Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Does Bicycle Heaven Exist

Does Bicycle Heaven Exist?

This is a theological question and therefore could not be answered in this brief blog entry, but nevertheless it’s one for an old lady on a bike to consider. The simple one word answer is “yes.” Earth is bicycle heaven. It has a good many warm sunny days and a few decent roads with shoulders. That’s about all it takes to qualify as bicycle heaven. End of story.

That was a short blog entry.

But, come to think of it, some parts of the planet are a lot more bicycle heavenly than others. The Netherlands is a prime example of a bicycle paradise. It was designed and built with bicycles in mind. We once biked all the way across Holland without ever needing to get off a protected bicycle path. And those paths were all signed clearly with route numbers, better than motor vehicle highways in most countries.

Cities like Amsterdam and The Hague have separate bicycle paths along nearly all their major thoroughfares. Many thousands of bicycles are parked at train stations in suburban towns on any given day. That’s because the most common method of commuting to work from the suburbs is to bike from home to the train station and take the train the rest of the way into the city.

No, they don’t commute in cars on the freeway.

So to really qualify as a bicycle heaven, a place needs to be designed for bikes. How can you have a heaven that wasn’t designed for you? This reminds me of an awakening I once had in my former career as a vocational rehabilitation counselor working with people who lacked vision. These people were extremely capable. The problem was not that they were blind. The problem was that the world was designed for sight dependent people. Heaven, for a blind person, would have audible traffic signals, variably embossed paving materials, tactile signage, and the like. It would have to be designed for the other four senses. And, of course, as with bicycle heaven, blind heaven wouldn’t have a lot of automobile drivers charging around acting like they owned the place. Cars would be few and their drivers would be mindful of other travelers and treat them with respect.

If you happen to be a U.S. bicyclist reading this, you may be thinking of studying Dutch and expatriating to Holland. Maybe you feel cheated like the gentleman who emailed me after my blog on how to load your bike on the bus. He complained that buses where he lives have no bike racks and the roads have no shoulders. If you live in a bicycle purgatory like that, instead of moving to the Netherlands, another option would be to become a bicycle heaven advocate in your community. You could work toward the goal of qualifying your city for a League of American Cyclists “platinum award.” That’s a sort of bicycle heaven prize.

Currently only a couple of U.S. cities have achieved platinum status, Portland, Oregon and Davis, California. I have had the pleasure of bicycling briefly in both of those towns, and, believe me it felt like true heaven. Portland has bike lanes and bike paths that go everywhere. To get from the train station to my nephew’s house in the Hawthorne district, we had a pleasant ride on the bike path across the Hawthorne Bridge and up a gentle incline all the way. In fact four of the bridges crossing the Willamette River in Portland have bike paths.
In Davis we rode from one end of town to the other on a bike path through a park-like green belt. When we got out onto the city streets, there were bike lanes wide enough for three or four bikes abreast. Whole families casually biked together through the down town area. Motorists didn’t growl and honk at bicycles the way they do in Seattle. They just smiled and waited politely for us to pass, just as they would have done if we had been driving a BMW.

I hope we can get Seattle a platinum award like Portland and Davis one of these days, maybe your town too. Let’s make the whole of planet earth into a true bicycle heaven, one street, one city, one country at a time.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

This is Freedom

There are two mini bumper stickers on my bike. One says, “I have no country to fight for. My country is the earth, and I am a citizen of the world.” The other one says, “This is freedom.” I’ll talk about the first one in a later blog entry. This one is about freedom.

I never experienced freedom until about the age of nine when my parents finally got round to buying me a bike. It was one of those big blue single speed girl’s bikes with balloon tires. I loved her dearly. After my dad taught me to ride, they forbad me to go out onto Chambers Road, the major arterial where we lived. They said it was too dangerous. But that was not a problem for me. The alleyway behind the house connected to a network of gravel roads beckoning me off into infinity. At every possible chance, I would get on my bike and take long rides through that flat Missouri countryside.

This was the late 1940’s just before the dawn of urban sprawl. We lived in a two story white brick New England style house. in the middle of an isolated block of seven homes in north St. Louis County. That was the first city street so to speak that had popped up in the rural countryside waiting as it was to be filled in over the ensuing years with millions of ranch style cracker boxes stretching as far as the eye could see.

But when I first got my bike the area was still rural, with distant destinations for a child to explore. There were friends to visit and mulberry trees to climb, ponds for catching frogs and shallow muddy streams wiggling with crayfish. (We called them crawdeads for some reason.) Using only back roads so as not to break my parent’s rule, I even found my way to the nearby town of Ferguson where there was a great library and Deckmeyer’s Drug Store. I didn’t have any money, but the pharmacist’s daughter, Lisa Deckmeyer, was one of my best friends at school so we sat side by side on ebony black stools leaning against their white marble fountain and drank free chocolate sodas and cherry cokes.

Freedom, after all, is getting to do what you want to do. It’s not being limited by what a parent, teacher, boss, or the norms of society want you to. It’s being open to sunshine and sailing through wind all on your own. It’s moving your limbs and growing stronger every day. It’s living life. My bicycle gave me that for the first time.

That was sixty years ago. But it’s still the same. I’m sitting up here in my office staring at this darned computer screen for hours on end. But then I look out the window and see Mount Rainier’s ice-blue glaciers shining against the sky. So I dream up an errand I need to run on my bike. Maybe I need to drop a book off at the library or go to the post office. Even though it’s a little out of the way, I just have to stop off at Kwik Cup Espresso, my favorite coffee shop, and have a latte. That way I might have another great conversation with Allen, the owner and connect some more with his wonderful spirit. After that, I’ll have to take a spin or two around the park on the way back so I can commune with nature for a bit. Freedom calls and she’s a bike.