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An Interview with Pedal Power Author Harry Wray

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Podium Cafe: Pedal Power starts with personal experience and builds steadily toward the mega-issue of global warming. By the time I finished I got the impression that the last point -- the ability of bicycles to at least partly address the most daunting global issue of our time -- was perhaps where the book was headed all along. Was global warming what drove you to want to write this book? Or did it originate more as an example of culture affecting politics? Or simply from your love of The Bike?

Harry Wray: I have grown increasingly concerned about global warming in the past few years, and I regularly look for ways to generate more discussion of that issue. In Pedal Power I try to show that the bike may be more relevant to that issue than many believe. But I would have written this book if climate change were not an issue, because the bike movement would still have been vibrant and interesting. A more broadly biking nation would help solve several problems, including global warming, while creating none.

Podium Cafe: With ISTEA [ED: massive transportation funding bill; also note that this interview happened before the last two months of depressing economic news] coming up for reauthorization in the next Congress, with Cyclists more organized than ever, and with Democrats - um, "upwardly mobile" in the current cycle... would you say that 2009 is an unprecedented opportunity for federal support of bikes taking a greater role in transportation across the country? Should the bike community be preparing themselves for an historic push?

Harry Wray: Regardless of what happens at the Presidential level, it looks pretty certain that the Democrats will expand their majorities in both houses of Congress. This can only be gook for expanded biking programs. James Oberstar, who now chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is perhaps the most vigorous. One of the major differences between the parties with respect to transportation policy is that Democrats are more interested in a multi-modal system that includes mass transit and bikes, while Republicans are more inclined to support the current unimodal automobile system. And in a broader sense, Democrats are more likely to fund programs that create jobs to stimulate the economy, while Republicans are more interested in tax cuts. If Democrats gain the Presidency as well, it would be an ideal time to push for the expansion of ISTEA.

Podium Cafe: What will the next ISTEA mean to folks on the ground? Are there cities contemplating important upgrades to their bike access pending federal funds? Are there elements of ISTEA being floated now, such that we should look for certain ideas to come up for discussion next year?

Harry Wray: What it means to folks on the ground depends upon whether they are organized. Cities like Chicago, Portland, Boulder, and San Francisco will be ready to go. But the constituent parts of the Bike community are very open to helping communities who are newer to bike politics. Some of your readers may live in areas that do not have strong bike advocacy organizations that can capitalize on federal and state programs. They should know that help is available. The Thunderhead Alliance and the League of American Bicyclists are good at this, and there is a lot of horizontal contact as well. The Internet is a tremendous resource for sharing information. I have been preoccupied with other things and am not aware of any particular ideas being floated now. I do know that Oberstar is a big booster of Safe Routes To Schools and also of bike trails, but I'm sure other things are in the works as well.

Podium Cafe: What do you think of your Barack Obama vis-a-vis his interest in bicycles? [editor's note, by chris] Wray lives in Illinois.

Harry Wray: Our senior senator Dick Durbin is a very influential member of Congress, and he is a serious biker. I know nothing that suggests Barack has particular feelings about the matter. I do know that college students are, disproportionately, bikers, and that they comprise a very important part of his political base. I also know that he is a smart politician. This suggests he will be fine on the issue.

Podium Cafe: Writing about a subject as scattered and varied and (I imagine) poorly documented as this must have been a challenge. Where did you start the process of gathering information? Are there anything like adequate statistics for some of the important elements of a book like this, such as trail use, number of commuters, etc? Are some cities/regions especially on the ball in tracking information?

Harry Wray: Many in the biking movement are quite concerned about the lack of reliable and comprehensive data on bike use. It is very difficult to come by. We have not yet reached a threshold that regularly generates solid information. John Pucher at Rutgers probably works harder in this area than anyone. Your readers may want to Google his website and check it out. I felt the way to pursue this story was to begin with what I know based upon my life of biking, and then work out from there, talking with others, and gathering bits and pieces where I could.

The big picture is pretty clear: Bike politics is surging. I tried to keep that truth in focus, and to tell this story as best I could. I wanted to keep it lively, because the movement itself is very lively, creative, and quite a bit of fun.

Podium Cafe: Are the Five E's from the Louisville plan something every city taking on projects should start with? I got the sense that Louisville represented, in the arc of the book, the best-developed, best-planned example of action -- the modern playbook for expanding cycling, if you will. Is this how it came about in Louisville, with the planners drawing from ideas and lessons learned around the country, or did they simply hit on a great idea themselves?

Harry Wray: This is a classic example of the phenomenon I just mentioned. Louisville's nomenclature may be distinctive, but they borrowed liberally from the experience of other cities. Louisville is fortunate, however  in having a mayor like Jerry Abramson who sees so clearly the possibilities that bike friendliness holds.

Podium Cafe: I have not read your other books, sorry to say, but I did read the preface of "Sense and Non-Sense" on Amazon. It sounds like you have covered the connection of culture and politics more broadly in that book, and applied it specifically to Cycling in "Pedal Power." is this right? How would you describe the overlap or interrelatedness of Pedal Power to your past work?

Harry Wray: It is always dangerous to ask an academic this kind of question, as it is an invitation to babble on endlessly about our work. So let me give you a very short version if the answer: Cultures shape the politics of nations, and "Sense and Non-Sense" was a book about U.S. culture and how it influences the way we see and think in the political realm. For a number of reasons, our culture has not been especially sympathetic to biking, which is one of the reasons we lag behind other nations in generating bike friendly policies. And so in Pedal Power I felt it was important to have a chapter that lays this out. But I believe that we are entering a period of cultural flux that opens new possibilities for biking. The answer to this question actually much longer, but the two books are definitely related.

Podium Cafe: Is this your last book on Cycling, or do you have another in you?

Harry Wray: I have not yet had time to think about this, but I do believe that this area is both interesting and underdeveloped. Biking is very popular on university campuses. Many students use bikes for transportation and recreation, and it is growing as a university sport. As a political scientist, I try to think about how to enliven the political process and connect students to politics. Biking is a good way to do so.

Podium Cafe: And one last question: what do you ride? [I'm sure to our readers this will be your most revealing answer!]

Harry Wray: Ah, the important stuff at last!! In 1975 I took a 3500 mile ride across the United States and, despite dire warnings from some, I did it on a $100 Gitane 10 speed. I was an impoverished graduate student at the time, so I really had no choice. I'm also kind of stubborn, and I have been a low end kind of guy ever since. (Although since 1971 I have always used a Brooks professional saddle. Life would not be worth living without it.) Currently, I ride an old Specialized Crossroads hybrid bike. It is very good for the kind of urban riding that I typically do, and it is fine for centuries which I occasionally do as well. It is a very sweet ride, although it has taken quite a beating from an unusually snowy Chicago winter. So I may get a new bike soon. A Trek Madone 6.9, do you think?