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.