Bikes and New Urbanism

There’s been an incredible upsurge in bicycling in the DC area.  Most municipalities have been adding bike lanes, refurbishing and upgrading trails, adding new routes, and improving signage.  Every day i see more commuters, recreational cyclists, and folks just going from Point A to Point B on bikes.  they include all the levels of the “99%,” from immigrants who absolutely depend on their bikes to get around to fitness nuts to competitive cyclists in training for the next triathlon on their $8k steeds.

Along with the upsurge in bicycles has come the inevitable clash with automobile drivers.  Our local traffic columnist, “Dr. Gridlock,” has regularly mediated in print the disputes about legal and perceived rights and violations thereof.  Several tragic deaths have occurred in the last few years, none involving the driver of a motor vehicle killed by an errant cyclist.  The physical and psychological landscape of New Urbanism has been changed by the new intensity of urban, and suburban, cycling.

Recently my godson Fred McNulty (blog Bloody Shrubbery at http://www.bloodyshrubbery.com) called attention to and entry in Izzy Kornblatt’s blog Concrete Aspirations (http://concreteaspirations.wordpress.com) in which he seemed quite irate about the perceived preferences given to cyclists by local authorities and the delusional arrogance of cyclists.  Now I should be clear that Izzy, though we’ve never met, is a friend of mine.  He’s a friend of Fred, and any friend of Fred is a friend of mine.  He’s a fellow avid cyclist, and any avid cyclist is a friend of mine.  And he’s a fellow WordPress blogger.  His blog addresses not only New Urbanism but also modern architecture, and he has some neat stuff on there about really interesting buildings.  He likes the same kind of new architecture that I do, and that I sometimes teach about.  And I know Izzy has defended/clarified his original stance on the cycling subject.  But since his words stimulated some reflection on my part, I’d like to contribute my own perspectives.

First, I personally would take a different tone about some of the perceived pretenses and arrogance of cyclists.  While I agree there’s a small number of self-centered fashionistas and would-be jocks, overall cyclists have always seemed to me to be a pretty level-headed group.  Maybe it’s different in New York City, the lair of Yankee Fans.  Still, I’d say:

–It’s silly to mock spandex and Camelbak water bottles. Spandex is worn for comfort, not a style statement or any kind of pretense. And any cyclist understands the necessity of a good water supply to keep hydrated. Common health sense, not fashionista focus.

–I don’t know what Sadik-Khan has done to “appease” cyclists, but any push to make more and safer bike trails, paths, and lanes is a positive for everybody, from a safety angle alone. Even if we assume that those cyclists using the new facilities are all recreational cyclists, that is also an excellent thing to foster from a New Urbanist point of view, I would think. Too many urban dwellers are Type “A” personalities who are wound way too tight. They need recreational outlets.

–Surely cyclists who ignore traffic laws are annoyingly arrogant and, more importantly, dangerous to themselves and others. So are motorists who cross solid white lines, turn without signaling, weave in and out of traffic, run yellow lights, and the like. Arrogant and dangerous behavior on the road is not uniquely, or even predominantly, a characteristic of bicyclists.  This dialogue is being constructively addressed by both cycling and motorist groups, with the slogan “Share the Road” predominant.

But the main concern seems to be that avid cyclists have a “deluded” idea that cycling as a mode of transportation as opposed to recreation offers a “real solution” to “our problems.” Those problems are “our dependency on cars” and “[saving] our environment.” I would agree that cycling alone won’t save the world.  But it has been said for a long time now that the world’s salvation will be in a broad paradigm shift, rather than in one specific policy change.  I have observed the glacial but real movement forward of recycling concerns, from half-hearted voluntary efforts to community-mandated processes, over a period of about 30 years. I’ve seen the same thing in acceptance of, interest in, and prioritization of organic food products. Same with “healthy diets,” not to mention vegetarian and vegan diets. Once the purview of hippy fringes, they’re now much more mainstreamed. So with cycling. I can tell you that bike catalogs and stores these days are full of such urban appendages as safety lights, carry bags, wet gear, detachable mudguards, bike locks, and even (ugh!) kickstands. All of these help cyclists modify their recreational rides for commuter and other urban usage.   The volume and diversity of riders in this area are notable, and drivers are getting used to the idea that vehicles powered by cardiovascular, respiratory, and muscular systems are part of the on-road equation.  The days when frenetic, now-obsolete, bicycle couriers constituted urban cycling are gone.

The key to the cultural transformation in all these areas is the support of social and governmental institutions. When transportation commissioners prioritize trail building, cops patrol trail crossings for violators (motor and cycle), and community centers offer bicycling safety classes, urban cycling is becoming a part of a new holistic way of life. That way is healthier (there are few obese cyclists), more economical, and greener. This reality alone won’t save the world tomorrow, but it is part of a discernible paradigm shift, a “New Urbanism” if you will. We’re all in it for the long haul, and we’re getting somewhere literally and figuratively.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

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