714191
  • Publisher: Oregon State University Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeff Mapes is senior political reporter for Portland’s The Oregonian and has covered Congress, state government, and numerous local, state, and national campaigns. He is also author of the blog, Mapes on Politics.
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Read an Excerpt

Pedaling Revolution

How Cyclists are Changing American Cities
By Jeff Mapes


Copyright © 2009 Jeff Mapes
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87071-419-1


From New York's Williamsburg Bridge to San Francisco's Market Street, rush-hour traffic jams-those iconic emblems of American life-teem with millions of cars, trucks, and buses. At first glance, only the increasing miles of congestion and the stylized curves of the cars distinguish twenty-first-century gridlock from decades past. But now, bobbing lightly in the exhaust-filled urban streams is a new addition: the bicyclists. By the hundreds of thousands, these unlikely transportation revolutionaries are forgoing the safety of a steel cage with airbags and anti-lock disc brakes for a wispy two-wheeled exoskeleton as they make their way to work, school, and store.

There are, of course, the ever-present bike messengers, fueled by pure adrenaline and their own private code of survival. But stand on the new bicycle and pedestrian ramp over the Williamsburg Bridge and you'll also see well-dressed men and women, riding upright on shiny bikes outfitted as carefully as an executive's BMW. Tattooed young hipsters rush by, handling their battered bikes with nonchalant ease. Young women glide by on beach cruisers. Grim-faced riders in spandex and aerodynamic helmets speed by on expensive road bikes that seem more air thanmetal. Only their document-packed saddlebags hint at a day of serious desk work.

For the first time since the car became the dominant form of American transportation after World War II, there is now a grassroots movement to seize at least a part of the street back from motorists. A growing number of Americans, mounted on their bicycles like some new kind of urban cowboy, are mixing it up with swift, two-ton motor vehicles as they create a new society on the streets. They're finding physical fitness, low-cost transportation, environmental purity-and, still all too often, Wild West risks of sudden death or injury.

These new pioneers are beginning to change the look and feel of many cities, suburbs and small towns. In the last decade, thousands of miles of bike lanes have been placed on streets around the country, giving cyclists an exclusive piece of the valuable asphalt real estate. As gas prices rise, traffic congestion worsens, and global climate change becomes an acknowledged menace, a growing number of cities have launched programs to shift a measurable percentage of travel to cycling. Take Chicago, for example. When it comes to transportation, the Windy City is known as the nation's railroad crossroads. But it has adopted a blueprint calling for 5 percent of trips under five miles to be made by bike. In the concrete canyons of lower Manhattan, New York City is literally pioneering a new kind of street, one designed to allow cyclists to peacefully pedal while largely separated from cars and trucks. And in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, local officials have built a bike network that in the span of a little over a decade has helped turn about one in twenty commute trips into a bike ride.

In these cities and elsewhere, motorists are learning to share the streets with a very different kind of traveler, one who often perplexes and angers them. Listen to talk radio and you can hear the backlash as callers vent about bicyclists who blow through stoplights or who ride in the center of the street and slow drivers behind them. Bicyclists express their own anger at inattentive drivers and a car culture more concerned with speed and aggressiveness than safety. And that sense of fury helps fuel a bicycle-rights movement that is growing in visibility. Bicycling, once largely seen as a simple pleasure from childhood, has become a political act.

The burgeoning bicycle culture is a rich tapestry. It ranges from the anarchic riders of Critical Mass to the well-heeled Lance Armstrong look-alikes on bikes expensive enough to rival the cost of a low-end car. For the young "creative class" that cities are fighting to attract, bicycles are a cheap, hip way to get around town. That's why Louisville-not exactly a beacon of the counterculture-has made a determined effort to become friendly to bicycling. The city's mayor sees it as a good way to attract those young people who will power the economy decades from now. On the other end of the age spectrum, bikes are a low-impact way for AARP-age adults to exercise after their joints can no longer take the pounding of jogging. In fact, the two baby boomers who competed for the presidency in 2004, George W. Bush and John Kerry, are both avid cyclists who would cart their bikes along on campaign trips. Four years later, Democrat Barack Obama became the first mainstream presidential candidate to promote cycling as a transportation tool and to actively solicit the support of cyclists in his campaign.

* * *

Like most Americans, I didn't think seriously about the bicycle for most of my life, even though I've loved to cycle since I was a kid in the 1960s, riding my Schwinn Sting Ray around the hills of Oakland, California. As a teen, I graduated to a ten-speed, which I often rode the six miles to high school. But, like most teen-age males, I hankered for my driver's license and a car. And for years after that, as I chased a career in journalism and started a family, I never thought about bicycling much. It just wasn't something my peer group had much to do with, and like many reporters, I spent a lot of time in a car. But in the mid-1990s I bought a new hybrid bike, which was more comfortable for city riding than my old ten-speed. I would occasionally pedal the three miles to work on sunny days. At the time, the city of Portland, where I live, had embarked on an ambitious program to build a network of bike lanes, trails, and low-traffic "bicycle boulevards" that would crisscross the city. These improvements helped turn me into a daily bike commuter. The treacherous exit-for cyclists anyway-off the west end of the Broadway Bridge turned calm after the city reconfigured the lanes and added a new signal light phase that allowed riders to take the left exit off the bridge while right-turning motorists had to wait. And a new, well-lit pedestrian and bike path along the east side of the Willamette River helped give me the confidence to begin riding during the dark months of the year.

My own perspective shifted as I became comfortable maneuvering next to cars and trucks and my physical fitness began to improve. I joked about wearing a sign stating, "Ask me how I lost weight while commuting to work." The political reporter in me-I've been one for three decades-began to wonder, what spurred the city to make these improvements? is the same thing happening in other cities? Can Americans really be seduced out of their cars in large numbers, at least for short trips?

My search for answers led me across the country, as well as to the Netherlands, the Mecca of American bike advocates. As I discuss in later chapters, there is no American Amsterdam ... yet. But I did find that cyclists have become part of a much larger movement to reduce the dominant role of automobiles in American cities. imagine fewer parking lots and more public plazas. Think of urban neighborhoods that have the walkable ambience of an old European city, not wide streets and strip malls. Or maybe just the kind of street that is safe enough for kids to once again play in.

Sometimes it is tempting to think of these urban cycling advocates as the crazy Jihadists of the sustainability movement, given the physical risks and cultural opprobrium cyclists often encounter. But the truth is that cycling has attracted a much broader- and often more sophisticated-demographic than many might think. Take Mark Gorton, who has minted a New York fortune at the intersection of finance and high tech. Gorton's empire includes a hedge fund that uses sophisticated computers to make lightning-fast trades as well as a controversial internet file-sharing company under attack from the music industry. But he is also an avid cyclist who has become one of New York's chief patrons of the "livable streets" movement. It all started years ago, he explained, when he just wanted to ride his bicycle a couple of miles to work at the Credit Suisse Bank in midtown Manhattan.

"It was one of those things that I was aware of when I was riding there that if I did it long enough, I was going to get into a pretty bad crash-it was just inevitable," he explained. "When you almost get killed a few times you start to realize, this is stupid. Here I am doing something that is more environmentally friendly, healthier, it's the sort of behavior that the city should be trying to encourage, and yet it has designed the system so that it's really hostile to bicyclists."

When animated, Gorton barely pauses for breath. A wiry, dark-haired man on the cusp of forty, he's adopted the Silicon valley look: immaculate blue jeans and a black t-shirt with his company logo, Lime Inc., tastefully affixed on the left breast. We sat on the outdoor roof patio of his penthouse offices in lower Manhattan. With twelve stories separating us from the street, the traffic sounds were gently muted. "I'm like, this is just wrong and this is just screwed up," he said. "And then the more I started thinking about it, I started realizing that it didn't have to be that way. That it wasn't that the world was inevitably hostile to bicycles. And I think that once you start opening your eyes to these things you realize it's not just about bicycles, it's about everything ... I would be walking down the street and I would think, 'What a nice little street, I really like this,' and I started realizing that the times that I felt that way, there was very little or no traffic. And all of a sudden, I'm like, wow, the world is much better without traffic."

Gorton leaned forward in his wrought-iron chair. It was almost lunchtime and some of his employees were drifting out into the spring sunshine. One sat near us, listening to his boss with bemusement. "After thinking about it," Gorton added, "I realized you probably could reduce the amount of traffic in New York by 80 percent and not have any negative economic impact at all-and probably only positive economic impacts. And once that gets in your head, I couldn't be content with the world anymore." Gorton began plowing his money into the notion that he could change the realities of the New York streets. He became the largest donor to Transportation Alternatives, the city's chief bicycle and pedestrian lobby. He started his own nonprofit, with the idea of giving neighborhood activists software tools they could use to develop plans for such amenities as public plazas and low-traffic streets. And perhaps most prominently, he financed a new internet site, Streetsblog, which became a rallying point for cyclists, urban planners, mass transit geeks, and everybody else who had come to question why so much space should be turned over to cars in a city so compact that most residents don't even own one. From checking the internet addresses, Gorton's bloggers found out that city bureaucrats, particularly in the Department of Transportation, were also loyal readers-if only to see how streetsblog was beating up on them each day. Like a modern-day William Randoph Hearst, he had found his megaphone.

Streetsblog came at a propitious time and maybe even had some impact. Within a year of its launch, the city government under Mayor Michael Bloomberg abruptly turned from celebrating New York's auto-choked streets as a sign of economic vitality into warning that the city could not accommodate population growth without reducing the role of the private automobile. Following the lead of London, Bloomberg pushed to enact a congestion charge on all motor vehicles entering most of Manhattan. He also brought in a new transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Kahn, who adopted the livable streets agenda with a vengeance-she made a point of cycling to work her second day on the job-and stocked the agency with many of the same reformers featured prominently on Streetsblog. And the city moved ahead with an aggressive plan to create more than two hundred miles of bikeways over a three-year period.

In many ways Gorton is an archetype-a privileged, well-educated white guy who wasn't used to being treated shabbily until he tried to ride a bicycle on the street. And that turned him into an activist. But he is also a dramatic example of how bicyclists are beginning to win a place at the table of the transportation industrial complex-that interlocking network of industry, politicians, planners, and builders who control the billions of dollars spent on roads, bridges, and rail. As rudimentary as the bicycle may seem to Americans more accustomed to using automobiles for even the shortest of trips, the simple two-wheeler is attracting new attention because of a confluence of factors largely driven by that very reliance on the auto.

The bike offers a non-polluting, non-congesting, physically active form of transportation in a country, and in a world, that increasingly seems to need such options. The heightened global competition for the world's oil supplies has ended the era of cheap fuel that made our automobile dependency possible. Our increasingly sedentary lifestyle raises the specter of an obesity epidemic that could shorten the life span of the next generation. And we're outstripping our ability to maintain and expand our network of roads and bridges.

At first blush, it may seem odd to talk about the humble bicycle in the same breath as electric cars or biofuels or hydrogen-powered fuel cells that are presented as the ultimate solution to our energy and environmental woes. In fact, though, bicycling can accomplish more than most people think.

Paul Higgins was a postdoctoral scientist at the University of California at Berkeley when he dined at a restaurant one night with his parents, both of whom are physicians. His mother sighed when the waiter brought huge platters of food. "Think of all the resources that are wasted in this food on this plate," he remembered her saying, "and it's just going to make us fat." Higgins, who was studying climate change at the time, turned it around in his mind. He asked himself, What if we saw that food as the original biofuel? How far could we go on it? Higgins calculated the energy savings if every adult walked or cycled for a half hour or an hour a day and then reduced their driving by the distance they covered walking or biking. The savings were the most dramatic for cyclists, of course, because they can easily travel about three times as fast as a walker. if everyone cycled for an hour and reduced their driving by an equivalent distance, the U.S. would cut its gasoline consumption by 38 percent, Higgins found. Greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by about 12 percent, which is greater than the reductions called for in the Kyoto treaty (which the U.S. saw as too onerous and never signed). To add to the bargain, the average person would lose about thirteen pounds a year.

Higgins, who later became a senior policy fellow at the American Meteorological Society in Washington, was quick to acknowledge this scenario won't become reality. Many people can't reduce their driving by cycling for an hour every day. They may not be physically capable of riding or they drive such long distances that they can't substitute cycling for any trip. But what's important about Higgins' calculations is that it gives you a sense of how the bicycle, coupled with relatively minor changes in habits, could actually produce serious reductions in oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

It is true that tougher emission and mileage standards for cars have the potential for far bigger reductions than would likely be gained by the increased use of bicycles. Even the most bike-centric countries in the developed world-such as the Netherlands-rely much more heavily for mobility on the automobile. However, because the bicycle in all of its simplicity does so many things at least a little well, it could become an important part of a twenty- first-century transportation system. Since 40 percent of U.S. trips are two miles or less, a bike can often substitute for the car (which now accounts for two-thirds of those under-two-mile trips), saving not only gas but also the space it takes to move and park a car. And bicycling makes an elegant link to mass transit, which lacks door-to-door service. Or think of the health side of the equation. I could probably get a better and more complete workout if I went to a gym for an hour every day. However, like most Americans, I can't or won't take the time to do that. But I can spend roughly an hour "accidentally" exercising on my ride to and from work and not take any more time than it would to fight rush-hour traffic (after a move my commute has now grown to about four and a half miles each way). The cold efficiency expert in my soul loves that.


Excerpted from Pedaling Revolution by Jeff Mapes Copyright © 2009 by Jeff Mapes. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 7

Chapter 1 How Cyclists Created a Political Movement 27

Chapter 2 Learning from Amsterdam 61

Chapter 3 Creating the New Urban Bike Culture 89

Chapter 4 Davis: Invention of an American Bike City 119

Chapter 5 Portland Built It and They Came 141

Chapter 6 Biking in the Big Apple 169

Chapter 7 Overcoming the Safety Barriers 195

Chapter 8 Health and the Bicycle 227

Chapter 9 Bringing Kids Back to Bikes 247

Epilogue 267

Acknowledgements 275

Selected Bibliography 277

Index 285

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2010

    Great so far

    I started Pedaling Revolution after reading another book about bicycling and I'm really liking this so far. The writing is informative but not overly dense, and the author's journalism background lends a great deal to his story telling abilities. The sections on Portland strike me as the best ones in book, which is hardly surprising since the author lives in Oregon....and because there's been a huge amount of biking happening in Portland, Eugene and Corvallis.

    I'm looking forward to finishing the book and I'd recommend it to people who are already interested in bicycling.

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