Building Bicycle Valhalla
By Joe Kurmaskie
Speaking around the country about all things bike-related has given me a few insights about where our communities stand in the evolution towards bike friendly Valhalla — we’re talking scalable, livable places where anyone can roll two wheels out the front door without fear ... or requesting combat pay. Places where a mix of biking, walking, bus and train coexist and find close to equal footing with the car.
Since co-authoring and publishing the book, Joyride: Pedaling Toward A Healthier Planet with Mia Birk, mayors, advocates, transportation departments and educators ask me to consult them about bike infrastructure, funding, economic impact and that thing — that one magic, sought after thing — that will tip a community towards more people riding bikes.
Of course I fully disclose that I hold no advanced degrees in urban planning or engineering. They point out that I published a bestselling book that’s a blueprint for retrofitting communities, making healthier, cost effective choices. Also, I live more than 50 miles away, which they point out makes me an expert.
Life gets stranger by the day...
What I do have, in addition to several years of research gained writing that book, is a lifetime in the saddle. Having pedaled more than 100,000 miles around the globe gives one a unique look at what works and what doesn’t when getting around our communities in style.
I take mayors and councilors and the power base of a city out on bikes. For some, it’s their first ride. It truly changes their perspective. We look at what is working in their transportation plans and what puts their voters in harm’s way. We look at their funding commitments, because cycling is a very cheap date. I get them to think about cyclists and pedestrians as voters. Many of the barriers are attitude, as they ask about the weather, the idea that bicycles are toys or something to be used only off-road on weekends. I ask them if they are a toy or transportation right then, at that very moment, signaling through intersections and getting from one side of their town to the other. We talk about how places like Portland, Minneapolis, New York City and smaller communities like Springfield, Mo., are making the shift and benefiting through better health, higher property values, more disposable income to spend locally ... it’s not about whether bicycles pencil out financially, it comes down to education and political will.
We talk about creating bicycle corridors, commuter challenges, in-fill construction that revitalizes urban cores, greenways, bike corral parking to bring more people to individual businesses, and on and on. But when it comes time for that magic bullet, the one thing that people want to fix everything, I don’t have it. There’s no wizard, there’s no OZ.
I’m not selling a set of steak knives. We all have to do the hard work to improve our communities, period. No pills, no advertising campaign to gloss over the real choices between perceived easy that’s a slow death sentence versus healthy, which turns out to be buckets of fun in the bargain. I’ve never seen someone get off a bicycle and tell me, “That was awful.”
But if there’s one thing that every community needs to push biking over the top, and if not done, will surely prevent a city from having bike transportation explode for them, it’s a sense of community and showing people the fun that can be had while riding. These can include Tweed Rides, Monster Mash Halloween Rides, Pretty Dress Rides, Bike Prom, Bike to the Ballgame, Worst Day of the Year Ride, Bike the Bridges, Bike to Work Day, pub crawls, and hundreds of others every year that ordinary folks undertake. Bike blogs, calendars and forums round out the bicycle watering hole feel of a town and add validity to the movement.
Kate Becker and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Baker (center) on a tour around town with the Metal Cowboy.
If a community waits for bike culture to come to them, or for it to spring up without friends and neighbors and you diving in, it never will.
A Guide To Falling Down In Public: Stories of Finding Balance On A Bicycle by Joe “Metal Cowboy” Kurmaskie will be available this summer (2012). Until then, you can see him pedaling the roads between two shows, covering a lot less than 100 miles in three hours.