If You Build It. . . They Will Come

Perhaps we’re starting at the wrong end of the horse — or bicycle, in this case. The awareness surfaced as we watched a tall, thin, and articulate man on a Ted stage chronicle his journey from a diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease — that predicted an increasingly debilitating four or five years of ‘life’ — to a vital, engaged, and active life-style a few years later. His story was much more than a personal testimonial to the life-altering, life-saving reacquaintance with a bicycle. He outlined a template for change that we could all heed. The link following will take those interested to the Youtube posting:

As I bumped along one of my favoured egresses, heading out of Stratford into the countryside for a near-daily ride, I had lots of time to reflect on his comments. Figural in Tony Desnick’s talk were very persuasive numbers. Some, of course, catalogued the familiar apocalyptic arc we seem to be describing for ourselves as we consume and sit or passively transport our way to a point where the machine stops — personally and globally. A few other figures stuck — and resonated — as well. He noted that fully half of the trips we take in a car are for journeys of 3 kilometres or less. He pointed out that, even in ‘bike friendly’ cities in the US, something under 5% of the working population will use a bicycle to get to work. And he contrasted this numerically and pictorially with established bicycling countries in Europe — Denmark, the Netherlands, where, in the case of the latter, some 19,000,000 bike trips are taken daily. Finally, he made a compelling argument for a, forgive me, road map that would, could invite such salutary change on this side of the Atlantic.

Implicit in his presentation was the old saw that biking is good for us. And equally, that driving is, if not bad for us, at least more stressful, environmentally unfriendly, expensive, slower, and, in many cases, unnecessary. Hard to argue that the outcomes of embracing built in exercise, cheap transport, even speed of commute are undesirables.

Where the white hats and black start to become a little less distinguishable is safety. Significantly extended life expectancy and disease symptom remission are fine — except when 25 pounds of CCM meets 2000 pounds of F150. Desnick notes that Amsterdam has not always been cycling heaven or haven. Where bikes now outnumber cars in the order of 60:1, the ratio historically was reversed — with all the attendant risks to that solitary cyclist that are sadly representative of urban biking in this country in 2017. The transition required a dedicated initiative to make the city a safer place ride! The other benefits followed.

Seven years ago I started cycling in Europe. First France, then the UK, and now most often in Italy. I was ‘struck’ by the widespread deference paid to bicyclists by motorists. Nearing the bottom of a particularly long and winding descent — of the order of several kilometres — my companion and I became aware of a tour bus, the ‘third man’ in our little train down the mountain side, waiting patiently until it could safely overtake. No horns blaring or angry gestures. Just a friendly salute as he passed.
York cycle map
Equally ‘impactful’, and echoing Amsterdam’s efforts, is the ‘bike friendly’ infrastructure of many of the cities. The little dots and dashes on the above map identify active cycle routes in York, a northern UK city of some 200,000. It constituted the first major centre I would venture into on a cross-England ride in 2012 — and I had some trepidation over same. Narrow, twisting, hopelessly confusing and sometimes cobbled lanes more resemble a labyrinth than a street plan — and so I’d anticipated a painful and frustrating journey from outskirts to my city centre B & B adjacent the Roman walled ‘old town’. Instead I found wide, mostly paved pathways, well-signed and car-less, that led me alongside River Ouse to my destination. Paths clearly marked distinguishing and dividing cyclist ‘lanes’ from pedestrian footways. Twenty minutes and I was in front of St. Peter’s Gate! A trip that would have taken three times as long by car, and featured multiple wrong turns — if I ever did arrive — and elevated blood pressure. (Full screen image: click on media)

Stratford likes to characterize itself as a smart, welcoming, proactive, healthy and active community. Donning my rose-coloured glasses, I, too, see myself as tall, dark, handsome, and youthful. No harm in cultivating a little benign fantasy. The link below is to a ‘beautiful document’: The Stratford Bike and Pedestrian Master Plan Report — I’m sure there’s a good acronym somewhere in that mouthful — available for public viewing and drooling somewhere in early 2014:

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Concepts are good. Plans are necessary. And where would the world be without its consultants and consultation? In the spirit, however, that sooner or later, to be of value, the rubber needs to hit the road — be it running shoe or bike tire. I’ve taken the liberty of extracting one of the several ‘visions’ of our bicycle friendly city from said report. Together with, as everyone who sat high school English exams will appreciate, a compare and contrast exercise, viz. Google’s portrayal of current reality. A quick squint at the City’s 2014 projection (together with a Captain Midnight decoder ring to fathom all the dots and colours) suggests an interconnected realm of cycling Shangri-la. Google, in its inimitable style of showing ‘what is’, suggests a world slightly less contiguous, a little less replete, decidedly less idyllic —and, oh yeah, less colourful. In short, the orphaned green lines are ‘what is’. (A friend has suggested renaming the black ellipsoids ‘Dan Mathieson Parkway’ — to get a ‘feel for the area’, try bicycling along the respective stretches of Quinlin and O’loane Roads — but don’t forget your pump.)
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To return to Mr. Desnick’s thesis, he cites the importance, the necessity of building an environment that invites cyclists into it. One wherein byways are dedicated and constructed to a useful end. One where cyclists are more than resented interlopers on roads proprietarily defended as the motorists’ domain. One that is safe. He refers to the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis, a ‘bicycle expressway’ that traverses the city as an example of just such a project. It put me in mind of our own ‘midtown greenway’ that too stretches from east to west — and may just be something more than a blue ellipse on a Google map. Hopefully in my lifetime.