Friday, February 5, 2010

My New Blog

Since making my blogging debut in 2007, I have been self-consciously a “bike blogger.” Bicycles are an important part of my life, but they are not the most important, and in fact, I spend comparatively little of my time riding, working on, or thinking about bicycles.

Over time, I’ve begun to realize that being a “bike blogger” is no longer something I’m interested in, at least not at the level I once was. This does not mean that bicycles are not a part of my life; indeed, I would like to emphasize that they are only a part of my life.

In fact, although bicycles themselves are objects that provide me with a sort of satisfaction, I find that I am more interested in what bicycles represent: a more humane and more intimate means of moving through and interacting with my surroundings, both human and material.

In any case, it is very likely that I will no longer be posting at the Old Bike Blog, or at The World Awheel. Both blogs will remain up, although dormant for the foreseeable future. This is especially so for the Old Bike Blog, my first and most useful blog. I hope it will continue to be a resource for other old bike enthusiasts for many years.

I will be blogging regularly about bicycles (and a lot of other things, too) at my new blog, Do Right & Fear Not. Come by, look around, stay if you like.



Monday, November 30, 2009

On Reclaiming Exercise

Americans live in a culture of extremes, a culture of “go-big-or-go-home-push-the-envelope-all-or-nothing-just-do-it-go-faster-higher-stronger-better.” This is one of the reasons so many people still believe that riding a bicycle for exercise equals “workout.”

Every weekend, I see well-meaning people on department store bikes, wearing “workout clothes” and slogging around, huffing and straining in the highest gear possible. This -- because it is hard, because it is the image we associate with exercise -- is the image many people still have about bicycling.

I much prefer the more relaxed idea of “healthy exercise” that was promoted so beautifully by bicycling adverts, catalogues and magazines up until about the 1960s. Any kind of bicycling amounts to exercise, even if it’s slow and relaxed. One of the original benefits of bicycling is that it affords pleasurable, low-impact exercise.

Too many people believe that in order to get exercise, they have to push themselves into a level of discomfort that indicates success. The popular imagery of exercise, as provided by television shows like NBC’s The Biggest Loser, tells us that exercise has to hurt in order to be beneficial. We have to push ourselves to the screaming limit and collapse in a quivering heap before we’ll start to see results.

Likewise, we don’t want to be seen as “half-assed” about our workout (remember the culture of extremes), so we push and push and push. This in turn perpetuates the idea that exercise has to be hard, we have to be fitter, work harder, sweat more, and it turns a lot of people off entirely to the idea of exercise. People see that hard-core image and say “hell, I could never be like that” on the assumption that it’s either that or nothing.

This, of course, is all bosh. I think we’d do a lot better to promote all forms of exercise, bicycling included, as relaxing, fun, low-impact, civilized, and above all, achievable. I lost ten pounds (about as much as I can safely lose) just riding about 8 miles weekly for groceries and errands over four months, plus a bit of relatively low-impact recreational riding. I’m holding steady at the weight I was ten years ago, and I’ve increased my cardiovascular fitness and overall muscle tone as well. And I didn’t scream once.

Image: 1957 Raleigh catalogue at Britain's National Cycling Library.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Book Review: Mapes, Pedaling Revolution

Review of Jeff Mapes, Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclist Are Changing American Cities (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2009)

In the last two decades, several large cities across the United States have begun moving in directions that could be called “bike friendly.” Jeff Mapes, a political reporter for Portland’s newspaper The Oregonian, takes on the task of summarizing and reflecting on the ways these cities have empowered a new and vibrant bike culture in an extremely auto-centric nation.

As a Portland resident, Mapes writes from what many consider to be the most bike-friendly urban center in the country. This alone is not enough to grant Mapes legitimacy, but he does draw on his own experiences in a city that, more than most, “gets it.” As a political reporter, Mapes is at his best describing the connections, contexts, and conundrums within the broader world of bicycle advocacy, and the glimpse he offers into the challenges and predicaments of bike-friendly urban planning is probably the book’s greatest contribution.

The book’s organization is effective, with case studies of Amsterdam (as the model to which many American advocates aspire), Davis, California, Portland, and New York serving as the core chapters. Mapes adds an opening chapter on the politics of creating the bicycle movement (again, he is particularly adept here), reflections on a pan-urban bicycle culture, safety, health, and re-popularizing bicycles among America’s youth. The last three chapters (safety, health, and youth) are the weakest, relying in large part on statistics, reports, and studies. These are fine for what they are, but leave the reader wanting just as the book should be hitting its stride.

One omission that may be particularly appropriate for readers of bike blogs is that Mapes largely neglects the groundswell of popular citizen media that has exploded in cities all over the country that seeks to popularize, normalize, and sometimes simply document the growing use of bicycles as transportation. Although he does briefly discuss blogs like Streetsblog and BikePortland, Mapes could have paid more attention to the extra-organizational advocacy efforts of citizen media, social networking, and other forms of grassroots Internet advocacy.

A few other minor criticisms of the book include a frustrating lack of footnotes or in-text references and a lackluster Epilogue that leaves the reader wondering if the author himself has any ideas for the future of bicycle-oriented urban development. These quibbles aside, however, Jeff Mapes has written an engaging, informative, and timely “state of the field” book that aptly characterizes and summarizes the progress and potential of the sometimes-problematic “bicycle movement.” It is well worth a read for anyone interested in gaining a clearer understanding of the current state of bicycle advocacy, and a hopeful (if not altogether articulated) vision of where such advocacy may lead.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I'm Still Here

Just sitting quietly for a moment, however. I'm reading Mapes, Pedaling Revolution (2009) at the moment and should have a review up soon. It's not a solicited review, just something I'd like to share.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Rage Against the Human-Powered Machine?

Or just rage? Or just lack of basic civility? I wrote an editorial for our local bike advocacy blog some time back regarding the everyday rudeness that bicyclists endure. At the time, several prominent examples of rude behavior generally by celebrities and politicians were in the news. Pundits and the 24/7 "news" networks seized on the sudden epidemic of rudeness and wondered if we had lost our basic sense of civility. My point was: yes, but it's not sudden, and it's not confined to high-profile events. It happens every day, especially to easy targets like people acting "differently" (i.e. riding bicycles).

Well, that's a pretty negative view of things, isn't it? I've been trying to be more positive about things like this, so I wanted to revisit the issue in a different forum. I just finished reading P.M. Forni's Choosing Civility (St. Martin's Griffin, 2002), which is just horribly written and not at all well-conceived, but has some interesting ideas. Although Forni stays positive about the potential for civil behavior (or, one might even go so far as to say overly fussy and fastidious behavior), the main point I took away from the book is that most people are not even basically civil to one another.

Okay, this seems to be getting worse and not better, doesn't it? Bear with me.

Instead of focusing on what people aren't doing to respect each other's space, time, and effort, let's focus on why we consider these things important. Most of us, myself included, who think people generally are less civil than they should be, tend to say things like, "nobody listens anymore" or "why doesn't anyone yield to pedestrians anymore?" The assumption is that people used to do these things, and now they don't, and we're the worse for it. But guess what? People have always not listened to and not respected the people around them. Always.

Rather than bash our heads against the wall because of all the incivility we see around us, and rather than holding grudges against entire groups of people (i.e. bicycists, drivers, etc.), I think the main thing we should all be concerned about is whether or not we as individuals can evaluate our actions at the end of every day and feel good about what we either did or did not do. It's not that the world is more uncivil or disrespectful now than it was back in the good ol' days, it's just that we now approach incivility in a clinical fashion, attempting to determine causes, effects, and cures. My arguement is that it's not a discrete social problem and it's not a symptom of larger issues, it's just part of living in proximity to other humans. If you can take individual responsibility for how you do that, then The Big Scary Problem of Incivility suddenly dissipates into a series of individual actions and choices. And that's where the changes can be made.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Buy Buy Bicycle

Oh goody, I've been wanting to use this graphic for a long time. The cartoon above is from 1895 and depicts one artist's adaptation of the monopoly octopus (monoctopus?), a popular image in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries most often used to criticize steel, oil, railroad, or real estate corporations for grabbing up the competition and extending their nefarious tentacles into the vaunted realm of free enterprise.

The charming fellow above, however, represents "The Latest Octopus -- The Bicycle Trust." In the mid-1890s, when bicycles were such a big deal and bicycle companies were growing so fast, there was perhaps a legitimate worry that they would become just like every other big industry, ruled by a few and crushing out free enterprise (and the interests of bicyclists, as represented by the little fellow at lower left trying his darndest to pedal away). The Bicycle Trust Octopus already has the stores, the dealers and the bicycle racing industry in its grasp(s), with "high grade wheels" positioned strategically near the banner for the races. Hm, sound familiar?

With Interbike 2009 having recently finished up its annual orgasm of shiny bicycle gew-gaws, perhaps now is an appropriate time to state simply that bicycling shouldn't be about the stuff. Sure, the bicycle itself is "stuff" manufactured by a corporation, marketed, distributed, sold for a profit. I'm under no illusions that the bicycle industry is not an industry proper; rather, I worry that whenever we allow an industry to tell us what we want, instead of figuring it out for ourselves, we run the risk, as Benjamin Barber suggests, of becoming infantilized consumers, ready to accept the next attractively-packaged shiny toy.

This year, it seems, practical bikes were all the rage, and lots of big name manufacturers are putting out "city" models with fenders, chain guards, racks, even belt drives. I think that's great because it will undoubtedly get more people riding bicycles for transportation, which ultimately is the point of the machine. I'm not worried that transportational or practical bikes are going to "lose their soul" if they're made by big corporations instead of by custom builders. But I do wonder whether a lot of people are going to buy these bikes because they're told they're supposed to (for whatever reason seems appealing at the time), and then junk them when the next trend comes along (I predict it's going to be pennyfarthings). I sure hope not, but it's happened before.

Image: Chicago Tribune, 14 December 1895

Monday, August 31, 2009

On Being Obvious & Oblivious

Just look at me and you'll know I'm no weekend warrior. My bicycles are an old English three-speed, complete with the white patch on the rear fender, and an American-made three-speed outfitted as a grocery bike.  Both bicycles demand an upright riding posture that screams "vehicular bicyclist." I ride in street clothes, which usually consists of a button-up shirt and trousers with cuffs turned up to mid-calf. I almost always ride with a bag or two (more depending on what errand I'm running and which bike I'm on), my bell is quite loud and frequently used, and I've recently taken to wearing a helmet (not one of those silly racing jobs, either, but a proper Nutcase). I don't flinch in traffic, but I also don't take any risks. I'm out there, traveling by bicycle, not deluding myself into thinking I'm going to race in the Olympics, and not running lights or dodging across crosswalks like some reckless kid.

So why, with all this obvious effort to be a vehicle, and to be recognized as such, did a completely oblivous driver making a left turn almost run me down just now as I passed legally through a green light? The answer, quite simply, is that if I'm going to be a vehicle, I'm going to get treated like one, including being subjected to all the stupidity, ignorance, and arrogance of every other vehicle operator on the road. The more I ride and the more I think about it, the more I realize that we need to stop thinking about cars versus bicycles, and start thinking more broadly about what it means for us all to be vehicles moving through space, sharing the road, and just simply trying not to bash into each other. I'll do my part, will you?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Foolish Scorchers, the Dramatic Ending

4. And when the gate arose again,
Those scorchers had good luck;
Though it becomes not tongue nor pen,
To tell just how they struck.

(I don't get it, do you?)

SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, 12 July 1896.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What is a Bike Person?

This post was precipitated by a couple of days spent last week with Adrienne, who co-authors the blog Change Your Life, Ride a Bike! and her husband, who came for a visit. They brought their bikes, and we had a great time riding around, discussing all manner of topics, only occasionally bicycle-related. It got me thinking about the idea of “bicycle people” and “bicycle culture.”

It seems endemic to human nature to assign group identities to individuals. This appears to be reasonable on an evolutionary level, since identifying a person as a member of a group hostile to one’s own would be important for survival. Likewise, identifying friendly people and even potential mates as members of congenial groups, or assigning positive group characteristics to the groups we are most likely to join, helps us identify what is worthwhile and positive about ourselves. As much as we like to think of ourselves as solitary apes, we really do thrive as members of groups.

The problem, of course, comes when the identity of the group is taken to stand for the identity of the individual, or when others make assumptions about people based only on the characteristics of the group they are perceived to belong to.

Both Adrienne and I run bike blogs, we both ride quite a bit, and (I’m making an assumption here) we both spend a fair amount of time thinking about bikes and riding, so it seems reasonable to assume that we might talk mostly about bikes. This was not the case at all. Our bikes were, of course, physically present, but they were simply our transportation. Granted, we discussed their finer points and virtues, compared notes on little squeeks and rattles, talked a bit about strategies for urban riding, etc. The bikes were a commonality, to be sure, for we wouldn’t have even met were it not for bikes, but they do not define us as people, or limit the good we can see in others.

It is a common lament in Bike Blog Land how divided the broader “bike culture” can sometimes be. Every kind of bike and every style of riding has its own group of devotees, and every group has a set of perceptions about every other group. This is often lamented in terms of the possibilities for collective action that are lost by dividing “amongst ourselves.” The assumption is that we all have a shared set of concerns and interests if we could just get beyond all the silly posturing and attitudes. But what if we don’t?

Automobile drivers (which many bicyclists also are) don’t typically feel a sense of underlying kinship with other drivers. In fact, most drivers tend to have a pretty low opinion of other drivers. Why should I have (or want to have) a favorable impression of someone or friendship with them just because they choose the same mode of transportation as I do?

Bike bloggers also tend to emphasize the great people we meet while riding, but we also tend to assume to some degree that they are great because they also ride bikes. But what if that has nothing to do with it? What if some people are just nice and we get along with them really well, and what if some people are just jerks and we would rather not spend time with them? What if riding a bike has absolutely nothing to do with it?

The Foolish Scorchers, Part III

3. But like a hail-stone from on high,

That seeks the mother earth,

That gate descended from the sky,

And caught them in the girth.

SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, 12 July 1896

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Foolish Scorchers, Part II

2. As they swept on they gayly laughed,
And thought by sudden spurt.
To clear the toll-gate like a shot,
And do the keeper "dirt."

SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, 12 July 1896

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Some rides are diamonds...

…and some rides just suck. With apologies to John Denver.

I was feeling a little cooped-up inside today, and I have some reading to do, so I packed a bag with books and some water, and took what I thought would be a short, leisurely ride to check out a little neighborhood park a couple of miles away. This is one of the benefits of being un/self-employed. I planned my route quickly by looking at Google Maps, and away I went.

I always feel like such a gentleman when I hop on my British steel and pedal away on some mild adventure. Nothing like an afternoon ramble in the city, eh what?

All was free and easy until I got to a construction detour. Okay, I’ll follow the detour. Wait, the detour leads to a cul-de-sac. That doesn’t make sense, and oh crap, now I have to climb back up that massively massive hill I just came down. Okay, now, if I go left that should take me down to the park. Nope, wait, that’s not a through street. Okay, next one. Nope, not that one either.  Huh. Woo, it’s getting hot. This must be…no…hm, how come I’m not seeing any of the streets I remember from the map?  Getting windy. How can I be riding into the wind no matter which direction I go?

In short, it was not the ride I had planned. I never made it to the park. After an hour of chuffing my way up and down hills, down dead-end streets, and somehow always fighting a headwind, I returned home, drenched in sweat, slightly smelly, and decidedly undignified. On the way back, I hit a rather deep trench in the street and my rear light popped off and broke in the street. As I was picking up the pieces and putting it back together (it still works), my bicycle, which I had carefully parked with the kickstand, fell over with a crash and a merry little *ding* from the bell.

Those of us who blog about bicycling tend to overlook these kinds of rides in the interest of creating an attractive picture of bicycling, in the hopes that others will read our wonderful stories and become inspired to ride. But I think it’s also important to talk about the rides that just plain suck. Because there will be days when you get home from a particularly awful ride and think, “To hell with this!” It’s bound to happen, it happens to everybody, and it’s no big deal. The important thing, as they say, is to get back on that horse and ride.

IMAGE: 1935 Sturmey-Archer Advert

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Hand (Tool)

PHOTO: Mauricio Orantes

Monday, June 29, 2009

On Hands, Tools, and the Value of Work

I usually work alone when I work on my bicycles, in part by design because I enjoy the quiet, and in part because it’s not usually a job that requires two people. As a result, I have never put much thought into how I perform the work, or why I do certain things the way I do. I’ve learned to work – or I should say, am learning to work – in the way that best suites me. It’s a process that demands little active self-reflection, just trial and error. And error. And error.

Recently, however, I have been helping a friend work on some of his old bikes, and I find that my work style is under some scrutiny. I’ve been told that I am very “creative” and “inventive” in my solutions to problems, and I have been gently critiqued for the fact that I don’t, as a general rule, use power tools.

While I would like to agree that I am creative in my problem-solving skills, I rather think that my way of working is, in fact, so simple as to be uninteresting, and that my creative problem solving is merely a function of the fact that my tools are often either simple or improvised out of necessity, rather than any great degree of creativity or inventiveness on my part. I can’t afford a lot of expensive or specialized tools, so I only buy tools when I absolutely need them, and I’m always looking for ways to make one tool perform multiple functions.

As I’ve mulled over my friend’s observations and my own reactions to them over the past few weeks, I’ve realized that my way of working is due in large part to watching my father work, and from spending a great deal of time knocking about in my grandfather’s garage. From my father I learned patience and swear words (not mutually exclusive, mind you), and the truism that there is always more than one solution to a problem. From my grandfather’s garage (sans grandfather, who died when I was very young) I learned the value of disorganization, organization, improvisation, and thoughtful planning, all mashed together into a mélange of competence, experimentation, thrift, and precision.

Also from my grandfather, or rather his tools, I learned to be distrustful of anything I don’t power myself. All of the electrical gadgets or power tools in my grandfather’s garage were broken. Motors had burned out, circuits had fried, wires had corroded, switches had broken, etc. All of the hand-powered tools, however, were all still in perfect order. Hammer and axe handles had been replaced, wooden sheaths had been fashioned for handsaws to protect their teeth, moving mechanisms had been carefully oiled and wrapped in rags or plastic bags for storage.

As a kid, I had my own set of hand tools, which I employed on any number of non-threatening and largely non-functional projects, most of which ended in frustration (although I now know how valuable this was). Now as I work on my bicycles, I find myself able to judge the stubbornness of a stuck bolt or screw by applying pressure in just the right way with a wrench or screwdriver. I rarely strip a bolt or screw, and in fact, I find it much easier to ruin a project with a power tool than a hand tool. I can usually tell when I need to let up the pressure, and I can also usually tell when I’m going to need to improvise a solution beyond the simple tool I have in my hand. I have a pretty good feel for when the hacksaw is really biting, and I can usually tell when the file or rasp needs a little more pressure on the outside edge.

Does all this make me a master project-doer? Hardly. But whether it’s bikes or some other project, I know that I feel more connected to my work because I use the strength of my hands and arms, and the leverage of my elbows and shoulders, to accomplish it. And if I can improvise a solution without buying another tool, I won’t deny that I do feel some small sense of pride, and the impression that maybe my grandfather would have approved.

As I mash my way through repairs and restorations, and even basic maintenance on my bicycles, I am constantly grateful for the lessons I’ve absorbed, the mistakes I’ve made, and the modest successes I’ve earned with only my two hands and my small collection of tools. It’s further proof for me that the bicycle, with its relatively simple design, ease of maintenance, and accessibility is not only a machine to move our bodies through space, but a mechanism by which we can move ourselves in perhaps even more fundamental ways. 

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Foolish Scorchers

A scorcher and his bloomered mate,

Each mounted on a "bike,"

Bore down upon an old toll-gate

That stretched across the pike.

SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, 12 July 1896

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The View from the Sidewalk

Or, why Americans were once-upon-a-time in love with the bicycle, and why they should be again.

The argument that bicycles are not a viable form of transportation in our auto-oriented culture is predicated on one basic assumption: bicycles are car replacements. As such, they compare rather unfavorably: they can’t carry as much, they’re slower, they require more effort (there are at least twice as many good counter-arguments, but I don’t think I need to enumerate them here).

In all of this, we should keep in mind that bicycles, at the moment of their innovation, were not viewed as car replacements because there were no cars.  When bicycles came into widespread use, they were an alternative to walking, streetcars, horses, and horse-drawn vehicles.

Imagine that, by some quirk of fate, that all of the necessary technological convergences required to innovate the automobile never happened. The car was never invented, it never entered our culture, it never occurred to anyone. It’s a stretch, but bear with me.

Without our cars and buses, what options would we have for daily transportation? The lack of possibilities is somewhat startling. Walking becomes the cheapest and most accessible mode of travel. Horses are expensive to buy and maintain, and streetcars can only run on tracks, and thus cannot go everywhere. For a great deal of our daily travel, we’re left with only our own two feet to get around.

Imagine then, what an impact the bicycle would have on a pedestrian culture. Suddenly, our possibilities for independent travel seem endless. We might think something like this, which appeared in the New York Times in 1881:

“The Future of the Bicycle,” 26 June 1881

Upon the conditions of practice and fairly good roads the bicycle is a practicable and practical vehicle….  Its superior efficiency as compared with walking is also strictly under physical laws. It converts reciprocal into rotary motion…. The movement in walking is continuous only in one sense, being broken every time the foot strikes the ground; the wheel, on the contrary, has an uninterrupted motion…. The special heat and fatigue of the feet, noticeable most in warm weather, are also avoided, and the swifter motion produces a little breeze for cooling…. At first, the riding is itself the end sought, and the satisfactions and physical benefits therefrom are ample justification for seeking that end.  But the strictest utility is reached when, having to go somewhere, one chooses the bicycle as the efficient instrument for going.

Incidentally, and apropos of my earlier post about the state of our roads, the article goes on to conclude that increased advocacy for “very smooth roads” with be “one of the most valuable offices of the bicycle in America.”

If there’s a point here, it’s this: when you consider all of the modes of transportation available to you, stop thinking about it from only one point of view. Instead of comparing bicycles to cars, compare them to walking, which is pretty much the only option left to us if we take the automobile out of the equation. With rising fuel costs, crumbling infrastructure, and continuing economic downturn, a lot of people are finding that they’re using their car less, or that they simply can’t afford to drive or own a car at all. In fact, there are a lot of people, most of them hidden from those of us in a comfortably middle-class position, who are not a part of America’s car culture because they simply can’t own a car. These are the people we need to get on bicycles, because for them, for all intents and purposes, it’s still 1881.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Greatest Safety

SOURCE: New York Times, 20 June 1891

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The View from a Moment, 1945

In 1945, the Schwinn Company, then at its zenith, produced a 50th Anniversary book to commemorate its first half-century in business. It was an interesting moment for the American bicycle industry. The first bicycle boom of the 1890s and early 1900s had died away by the 1920s, when the automobile became the new must-have item for middle class families. Although not quite yet relegated to the toy chest, the bicycle during the 1920s became an accessory, rather than a mode of transportation.

By the 1930s, as the excerpt below points out, more adults returned to the bicycle as a useful vehicle during the Great Depression. In 1945, with the war either just over, or soon ended (there is no indication when in 1945 the book was printed), the future of American transportational bicycling was by no means certain. The era of expressways and freeways and urban centers hacked-up with on- and off-ramps and overpasses was still to come. There was, in the moment this book was produced, a real potential for the bicycle to return to the center, or at least closer to the center, of American life.

At the same time, Schwinn and other manufacturers knew that the juvenile market was their largest and most consistent. Driving a car was already seen as a badge of adulthood, and bicycling was becoming widely regarded, as the excerpt also points out, as a sort of apprenticeship for the greater responsibility of driving a car.

What emerges is a curious combination of optimism about the future of bicycling in America (it is a Schwinn publication, after all), and a sort of grudging acceptance that the first real age of the bicycle has well and truly ended in America.

From 50 Years of Schwinn-Built Bicycles: The Story of the Bicycle and its Contributions to Our Way of Life. Chicago, IL: Arnold, Schwinn, and Co., 1945.

"The bicycle with the big basket has long been a familiar sight in our streets.  This short distance delivery is inexpensive; it requires no motor fuel; its tires last so long they are discarded because of age deterioration more often than because of wear. The investment in the cycle is small and with reasonable care it lasts indefinitely...

The bicycle is the transportation of our children and our youth... It is cheap, pleasant, safe and healthy transportation. But for the youngster, it is far more than that. Every normal boy and girl wants a bicycle... In our age of mechanization, mechanical devices have a constantly increasing interest for our children, and nothing satisfies that interest so much as the bicycle... It teaches children the rules of traffic control and safety and conditions them for the greater responsibility of driving a motor car later on...

The great depression of the 30's brought a re-awakening of adult interest in cycling, born perhaps of a desire for simpler, saner living after the strain of the frantic 20's. That interest has grown constantly and bids fair to become an important factor in adult recreation and transportation. Factory yards, like school yards, have ever-increasing numbers of bicycles, during work hours. Workers who live within cycling distance of their work, are beginning to realize the folly of driving their motor cars comparatively short distances to and from work, and subjecting them to deterioration brought about by standing out in the dust and baking heat of summer...

Cycling for health will do much toward relieving the nervous tension of modern living and overcome the debilitating effects arising from the convenience of modern, mechanized transportation, both public and private...."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Comedic Interlude, 3 of 3

The Bicycle in the Role of "Home Exerciser" -- 3rd of 3 in a series.

7. "Now it is plumb and everything is well."
8. "But he has had enough exercise for one day and it's too late to go out."
SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, 20 June 1897

Friday, May 22, 2009

Comedic Interlude, 2 of 3

The Bicycle in the Role of a "Home Exerciser" --2nd of 3 in a series

4. "The saddle must be lowered."
5. "While I am about it I might oil the chain."
6. "Harder to replace than I thought."
SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, 20 June 1897

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Comedic Interlude, 1 of 3

The Bicycle in the Role of a "Home Exerciser" -- 1st of 3 in a series:
1. "Now I'm ready for over the hills and far away."
2. "I ought to have done this pumping last night."
3. "Are all the nuts tight?"
SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, 20 June 1897

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ride of Silence?

I have essentially the same question as in my post below. Does the "Ride of Silence" to honor bicyclists injured or killed while riding on public roadways actually marginalize the bicycle as a legitimate form of transportation? If we act like an oppressed minority, do we not just confirm our status as an oppressed minority? Do such events (and Ghost Bikes, too) actually do anything to reach out to the non-bicycling public, or are they events that the bicycling community does for itself? If the latter, does it only further isolate, embitter, and/or enrage bicyclists, perhaps encouraging them to take their next negative encounter with a driver to the next level?

Further, these events bring accident victims posthumously into a bicycle "community" that they may not have been a part of when alive. Does making them martyrs to a cause they may not even have believed in (one doesn't need to be dogmatic to get killed while riding a bicycle, after all) really do proper justice to their memory? Wouldn't that time and energy be better spent volunteering for the local bicycle advocacy organization or bike kitchen?

My question at the end of it all is just this: Why are we doing this? We say we want bicycling to be inclusive, but don't such "nation building" events by their very form and function create insiders and outsiders? Us and Them? Us versus Them?

You can perhaps discern my own leanings on the issue, but the questions posed are genuine. What do you think? Reasonable disagreement is encouraged. Poopy-pants-ness, not so much.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Bike to Work Day?

I can guess that this post is going to cause a hubbub amongst all three of my readers, but I'll pose the question anyway. First, a little context.

In my life as an academic, I work mostly on the history of race in the nineteenth century. I read a lot of what used to be called "Black History," and more recently, "African American History." I don't find these categories particularly useful, since I think they unrealistically separate (or segregate, you might say) historical human experience based on race. Some scholars of like mind have made the argument that Black History Month (February) has outlived its usefulness because it encourages the view that the history of black people is somehow separate or distinct from "regular" history. I have similar opinions about Women's History Month (March).

So, here's the question: does designating a Bike Month (May) and Bike to Work Day similarly segregate bicycling as transportation from our idea of "regular" transportation? Shouldn't every day potentially be Bike to Work Day? In other words, does the profile-raising potential of a Bike Month/Day outweigh the implicit marginalization of bicycling into just one specific timeframe? Or is the concept of bicycling as transportation still "new" enough that we need a month specifically to highlight it? Watcha think?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Our Crumbling Infrastructure

A report out today by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials offers a grim report card on the state of the nation's roads. My hometown of San Diego, California ranked near the top for poor road conditions. Here's a link to a rather large PDF of the full report.

A full 84% of San Diego's roads were classified by AASHTO as "Poor" or "Mediocre" and only 10% as "Good." I can attest to this dismal state of things with a vengeance. Driving or riding, the roads around here are shameful. Our car is going to need suspension work soon, I think, and I don't believe I've been on one single ride in this city that I didn't have to dodge a pothole, crack, sinkhole, ridge, bump, blob, or some other type of yawning crater that could either break an axle or untrue a wheel. Not to mention all the smaller ones I've had to just suffer through.

A few months ago, I decided I would ride around just my neighborhood and plot on a Google map all of the horrific stretches of road and dangerously neglected intersections, specifically from a bicyclist's perspective, with a view toward presenting my findings to my local city councilman. After two outings, I realized that futility of this task. All of the streets were in need of something, so pointing out just the worst trouble spots wouldn't fix the real problem. In fact, the way they "fix" potholes and other roadway damage around here, it probably would have made the worst spots even worse.

In the 1890s, when bicycling really took off, bicycle clubs were at the forefront of the push to pave the nation's streets and roads, years before automobiles would become prevalent. Today, while safer streets continue to be a focus of bicycling advocacy organizations, the simple maintenance of the roadways seems to have taken a back seat to sexier issues like protected bike lanes, bike/pedestrian boulevards, traffic calming, etc.  But damaged roads are far more dangerous to bicyclists than to motorists, and those of us who ride need to be vocal in pointing out problems and fighting not only for improvements to the transportation infrastructure, but for simple maintenance of what already exists. We tend to look down the road to solve problems we perceive in the future (increased congestion, pollution, etc.) with an eye toward progress, and rightly so, but in doing so, we ignore the potholes right in front of us at our own peril.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Snapshot from Bicycle

"Sixth--Fall scene. Snapshot from bicycle while running swiftly. Unsuccessful. Too realistic for amateur. Decides not to photograph any more for thirty or forty years."

A lot of bicycle bloggers and friends on Flickr favor the "panda" photograph, or a snapshot taken while riding your bicycle, which includes you and/or your bicycle in the shot. Now, it's usually all I can do to keep upright and in a relatively straight line while riding, so I've never attempted, and probably won't attempt, any panda portraits anytime soon. They're neat to look at, but boy-howdy, seems like an accident just itchin' to happen. Incidentally, I love this cartoon because of the convergence of two kinds of revolutionary technology: bicycle and snapshot camera (that box at the bottom of the frame). Seems folks set about finding new ways to fall off of bicycles and/or break cameras almost immediately after their invention. 

SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, 30 September 1900