Pushing Back

By: Andrew Gardner Jul 1

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In the July 16th print issue of Time, Brian Walsh wrote a piece for the magazine’s culture section entitled, “Pedal Push: Biking is on the rise, but is there room enough for everyone?”

In the short piece, Mr. Walsh highlights the increasing popularity of urban cycling and with it a cultural friction between those who pedal and those who do not, between “cyclists” and “drivers.” Like Mr. Walsh, I agree there exists a cultural bias between driver and cyclist. I’ve written about that divide here for Embro. (Who hasn’t worn their kit into the grocery store at some point to the consternation of fellow shoppers.) So in reading his piece, I understand the conflict that Mr. Walsh is highlighting is very real. In serious and satirical polls, the largest reason people do not ride, for utility or pleasure, is a fear of traffic danger.

Jeff Frings, featured in the Pedal Push article’s introduction and conclusion serves as a symbol of that danger for Mr. Walsh. Frings’ website is a compendium of narrow misses and angry motorists, complete with Frings' often irate commentary. Looking at his website, there seems to be no shortage of cars where Frings rides, no real bike infrastructure near his Milwaukee home and no incentive for a person intent on avoiding time in the car.

Here’s where the hiccup exists in how the Time article frames the cyclists - driver conflict. For all of the positive cycling news highlighted, the “290 miles of bike paths added to New York City,” the “new Citi Bike system, witih 600 stations...the Velib in Paris...,” there remains an assumption in the article’s asking, “Is there room on the road for everyone?” That assumption is that cars aren’t going away or whether they even belong on those roads in the first place. Only how many cars belong is briefly touched on in a paragraph assuming that New York’s congestion is the country’s worst and that this a bad thing in light of the economic costs to the city.

The answer to the question of “Is there room on the road for everyone?”, even prior to the growth of cycling in the US, has long been no. Even with bikes out of the equation, the number of cars continues to rise world wide and America leads the way with 240 million automobiles, almost 2 cars per household. Faced with the prospect of gridlock and endless windshield time, car manufacturers have started to spin creative solutions to help manage the “saturation” of roads throughout the world.

Bill Ford Jr., the executive chairman of Ford Motor Company and great grandson of Henry Ford sees this in a more careful organization of the increasing cars on the road, “The cooperation needed between the automotive and telecommunications industries will be greater than ever as we prepare for and manage the future. We will need to develop new technologies, as well as new ways of looking at the world.”

Fortunately, packing cars in tighter spaces on existing roads using telecommunications isn’t where the physical struggle is heading in the hearts and minds of real people. In his conclusion, Mr. Walsh writes, “The brains of the U.S’s more than 200 million licensed drivers can’t be rewired.” That is true. Yet, the brains of future drivers aren’t wired the same way as current motorists. Witness the endless news of fewer young people of driving age getting licensed. Witness also, the increase in urban population by carless youth: more people are choosing to live where public transportation is wide-spread. Finally, witness the congestion taxes levied on urban dwellers in European cities and the push for that type of fee closer to home. While the US leads the way in car ownership, the registration numbers have stalled out. It is possible, we’ve hit a peak.

Physically, motorists will continue to ignore cyclists, presuming to have the right-of-way, as highlighted in Mr. Walsh’s piece. But anyone assuming that the car will have perpetual reign over all roads in all places is short-sighted. Smaller towns and rural areas pushing for parking spaces over bike racks are doomed to repeat the history of their larger city brethren fighting congestion. The bike is coming. The readers of Embrocation already understand the pleasure of riding over driving. In greater cultural circles, the cycling converted are gaining credibility and press. To that end, the question isn’t whether cyclists “could become the in group.” They will. The question isn’t: “Is there room on the road for everyone?” Rather, the question for those pedaling and those finding the bike is simple: “What can be done to get all the cars get out of the way?”

 

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