Thursday, October 15, 2009

Auto Pilot

Let's get one inconvenient truth out of the way right now: driving a car is great. We can go just about anywhere we want. In the winter, we have heat, in the summer, A/C. Not to mention music from our play list, cup holders, DVD players, heated seats, global positioning systems, and something I just saw on TV: an insulated storage compartment to keep milkshakes cold, because what we really need as we sit on our duffs is a frosty shake.

Do I drive more than I should? Absolutely. Every day. And why?
Because a gallon of milk weighs 8 1/2 pounds. The container is 10" high and at its widest point, measures nearly 22" around. That's one bulky item. Put the plastic jug in my backpack and suddenly I'm bending over backward to help save the planet. It hurts. But so does driving a mile to pick up some milk and a couple of bananas.

I had two options: Continue to drive to the store or force my family to embrace veganism. Why not just cross milk off the list? Neither one worked for me. I phoned my local bike shop and explained the dilemma to a guy named Christopher. He suggested that I purchase panniers - heavy-duty totes that attach to a rear bike rack and greatly increase hauling capacity. One pannier hangs on the right side of the bike and the other on the left. Even if one pannier is considerably heavier than the other, the weight of the cyclist offsets the imbalance so he remains upright. That means that even I, a person who single-handedly capsized a small sailboat, shouldn't tip over. Panniers aren't expensive and come in water-resistant and waterproof models. I was sold and decided to ask my family for two panniers for my upcoming birthday. My problem was easily solved, but what about the larger, more pernicious issue: America's indifference to (and according to some, disdain for) the bicycle.

I asked Christopher about our lack of appetite for cycling. He blamed it on the car culture and pointed to the prestige of owning a large automobile. Flashback to my grandfather's Buick Electras, where the seats were covered in plastic as if they were cut from raw silk. "People look down on cyclists," Christopher said. "It's our culture. We love our cars." I liked Christopher, not only for his help and insight, but for ending our conversation this way: "You sound like a fun girl. You should come into the store sometime so we can meet." Just a salesy sign-off? Yes, but humor me while I pretend that it was something else.

Why don't I bike more often? Is a lack of storage the only thing stopping me? Why don't Americans in general bike more often? Even a national case of helmet head couldn't be any more unattractive than the fanny pack. One underlying reason is that most American cities lack the infrastructure to accommodate cyclists and the money to create a cycle-friendly community. And motorists aren't too crazy about sharing the roads with their dual-wheeled poorer cousins.

Enter Lance Armstrong, winner of seven consecutive Tours de France, cancer survivor, and founder of LiveStrong, the Lance Armstrong Foundation. In May 2008, Lance opened Mellow Johnny's, a play on the French
maillot jaune, which means yellow jersey. (During each of the Tour de France's 21 stages, the current leader wears a yellow jersey.) The 18,000 square-foot biking center, located in Armstrong's native Austin, Texas, is designed to encourage commuting by bike. I called and spoke to Vince. He didn't say that I sounded like a fun girl, but I liked him anyway.

Mellow Johnny's is part bike shop, part cafe, part bike garage, and part locker room. Lance thought of everything when designing this facility.
  • Need a bike? Buy one at Mellow Johnny's.
  • Your company doesn't have a bike rack? You can pedal to Mellow Johnny's and leave your bike there all day for free.
  • Worried about stinky, unsightly sweat? Helmet hair? No problem. For a buck, you can shower there and take advantage of the towel service.
  • Want Ashley Olson's phone number? No chance. She and Lance are history.
  • What if your office isn't within walking distance from Lance's place? Take a pedicab or taxi. Sure, a taxi is a car, but a short ride is still better financially and environmentally than driving your own car the entire distance of your commute.
  • No time for breakfast? Mellow Johnny's has a cafe, and on Fridays, cyclists get free coffee.
Vince said that during the summer months, about 10-15 cyclists leave their bikes at Mellow Johnny's each day, and the free coffee boosts that number on Fridays. The heat, apparently, is not a turn-off, but darkness is. So when the hours of daylight drop off, so do the bike commuters.

Although Mellow Johnny’s is good news for Austin, the Texas capital still falls short as being hospitable to cyclists. In many cases, Vince admits, driving is easier, and bad motorists create unsafe conditions for those who choose to pedal.

Then there's Portland, Oregon which seems to be America’s premier urban place to bike. According to, the city has 200 miles of bikeways, including bike lanes, boulevards, and multi-use paths. Portland has found that bike lanes - travel lanes on the road that are delineated by paint - offer many advantages to cyclists. They create a defined space where people can ride confidently and they decrease the number of bicyclers that slalom around traffic. Motorists benefit too. They can see bikes more easily and learn how to share the road with them. Still, some drivers don’t realize that the bike lane isn’t for cars, so the city of Portland has painted the bike lane markings blue, as many European cities do. The result is that thousands of Portlanders commute to work by bike each day.

Cycling, though, like other hallmarks of European society - soccer, universal health care, and kilts - has a ways to go.

Despite the best efforts of superstars like Lance Armstrong and environmentally-conscious cities like Portland, most people still drive. Why? In addition to asking Christopher, I also spoke to Vince (from Mellow Johnny’s), Larry (from Mt. Airy Bikes, a well-known specialty bike shop in Maryland), my sister (a cyclist and cycling advocate in Pittsburgh), and my husband (a member of the Spandex® crowd). Of course, there’s no single reason for the lack of enthusiasm for biking, and to my surprise, nobody mentioned the embarrassment of helmet head. But here are some informed reasons from informed people:

  • Because most Americans are raised to rely on cars and even strive to purchase their “dream car,” there is an ingrained cultural bias against cycling.
  • Cars remain a symbol of prestige; bikes are the objects of scorn. That leaves cyclists in one of two categories. They are either (1) people who are too poor afford a car, or (2) freaks or members of a fringe group, who choose to bike when they could drive.
  • The infrastructure of most American communities does not support biking; cities and towns are designed for cars.
  • Bikes are for children, and as such, are something you should outgrow.
  • Many motorists are hostile to cyclists and resent having to share the road. They will lean on their horns or give them the finger for no apparent reason.

Although I stick by my helmet head theory, I have another idea that my small pool of experts overlooked. The strip center. I harbor a profound loathing for this staple of the American suburb. Yet, in a show of uncharacteristic self-restraint, I’ll say only this (and I'm using my calm voice): if communities had storefronts that faced the road, (like Portsmouth, NH below) people just might pedal to the center of town, lock up their bikes, take a stroll, and do whatever they need to do. Get a cup of coffee. Buy some pears. Find a good used book.

But the strip center parking lot is a dangerous place, and certainly one of Dante’s rings of hell (probably #5 , where you run into the wrathful, sullen or slothful). With cars driving into and backing out of parking spaces, people loading groceries into their trunks, prohibitions on cycling on the sidewalk, and delivery trucks parked in the fire lane, there is no safe place for a cyclist to go.

The strip center is also a place of hasty exits and no wonder. How many Nail Palaces does one city need? Who really wants to window shop at My Eye Doctor anyhow or inspect the bags of mulch stacked in front of Giant? Not me. Don’t have time. I have to drive my 7-passenger minivan 2 miles to the local bike shop to dispel the myth that I’m a fun a girl.

1 comment:

  1. When I lived in Jackson, Mississippi I rode to the grocery store and stuffed my groceries in a backpack to carry them. Of course, that was shopping for one person and not an entire family. Now? It just isn't practical so much. Especially in cities where there are not convenient bike paths/routes.