One recent morning I witnessed a rare sight; two children, almost certainly brother and sister, were riding their bikes to school. They wobbled along the sidewalk of a busy road. The boy pedaled ahead on his BMX while the girl’s bike was too big for her, its chain rusted to the point where, rather than shift gears, she walked the slightest rise. Commuters alone in their cars sped by on the way to work, their kids’ schools, gym or supermarket. This being outer Sydney, the street made not the slightest accommodation for the two kids and their healthy, intrepid mode of transportation.
The bicycle is its own argument for itself. No machine is more elegant, no activity more beneficial. Bicycles are the machines which make sense of our bodies. I can remember learning the following ditty in elementary school, which pretty much says it all:
Riding riding on my bike
is the kind of thing that I really like
On the kind of day others go inside
I get on my bike and ride.
Someday a racing bike
Someday for me…
Every article on the sustainable transportation at least pays lip service to bicycles, and yet few seem to appreciate how truly revolutionary this machine is, or how much it could transform cities. The bicycle is the one form of “green” transport which allows you to go where you want and come and go as you please. Amidst all the astounding statistics one might trip over in a typical 21st century day, surely one of the most incredible is the fact that that 82 percent of trips in the United States under five miles are made in cars. This is simultaneously appalling and encouraging, for it shows how quickly things could change. Five miles is nothing, even for a beginning cyclist.
Nothing, perhaps, in Copenhagen or Amsterdam, or along Cambridge/Arlington/Lexington/Bedford’s modest and sweet-natured Minuteman Bikeway, which I remember as a kind of earthbound wormhole along which distances seemed to magically collapse. One minute in Cambridge, a few daydreams and suddenly you were in Bedford. One of the most important things to understand about cities is that they are all about getting around, and that when getting around cities time and distance become highly subjective. One can, sore of foot but joyous of soul, clock up ten miles of walking on a day out in Paris, Venice, Boston or Manhattan, while half that distance along your local suburban traffic sewer will feel like crossing the Sahara while chewing a mouthful of supermarket brand potato chips.
Many, many people would love to get around on bikes. Here in Australia bike sales have outstripped car sales for 10 years in a row, and presumably those who buy all those bicycles intend to ride them. Clearly there are a lot of potential cyclists out there who don’t feel safe riding in the city, and who could blame them? I have been riding seriously since I did my first race twenty years ago (The Tour de Lowell!), but the commute from Sydney’s Upper North Shore into the city had me ready for a hard drink on the few times I attempted it. It is a route which typifies the plight of the urban cyclist in an unreformed New World city. Cars flow like liquid into every available lane. What appear to be suburban back streets turn out to be rat runs for motorists who think they’re too clever to use the highway. The few dedicated bike paths are disconnected fragments (imagine if a superhighway suddenly turned into a dirt road) while the bike lanes painted on the roads come and go like hope in American politics.
What one might expect to be the innocuous project of making cities more bicycle friendly has unleashed unexpected torrents of rage. There is something about bicycles which fuels the worst kind of populist anger, an anger which only demonstrates the need to protect cyclists. Sydney’s pro-bike Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, has begun what is intended to become an extensive and well-designed network of separated bike lanes in central Sydney, and a certain talk-radio led cohort is, when periodically stirred by their masters, apoplectic. The fact that Clover has already built so much so quickly is something of a miracle considering the power of the recalcitrance she is up against. I thought this was uniquely Australian ockerism until I read of the troubles faced by Janette Sadik-Khan, the New York City transport commissioner who has built 250 miles of on-street bike lanes in the five boroughs, including the most famous one down Broadway. Cabbies don’t like her. Senator Chuck Schumer’s wife is suing her. The fact that Sadik-Kahn’s improvements have in fact saved lives ought to shut down the argument against her .
The anti-bike lobby insists on living in a past that may never have existed. They want to be able to drive into the city alone, in a car, on any road they please. Stuck in traffic jams listening to toxic radio jocks, they cling to some (m)adman’s route 66 myth of the freedom of the open road, the romance of being able to park your Jaguar for free in Greenwich Village at any time of the day or night (New Yorker economics writer John Cassidy was swiftly pilloried for this silly blog post). The golden days of the car, if they ever existed, are over whether we build bike lanes or not. The fight against bicycles is part of a larger resistance to the realities of a finite world whose most obvious manifestation is global warming skepticism and its two bit suburban libertarianism. The hegemony of the automobile was not the will of the free market. It was the result of conscious policy decisions which favored cars. These policies have failed and times are changing.
The bicycle is a revealing lens through which to see cities, and a tool by which to improve them. With architecture stuck in a late late late-modernist holding pattern, streets are often more interesting than buildings these days. Along with trams, bikes are one of the few forms of sustainable transportation which change the nature of streets. In defending her policies, Clover Moore emphasizes that no traffic lanes were killed in the making of her bike paths, but from an urban design perspective, bikes and trams are good precisely because they displace cars in the center of the city. Bikes support street life, and not just because cyclists consume so much food and caffeine. Sydney’s new bike lanes are different from previous efforts because they are part of a plan to rebalance the downtown so that it serves the majority, people, rather than the minority, cars. The lanes are not just an attempt to create useful bike routes for transportation, but to impose on Sydney streets the hierarchy they have always lacked.
Hierarchy is an important and subtle concept, easy to mess up. Paris, where the Vélib bike share program is literally part of the furniture, has a layering of rich oppositions — among them rive gauche/rive droite, monumental west/heterogeneous east, inner/outer — which create a clear hierarchy of street types, from highways to narrow rues virtually closed to traffic. Paris may not seem particularly bike friendly compared to a notorious bikeopolis like Copenhagen, but the vast difference between the city’s busiest and quietest streets has allowed the Vélib to be such a success, even with relatively few dedicated bike lanes. In Sydney, cars buses and taxis simply flow into every available lane, on small streets and large.
The culture of cycling is rich, and, for the city, enriching. There are subcultures within subcultures:
The “new golfers”
Racers “taking it easy”
Fast riders on slow bikes
Soon to be racers
Long distance tourers
Those who ride Euro-style bikes in Europe
Those who ride Euro-style bikes outside Europe
Those who ride bikes because they have to
Those who wear baggy shorts and go fast
Those who ride inappropriate bicycles on rough trails
With good results
With disastrous results
Kids messing around on bikes
Those who have just started commuting on a dodgy hybrid
Those who commute in the rain
Those who commute in spite of the ubiquity of cars
Politicians who commute
Politicians who commute with bodyguards
Mountain bikers who attack from the gun and annoy everybody
Mountain bike racers
Cross country whippets
24 hour nutters
Observed trials nutters
Singlespeeders in the singlespeed category
Singlespeeders who race geared folk
Slow but addicted
Fixie singlespeed ‘crossers
Fixie singlespeed ‘crossers in tutus
Fixie tandem singlespeed ‘crossers in pink tutus
The incomprehensibilae: riders of recumbent bicycles
Unlike the postwar freeway building orgy, cities seem to be building bicycle infrastructure in ways which express their local identities. Manhattan’s bike lanes are functional and matter of fact, its new “plazas” demarcated by moveable planters and lawn furniture. Portland, the only large city to be given “platinum” status by the League of American Wheelmen, has whole streets called “bicycle boulevards” along which children ride to school in packs (these seem much safer than London’s “Bicycle Superhighways,” which appear to be narrow blue stripes running along busy roads). Like architecture, the way bikes move through a city expresses the particularity of a place. This exhilarating race through the streets of Los Angeles is as different from genteel Vélibiation as a scorpion from a bumblebee, or a Huffy from a Colnago, that is to say different but self-similar:
The Bikeopolis I dream of is a long way from running traffic lights on Melrose, fun as that might be. It is not just a place where cyclists ride in straight lines along green stripes, grateful not to be squished. The freedom of the bicycle is about riding all over the place. Bikeopolis is quiet and clean. In Bikeopolis, surplus streets revert to nature and bikes have as many options as cars do now. There is space and light. The street is considered figure, rather than ground. Dirt trails wind through tall forests into the center of town. Packs of schoolchildren race each other down red brick streets. Races take place daily. People are quick-witted and friendly, their brains properly oxygenated. Money which would have been spent on highways and parking lots pays for opera and concerts, which people ride to in their suits and frocks. How do we get there? Maybe just go ride and see where you end up.
Bikeopolis continues here with the Berkshire Review Guide to Enjoying your Bicycle.
 Traffic fatalities in New York City fell 31 percent between 2001 and 2010.