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Cafe Bookshelf: Pedal Power and Biking for a Better America

Crib Notes
Title: Pedal Power: The Quiet Rise of the Bicycle in American Public Life
Author: J. Harry Wray
Publisher: Paradigm
Pages: 236
Order: here
What is it? A book about the increasing relevance and importance of bicycles in everyday American life.
Strengths: Coherent, entertaining, well-written, even surprising at times. Basic narrative is hopeful and invigorating.
Weaknesses: Reality is rarely hopeful or invigorating. Must take wait-and-see attitude... but this isn't exactly the book's fault.
Rating: ★★★★ (4 of 5)

Long ago, in a galaxy far away, people coped with urban congestion by turning to the bicycle as an integral part of life. They pedaled to work, they pedaled to parties and clubs and dates, they pedaled groceries around in refit cargo bikes. Cars were around but many people simply didn't prefer them. Instead, they valued the sensibilities of the bike as well as the experience of being outside and in contact with their physical and social environment. Around such attitudes grew a city where cycling mattered, and worked. The people called this place "Amsterdam."

Wait... that's not so far away, really, and come to think of it, this was just a couple years ago. Shocking?? That a place reasonably familiar to Americans can be living so differently?

Seems so in 2008, but the dream of an America where bikes reach their transportation and recreation potential isn't pure fiction, argues J. Harry Wray in Pedal Power: The Quiet Rise of the Bicycle in American Public Life. Wray, a political science professor at DePaul University near Chicago, tours the physical, cultural and political landscape of America looking at the present and future position of the bicycle in it. As the teacher of a course entitled "Biking and Politics" it's a subject, or two subjects, he knows and tells very well.

There's more: read an interview with author Harry Wray. Also, meet the author in Portland, OR, at Powell's Books, this Thursday 3/27 at 7:30pm.

Continued on the flip...

After darting briefly off to Amsterdam for a dreamy snapshot of how things could be, Pedal Power rolls up its sleeves and dives deep down into the American subconscious, uncovering the biggest roadblock to a more bike-centered culture: individualism. That lone, self-reliant figure of American folklore might look good in a Marlboro ad, or come in handy when chasing the American dream, and there's a lot to appreciate about this image. But when it comes to transportation, individualism draws us into our cars, where in exchange for a momentary feeling of freedom we find ourselves cut off from our world. We never enter another's personal space and aren't forced to humanize other drivers. When not crashing into each other, we're cutting people off, ignoring every possible rule, and cursing like sailors. Cars turn us into people we ourselves barely recognize.

While this may be the norm, Pedal Power takes us on a tour of the flip side: individuals and families who have oriented their lives, successfully, around biking for transportation and fun. Local groups of cyclists organizing and agitating for adequate services: bike racks, safe routes to schools, dedicated lanes, etc. People going beyond the services discussion, like Critical Mass, taking aim at cultural attitudes toward bikes. And politicians who are ready to listen.

That last part is where the ideas start taking on the trappings of hope. No less than 160 members of the 109th US Congress participated in a "bicycle caucus"... officially, though being a member of the caucus and taking legislative action are hardly coterminous. Members like Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and James Oberstar (D-Minn) are leading the appropriations charge. [Aside: for the latest on national bike politics, stop by the League of American Bicyclists website.] And outside the Capitol, where local action is the foundation of change, nobody can top Louisville mayor Jerry Abramson. Under his leadership the city has greenlighted a visionary plan to bring cycling into its heart, with infrastructure changes, education, celebratory events, law enforcement and ongoing monitoring of the anticipated progress. Where there's a will, Louisville has shown the way.

One of the book's more interesting turns is how Wray spends the penultimate chapter giving a primer on global warming. Of course, bikes won't arrest the warming trend -- they are a sliver of solution to a portion of the problem -- but they help. In our interview he describes this more as a sidenote than an underlying theme. But the significance is not to be missed: the bike may not solve global warming, but global warming may transform the bike. Redirecting a few percent of transportation funds has always been a good idea, but Congress doesn't act on every good idea. Rather, it responds to crisis, and in global warming there's a strong consensus not only that it's real but is the greatest ecological crisis we've ever confronted. Encouraging more cycling can help, and at minimal, sensible levels of investment. That, my friends, is the kind of politics that gets rails made into trails.

What made me, an occasional racer and devoted bike commuter, love the book was the attention to the experience of cycling. I ride to work partly on a converted rail-trail, which has its share of large puddles in springtime. Every year, starting in March, there's a family of ducks who take refuge in one of the larger ones, no doubt dodging bikes like the famous Boston Common ducks. They returned about three weeks ago, I am happy to say. The ride also includes familiar faces and jerseys (including a sweet Norwegian Champs/Credit Ag unit), mostly friendly chatter when there's any talk at all, and a daily calculation of what the elements mean to my ride in. If I had more time, it could easily include a regular bagel or coffee or salad stop as well. Not a bad way to live. Compared to the experience of being in cars, at least in urbanized America, cycling makes the world around us more tangible. The people we see are humans. The intricacies of weather and topography at the finest scale become relevant. In short, we stay connected. If Pedal Power succeeds in getting that message out, that cycling is a better way to live, then real change might not seem distant at all.

One last note: the author is donating all royalties from the sale of Pedal Power to non-profit bike organizations.