Thursday, March 26, 2009

Simply Revolutionary

"The idea is that a child can sit in the middle of the street and play with a doll and the parents are not going to worry about them."

This quote is from Jeff Mapes newly published Pedaling Revolution, which I just finished. The book is a thoroughly researched look at bicycles and city transportation planning. Mr. Mapes takes an in-depth look at four cities in particular; Amsterdam, Davis CA, Portland, and New York, and shows how an emphasis on seeing the bicycle as a vital solution to congestion, pollution, and health issues can lead to the transformation of urban areas into places that are safer and more livable.

I read a library copy, but it's one of those books that I know I'll want to refer to a lot, so I'll be buying my own copy soon - it's on sale at Powells right now for 13.96.

The overall emphasis is on how these changes make sense and are relatively easy and inexpensive to implement (compared to building infrastructure for autos). The problem, of course, is developing enough critical mass to get the political wheels moving in that direction. Places like Portland, San Francisco, Seattle and Boulder have it, but most cities don't. The key is to show these cities how to get there. I realize that most folks who take the time to read this book are going to be like me - people already sold on the idea that the bike is viable primary tansportation, so in that sense the author is preaching to the choir. My big question is how to get the book in the hands of transportation wonks and activist who want solutions but aren't necessarily focused on cycling as part of the answer.

I found the last three chapters the most memorable, where Mr. Mapes addressed issues of safety, health, and the critical need to get kids back on bikes. I've never really thought about the drop in child riders from the peak days of the 1960's to where we are currently. But as the author says, if people don't develop the habit of exercise when they are most capable, there's little likelihood they will pick it up later in life.

What really sticks with me is the sacrifice, both in lives and general health, that we as a culture have been willing to make in order to maintain our "right" to drive our cars whenever, wherever, and however we want. Here are some numbers from the book:

- The chance that an American will die from a car crash is one-in-fifty. Some data suggest it may be more like one-in-sixty or seventy. But still... As one expert pointed out, our standard for drinking water quality is a one-in-1 million chance that something in the water could cause cancer.

- U.S. car crashes kill the equivalent of two jumbo jetliners full of people every week.

- The U.S. has the highest auto death rate of any developed country in the world.

- We spend more on dental research than we do on traffic safety research.

- Moving to the suburbs (which many families do to escape the "dangers" of the city) significantly increases the likelihood you or your children will be killed by a car crash.

On the subject of overall health, the book had these statistics:

- In 1991, only 4 states had obesity rates over 15%. By 2007 the national rate of obesity was 34%, and only Colorado was under 20%.

- Obesity-related illnesses account for 12% of the increase in health care cost during that time.

- 40% of early deaths can be directly linked to smoking, diet, exercise, alcohol, or car crashes.

- In 1969, 87% of children who lived within one mile of school got there under their own power. in 2001, that number was 15%.

- Half of the children who are hit by cars in a school zone are struck by a motorist transporting a child to school. In many areas, 20% of the morning rush hour traffic consists of parents driving their children to school.

As the book makes clear, if safety and health were really the national priorities some people claim, we would make it much more difficult for people to drive. For years we have tacitly accepted the annual violent roadway deaths of thousands of our own citizens as the blood price we're willing to pay to drive. My guess is most people, if they think about it at all, believe these deaths are inevitable, or worse, somehow worth the "freedom" to drive. But most of these deaths are preventable when one considers that half of all trips by car are less than 5 miles in length. It's not reasonable to expect that all these trips could be by bike. But as Mr. Mapes points out, we know how to create infrastructure and policies that make it easier and safer to bike, and less convenient to get behind the wheel. Unfortunately, tackling the assumptions built by our car-centric culture makes this an uphill battle. I hope this book helps move the discussion in the right direction.

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