Shaping the Cityscape: The Possibility of Two Wheels [From BA 42-400]
When it was published in 2009, Jeff Mapes's Pedaling Revolution met with surprise popularity and fast sales—surprising only because cycling is often thought to be a marginal part of American culture, and the book’s audience assumedly small. Yet in the current economy, with environmental concerns and urban quality of life being the pertinent issues that they are, Pedaling Revolution was released into the ideal conditions necessary to make it a success—it speaks democratically to cyclists and drivers alike, quietly illuminating the bicycle as a natural remedy to much of what ails the bloated American belly.
I picked up my copy from Powell’s in downtown Portland, Oregon, where I live and cycle daily; it turned out to be an educational read about the history of cycling in America, the bike communities cropping up around its cities, and how certain places ranging from Amsterdam to sleepy Davis, California, have successfully designed road systems that allow for thriving bike cultures. Out of these examples and interviews with cycling advocates around the world, Mapes weaves an expansive picture of what has indeed become a revolution. The following interview took place when Mapes was in Portland briefly during a book tour.
Alison Rutherford Krieger: I’ve heard that writers often begin books with a question in mind, or something that they themselves are interested in discovering. Was this true for you in writing Pedaling Revolution? If so, what was the question that sparked it?
Jeff Mapes: I started on this book because of an interesting convergence. I began riding my bike to work in Portland in the mid-1990s, right about the time the city started developing a bikeway system. The new bike lanes, signal improvements—and the wonderful Eastside Esplanade—all helped make me feel more welcome and played a role in my evolution from being a fair-weather, occasional bike commuter into a pretty hardened 365-day-a-year rider. As I rode, I became curious about who was behind the bikeway improvements, whether it was happening in other cities and how it was affecting the overall streetscape. Eventually I figured out, there’s a book in all of this!
ARK: In going through the process of writing the book, was there anything you’d say changed for you (views, etc.)?
JM: Oh yes, I’d say it dramatically affected me. I’ve always been an urban person who appreciated livable cities and I’ve always liked to bicycle. But I never really understood what a powerful tool the bicycle can be for changing cities for the better. Personally, I’ve gotten to the point where I do most of my travel in the city by bike. Before I wrote this book, I could not imagine that I would ever do our weekly grocery shopping on a cargo bike. Now it’s one of the most fun things I do (okay, I guess that may be because I’m not that exciting of a guy).
ARK: In Pedaling Revolution you describe some places that stand out for their strong bicycling infrastructure, cities like Amsterdam, Portland, Davis, and New York. What about places that don’t—what will it take for the revolution to touch them?
JM: Well, for starters, I find that the new urban bike culture can be found to some degree in just about every city in the country. It may be small, but it’s there. I think it will grow as people see how great it is to be able to easily bicycle in cities like Portland, and as driving gets more expensive and less convenient. I should add, though, that a strong cycling culture won’t necessarily develop in all cities; ditto for many suburbs. To a degree, cycling may be yet another cultural marker that determines where you want to live. It’s going to be pretty interesting to watch and see what happens. I do like to tell people that the cycling culture you see in Portland today virtually didn’t exist less than 20 years ago.
ARK: What do you see as being the most important issues right now in the pedaling revolution? What can individuals do to make positive changes in their communities?
JM: I’m just a journalist, so I hesitate to tell people what they should do. But I am reminded of something that former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young (and former UN ambassador and civil rights veteran) said when I heard him give a speech some 30 years ago. A student asked him what they should be doing to change the world for the better, and he said something along the lines that people should first be good citizens and be involved in their communities. That seemed pretty humble to me at the time, but it’s a good place to start. If you are out bicycling and being responsible about it, you’re setting an important example and you’re adding to the change you want to see. And if you’re involved in your community, whether it is just voting or doing more, you bring your sensibility into the process.
ARK: I imagine that in writing this book, you’ve got a pretty good overall sense of the cycling scene around the country. In your travels, have you learned of any books, films, sites, or resources a cycling enthusiast simply must not miss?
JM: I could probably spend hours listing things. Streetsblog, bikeportland, and Infrastructurist are three blogs I enjoy that quickly come to mind. I highly recommend Streetblog’s associated site, streetfilms, which has a lot of great stuff, usually in a very entertaining style. I loved Robert Hurst’s The Art of Cycling, which is a great primer for anyone who rides on city streets. I’m also looking forward to reading David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries. Oh, and take a bike repair class. I really need to do that! I haven’t found the time yet, but it’s on my life list.