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.

1 comment:

  1. I've just gotten to New York, though I skipped ahead to safety. I found the history very interesting as well. I wanted to know more about the struggle for LAB, the connections, and about the bike gangs. I found he lacked credibility about safety and think he was wise to not try to forecast the sociology stuff.


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