As the weather warms and the dog poop melts, a lot more people are thinking about bikes. If you are one of those who are thinking about using your bike more and your car or transit less, pedal over to your local bookstore and pick up Yvonne Bambrick's Urban Cycling Guide. Cycling has changed so much in the last few years; when I started riding my bike all winter I would be pretty much alone; drivers would yell at me for clogging the road and that I was going to get killed and would deserve it. This year, even though it was a tough and cold one and I was not out as much, I was impressed to see that there were always cyclists out there. The bike is now not just recreation, it's transportation. It's getting crowded out there.
Making people comfortable cycling in the city has huge benefits for everyone. For the city and the taxpayer, it is a great way of taking cars off the roads and getting people out of the over-crowded and subsidized transit systems. It is the least polluting form of mechanized transportation and has the smallest footprint. Yvonne quotes me: "When you ride your bike, it isn’t just transportation, it is the key to designing the sustainable cities of the future."
In North America, the car was the symbol of freedom and independence. But in fact, Yvonne describes how the opposite was true.
I realized that owning and habitually overusing a car for short trips actually made me and billions of others far more dependent on all the systems required to make, buy, park, insure, repair, and fuel a car, rather than providing the independence I’d originally connected to car ownership. Cars, while useful and essential to some, are also a factor in so many of our societal ills — obesity, stress, diseases related to a sedentary lifestyle, worsening air quality, urban sprawl, and divided communities to name but a few. Cars might be symbols of independence and freedom in advertising and rock anthems, but I’ve come to fully appreciate that bicycles actually provide it, and so much more.
Most of the book is a how-to guide; how to buy, what to wear, basic maintenance, reducing risk. It's all good and useful stuff, although some will complain about her helmet ambivalence. I thought she wrote a fair and balanced look at the complicated issue. I would like to hand out copies of the chapter on etiquette to the next cyclist who passes me on the curb side. But my favorite part of the book was the introduction, where she addresses the question, why ride?
Here, she addresses the benefits to the personal benefits one gets by cycling:
Convenience -" If you’re used to a car, that might feel like the most convenient way to get around — you get in, turn on some tunes, and off you go. But how convenient is it to waste time in traffic or looking for parking?" This is certainly true in most cities now.
Autonomy "Bikes are empowering, allowing you to get where you want to go on your own terms." Again, this is where the car used to shine, but not anymore. And it certainly beats waiting for a bus.
A healthier body and mind Don't take it from her, this comes from the OECD:
Cycling significantly improves health and, as a form of moderate exercise, can greatly reduce clinical health risks linked to cardiovascular disease, Type-2 diabetes, certain forms of cancer, osteoporosis, and depression. . . Not only does cycling reduce disease-related deaths, but it also contributes to substantially better health.
Money in your pocket Bikes are (relatively) cheap to buy and maintain and your lunch is your fuel.
Ken and Eti Greenberg
Then there are the important points, how bikes help you rediscover your city, or as I have found, the city you are visiting. She quotes urban designer and theorist Ken Greenberg, (TreeHugger here) :
Self-propelled motion at relatively low speeds offers us more than exercise and a chance to commune with our neighbours. It restores a geographic intuition that was weakened by the car — a feel for the real distances between things, a sense of the connections between the parts of the city.
Of course, bikes give you Eco Warrior Cred" bicycles are the ultimate sustainable transportation vehicles." And last but not least, they are Fun.
In the last chapter, Yvonne promotes advocacy, in making our cities better for cyclists. It should be a no-brainer, getting politicians to invest in bike infrastructure, it's so cheap. In Toronto, where Yvonne and I live, the new relatively sane mayor is spending $400 million just to speed up repairs on a decrepit elevated expressway; imagine how many cars might be taken off the road if that much money was spent on making decent bike lanes and other infrastructure. But even if you don't go out and storm city hall;
...remember that just riding your bicycle safely and responsibly is an act of advocacy. If you’ve decided to make the switch, know that there will be moments of resistance — you’ll come up with any number of reasons why driving or taking public transit today is the right thing to do. Sometimes it may be. But far more often than not, if you can work past the resistance, you’ll be glad you did.