COLUMNS The Bike Madame

Cycling Power to the People!

Bikes Theater ValetWhile waiting on line for the restroom at Powell’s City of Books, I perused some books on a nearby shelf. One offered an ironic critique of affluent urban fashionistas through their favorite objects (probably written by affluent urban fashionistas). Guess what one of the trendy accoutrements was? Yup, right up there with color-coordinated espresso makers was the humble bicycle.

I’ve seen this charge in other venues too: that cycling is an elite activity, while Everyman and –woman are ensconced behind the wheels of their salt-of-the-macadam autos. This notion fits a larger misperception that environmental friendliness is the preserve of the wealthy (at least until “green” stops being the latest style). My childhood experiences in rural Pennsylvania attest to the popular rather than elite origins of reusing items, reducing consumption (or not consuming much to begin with), and relying on low-tech solutions to the challenges of daily living…long before these common-sense ideas gained currency among Hollywood stars. The authors of that book might hold up pricey custom bikes as hipster accessories, but human-powered vehicles can be embodiments of the power of the people, for several reasons.

BIKES ARE CHEAP. Even if you go for that high-performance beast made out of NASA-approved materials, it’s still cheaper than a new car (and many used cars). Used cycles can be incredible bargains, especially if you’re a do-it-yourselfer. My father purchased a road bike from Goodwill for $8. I cleaned up the drive chain, replaced the busted tires and tubes, lubed and greased everything, and he was ready to roll. The replacement parts brought the total to under $50. You also don’t need to fuel the bike (and hopefully you’re fueling yourself anyway!) While a bike isn’t practical for a long commute, most people’s driving patterns (to and from nearby work and errands in the local area) are actually perfect for cycle travel. Just add a trailer and you can do most kinds of shopping (although building materials might be a challenge).

BIKES ARE EASY TO MAINTAIN AND REPAIR. Unlike a contemporary car, cycles are entirely mechanical (with some battery-powered accessories like lights). They also have few moving parts in comparison with a motorized vehicle. Therefore, even if the rider isn’t an engineer, he or she can do most routine maintenance and repairs. It’s rewarding to take maintenance matters into your own hands, and you can also make custom changes to fit your unique riding needs and experiences. What could be more empowering?

BIKES ENHANCE COMMUNITY LIFE. The slower speed of a bicycle, its complete openness to the surroundings, and many riders’ preferences for riding on less-traveled neighborhood streets, all make human-powered transportation an excellent way to enhance one’s participation in community life. It’s easier to wave to people and engage them in a brief conversation while cycling than while driving. (The construction workers on Route 26 know me by name.) Slower travel also means the rider notices more, including local issues that need to be addressed.

BIKES EXERT MINIMAL IMPACT ON INFRASTRUCTURE AND THE ENVIRONMENT. Cycles are the original zero-emissions vehicles, and their light weight means they don’t tear up roads like larger vehicles do. Dedicated non-motorized transit routes are excellent investments: they’re long-lasting (as pedestrians and cycles have a gentle footprint) and reduce air, water, and soil pollution by getting more people out of cars. Many people would like to ride but are concerned about the dangers of motorized traffic; pedestrian and bike corridors alleviate that problem and reduce those big-budget highway projects.

BIKES ARE FUN. And who couldn’t use more of that?