walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Pedaling Revolution_, Jeff Mapes

Subtitled How Cyclists are Changing American Cities

Unless you got to this particular post from elsewhere, you already know that this book was overshadowed in many ways for me by what is not in it: the bicycling housewives of the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. But enough about my mother's contemporaries; what's actually in _this_ book and is it worth reading?

Current bicycle advocacy is the primary focus of this narrative non-fiction. Mapes, a political reporter, wanders from city to city in the US (with the obligatory detour to A'dam) checking out the local bike scene. Fixies, Critical Mass rides, Naked Bicycle rides, Zoobombing, Safe Routes to School, the new bike lanes and closed-to-cars plazas in NYC, Chicago's growing bike network, Davis' aging bicycle infrastructure, LA's ethnically diverse and NOT dominated by rich white guys on carbon frame bike culture, John Forester, transportation wonks and public health wonks all make appearances. The usual agenda props of the advocacy: bikes do not pollute, they take up less space, they harm fewer people, etc.

What is wrong with what _is_ in this book? Mapes is focused on cities, albeit some of them are small, such as Davis. He lumps all of suburbia together as characterized by cul-de-sac developments, busy connecting arterials and long distances, despite the drastically different layout and character of pre-1960 suburbs from 1970s suburbs, never mind the exurbia of the 1980s and 1990s. I think when he says streetcar neighborhoods, he may be referring to some of the pre-1960s suburbs, but streetcar neighborhoods in Seattle are a totally different beast from pre 1960s suburbs of Seattle, so if that is what's going on, there's still some confusion. Yes, we all need to be closer to our destinations if we're going to use bicycles, but that doesn't mean everyone has to move out of single family housing and into center city condos and apartments (not that Mapes said that, mind you).

An even larger problem is the mismatch between the goal of the book and the advocates (and, as near as I can tell, Mapes) and the content. If the idea is to get to a world in which bicycling is normal, not something you think about or talk about, just a way to get to the grocery store, dinner, school, work, etc., then telling a bunch of stories about heroic bicycle commuters traveling 4-5 times a week from Issaquah to downtown Seattle isn't really how _I_ would go about doing it. And that's not even getting into Mapes' affection for Phil Sano.

It's a fast read (well, unless you get bogged down in side research and trying to decide whether to write a book proposal on related topics), educational and entertaining. If you pay attention, you'll pick up many strands of bike culture from around the country -- altho not necessarily the vocabulary to help you find it IRL (why do people persist in describing bakfietsen, without providing the name? If they want to relabel them box bikes, that's fine, that's probably the best translation and the most common one. And concluding with a guy in Portland who is thinking about putting motors on bakfietsen is probably a bad idea, given how massively controversial that particular idea is, especially as long as bakfietsen are being touted as ways to transport infants too young for bike seats).

Should you read it? Probably. I haven't quite decided what to do with my copy, so if you would like to borrow/have it, drop me a line and I'll send it to you because that would simplify my decision enormously.

I've also got a related book by Wray lined up to follow this, and some other books about bicycling coming soon, including a history.
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