Get Your Bike On

Last night, on Halloween, I saw a hundred bicyclists take command of the street. Wearing all manner of clever costume, they rode confidently in a pack, and drivers waited patiently behind them. It was a rare moment when the road was not a place to fear.

I have noticed, as many have in cities across the U.S., an upsurge in the number of cyclists on the streets. The recent drop in oil prices is but a blip in the rapid approach of what some call “peak oil.” We can expect to see a lot more cyclists on the roads in the years to come, a participant in a recent public meeting stood to say. The context was a discussion about the future development of a city neighborhood. The man was urging that bike paths, physically separate from the lanes of cars, become a fundamental part of the design of major traffic arteries.

I myself have been biking to and from work the last two months. It’s a sort of experiment for me, as I used to either drive or ride public transit. I enjoy the daily commute more this way, seeing the city from a different perspective and without the stop-and-go anguish of driving. And I get my daily exercise.

I can see why so many people won’t even think of biking in the city, however. First I must haul the bike up a tiny, curving stairwell from the basement, since I can’t leave my bike outside exposed to the elements and would-be thieves. Then there is the reality that cycling is a tad dangerous. This city, at least, has hardly any bike lanes, let alone separated paths. The roadways are just too narrow for paths, though I think room could be made for bike lanes if the space allocated to cars was shrunken by a few feet. So I ride within inches of many a passenger door, and many of those drivers are downright aggressive. Then there are the hills. I struggle up a never-ending climb on my way to the office, pedaling hard enough to break a sweat, then must change clothes before starting the work day. Then I do the whole routine again on my way home. Finally, there are those pesky elements. I’ve been fortunate so far to rarely have to ride in any rain. But when this northern clime sees its first wet snowfall, and the temperature dips into the 20s, that’s when I’ll really be tested.

Research shows that while housing takes the biggest single chunk out of working families’ salaries, transportation is a pretty big one too. That’s one of the reasons smart growth concepts have become more mainstream in the past few years. But bicycling as a means of transportation is still far from mainstream. I’d like to see a major media campaign that promotes safer, more comfortable biking for city dwellers. I see baby steps being taken, like a road here and there closed on a Sunday for the public to enjoy. What I don’t see is the driving public being encouraged to bike to work. People are asked to pay a lot more for gas, but there’s no alternative. But there is an alternative, and it has two wheels.

David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


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