When man invented the bicycle he reached the peak of his attainments. Here was a machine of precision and balance for the convenience of man. And (unlike subsequent inventions for man’s convenience) the more he used it, the fitter his body became. Here, for once, was a product of man’s brain that was entirely beneficial to those who used it, and of no harm or irritation to others. ~Elizabeth West, Hovel in the Hills
In an earlier post of mine, I listed ten impediments to bicycling in the United States. These were meant as a series of qualifications that bring down to earth some of the sterling bicycle infrastructure I have been observing here in the Netherlands.
As a counterpoint, or a complement, to that list, I would like to add one of a more optimistic disposition: Ten Points of Resolution for why the US should and must invest in and develop a bicycling infrastructure.
1. The Cost of Health Care and Sedentary Lifestyles
The average American wakes up every day at 7, eats breakfast, drives to work, sits at a desk for nine hours (minus a lunch break, a coffee break, and three strolls to the water cooler), drives home, eats dinner, watches an hour of TV, and then goes to bed. That is a sedentary lifetsyle, and, combined with a diet of Taco Tuesdays and an overabundance of Fudgsicles, translates into an obesity epidemic, not just in the South or the Midwest, but across the entire country.
Building bicycling infrastructure will not make Americans thin. It cannot counteract a generally poor diet of cheap, processed foods. It won’t fill the niche of some fad diet or hyper-peppy exercise video. What it will do is increase the opportunities for ordinary Americans to build exercise into their daily routine. In other words, if a safe bicycling route exists between a strip mall and a subdivision, a few people might just start using it, if not just for the exercise, because they find it a pleasant and active means to get from place to place.
If a safe, permanent bicycling network exists, coordinated with the proper pro-cycling policies and incentives not to drive one mile to pick up a bar of soap, Americans just might begin to look in the mirror and wonder if bicycling as part of their regular routine might be beneficial to their health and sanity. In the long run, this could decrease the country’s expanding waistlines and health care costs, and vastly improve quality of life.
2. The Environment
I’m not one to quote statistics. I generally find that any justification relating to the environment tends to be full of broad container words: organic, biological, sustainabile, etc. Bicycling does not directly help our environment. Rather, what it does do is reduce the use of automated machines that do hurt the environment and over long periods of time, make daily life unpleasant for everyone.
The environmental argument for bicycles should be framed in terms of self-sufficiency. If you can reach your destination without taking anything out of the environment or putting anything back into it, you should. It is a beautiful instrument, entirely self-propelled and self-sufficient. It is you moving, only five to six times faster. We ought to start using it, for the sake of our health, our minds, and our wallets.
3. Civic Engagement
From personal experience, I can attest that bicycling promotes a higher engagement with one’s surroundings. Not only does riding a bicycle every day allow one to “learn the contours of the country,” as Hemingway put it, but it also heightens a person’s awareness of the built landscape, picturesque or otherwise. Whereas the car is the ultimate alienator and insulator- insulation from weather, freedom from topography, safety from lighting (a plus), and bad neighborhoods- the bicycle is an extension of the human body, and thus promotes a higher level of civic awareness.
Whereas a car driving down an empty boulevard late at night is not likely to make someone feel any safer, the bicyclist inherently generates an indirect kind of surveillance- “the eyes on the street” of urbanist Jane Jacobs one might even say. This in turn creates a safer and more personal street environment that enhances public life.
4. Quality of Life
In my opinion, any argument in favor of bicycling infrastructure ultimately comes down to an issue of quality of life. If I worked 30 km from my house, I wouldn’t bicycle there on a rainy day. That doesn’t make any sense. But if the sun is shining and there is a brisk wind in the air, having the option to bike any distance, short or long, without the discomfort of being stranded or edged off the road, is an option any country with a high quality of life should have.
Car traffic is never fulfilling. It is a waste of time and effort and stirs neither creativity nor introspection (riding the train certainly does however). By creating a bicycling infrastructure, we empower people to not only experiment with new modes of travel, but to engage with their environment and themselves in a new way- to explore, to wander, but also, to feel fit, free, and come home with a healthy appetite.
On a personal note, my own enthusiasm for bicycling did not begin as a kid (I was always timid about riding fast down hills), but as a student in Copenhagen, where I first observed the potential boon of bicycling to quality of life in the city and the suburbs. The ease and freedom of riding my bicycle to and from school liberated me from train schedules and allowed me explore the city to my heart’s content, while the endurance of my commute kept me from worrying about missing one of my daily jogs.
5. The reputation of the US on the World Stage
Not everyone in America realizes it, but the perception of the United States during the Bush Era was of a country crumbling under a huge deficit, misspending, and poor leadership. (Think the beginning of the fall of Rome after Commodus assumed the Emperorship, though George Bush was certainly no Marcus Aurelius.) A large scale investment in bicycling infrastructure, by the country with the best automobile infrastructure in the world, would really change international perspectives on the priorities of the United States. Encouraging a national “carbon-footprint free” infrastructure would not only begin to enliven our sedentary lifestyles, but might have doubters re-thinking what it means to be an American.
6. The Economy
One question I have been puzzling over for several days now, but have yet to answer in full, is how to construct a convincing economic model for building bicycling infrastructure in the United States. The variables are long-term, abstract, and politically delicate: environmental benefits as a result of decreased waste and greater efficiency; decreased health care costs as a result of healthier populations; less reliance on foreign oil due to fewer car trips; more attractive streets and communities that will boost real estate prices.
How can bicycling have a positive effect on our economy. The answer is certainly complex, but I believe that a shift towards more sustainable (and cheaper) transport will catalyze a shift in the way Americans think about their daily economies: less waste, greater efficiency, environmental protection, better eating and exercise habits. The change may be long-term, but the economic benefits are tangible, and in comparison to roads and rails, cycling paths are a cheap but worthwhile investment.
7. A better built environment
America’s sprawl is predicated on the assumption that the automobile is the primary means to move from one place to another. Thinking on the scale of the bicycle and planning for transportation by bicycle can help developers to engage in denser, more efficient, and better building practices.
Bicycling infrastructure, moreover, can enhance the urban and suburban streetscape by providing a buffer between cars and pedestrians, as well as a recreational space for joggers, in-line skaters, and other alternative modes of transportation.
8. Liberty and Wanderlust
In large part due to their daily commuting to school by bicycle, children in the Netherlands establish a level of independence and self-sufficiency at a much earlier age than children in the United States. This level of independence supersedes the stereotypical American soccer mom, who ferries her kids around from school to sports practices and ballet until dinner time.
Kids need exercise, activity and socialization. Bicycling to and from school in large groups allows them to get to know one another and learn to negotiate their environment alone at a young age. I have experienced this process of socialization firsthand, as many a Dutch schoolboy riding home on the bicycle superhighway has thought it fit to shout at me in Dutch, waving both hands in the air (maintaining his balance all the while) and then pointing and laughing at the massive backpack tethered to my back wheel.
This level of independence, moreover, is not limited to children (though luckily the taunts are.) Elderly who regularly travel by bicycle have a greater freedom of movement than they otherwise would as well.
Regular adults benefit from this freedom of movement as well, as any ordinary trip may become an occasions for diversions through the forest or down an architecturally interesting street.
9. Enhance and validate existing public transportation
Most transportation models assume that the average person will walk a maximum of ten to fifteen minutes to reach their nearest train stop. More than that and they are likely to drive. In the Netherlands and Denmark, bicycling infrastructure enhances existing rail and commuter lines by decreasing the time it takes to reach a station from one’s home from ten to two minutes. That makes building new rail and improving old rail in the United States more feasible, given the potential of a higher yield. With the appropriate bicycle parking facilities, a “ride to the train” model can be an attractive, easy way to create an inter-modal model of sustainable transportation.
10. Provide a space for other hierarchies of transport
One of the most fascinating and surprising aspects of the bicycling infrastructure in the Netherlands is that it is not solely for use by bicyclists. A large number of mopeds, electrically powered bicycles, electric wheelchairs, and tiny (Steve Urkel) cars also use these pathways. At times, punks riding mopeds too fast down a bicycle lane can be a nuisance, but this mosaic of transportation alternatives is food for thought for anyone trying to sell sustainable transportation. Each of these vehicles removes a potential driver from the main road, and in doing so, makes use of a bicycling infrastructure that is extensive and, in many places, underpopulated.
If people can move beyond “bicycle infrastructure” as a concept to a mode of simply thinking beyond the car, then alternative models of transportation can begin to be developed for places that are hilly and hot, as well as those that are snowy and cold. These new hierarchies of transport may include anything from a moped to a Segway to a (even slightly smaller) SmartCar. Each enables people to access a cheaper and more sustainable vehicle.
Justifying the necessity of building bicycling infrastructure in the United States represents a far harder task than coming up with impediments to it. Many of the above points intersect in admittedly redundant ways, but each is a necessary emphasis to reach a broader audience of potential cyclists. Please feel free to comment or add to my list.