Posts Tagged ‘Mary Braun’

Bike Zeitgeist: Being the Engine, Pedaling Revolution

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

GM just went bust.

The Highway “Trust” Fund went bust a few months ago.

The repo man is busy, busy, busy.

No better time than today to introduce two great works that celebrate a better way:


Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities a book by Jeff Mapes (with a strong Madison connection; more below),


Be the Engine, a new music video  celebrating human powered transportation (posted below). This rockin’ tribute to all that biking going on out there has long been a crowd rouser at Motor Primitives shows. Now it is set to video and it evokes an explosive cultural resurgence into a non-motorized—and infinitely more fun—era. Pam Barrett, my rock star wife(!) who penned the song and performs it with the Motor Primitives, also created the video.

Back to Pedaling. The book is an amazing read. It is encyclopedic. It is well researched. It is a breeze of a read. It is a complete statement of the state of the bike movement as of today. For those of us who have been involved in bike advocacy since, well, forever (including yours truly), it is a mesmerizing read. The book is broad in scope; so much so that it becomes clear that our trials & tribulations here on the local level are, in fact, theorizable to the national level.

Or, at least rhyzomable to cities across North America—it could be called the Strawberry Strategy for Cycling Cities!

Even for non-bike geeks, the book provides a sense of adventure, almost in a Huck-floats-down-the-Mississippi sort of way.

Mapes, a political reporter in Portland, took a leave from his statehouse duties to divine the Zeitgeist of cycling, ca. 2008. First he traveled to several successful bike cities in the US—and even across the Atlantic. He observed the two wheeled action. Then he set out to interview the people who helped create the conditions for successful biking in their localities. Indeed, the sheer depth of creativity & willpower in the characters he meets along the way rivals that encountered by Huck on his adventures.

Powerbrokers take note: It is no coincidence that a political reporter took up the task of writing this book. Indeed, it was a natural. The emerging political power of bicyclists not only animates this book, but increasingly, it infuses the power—economic, political and cultural—of more & more cities and states which embrace a forward-looking vision. Many states and localities bemoan the loss of their kids after they’ve graduated from college. Well, it might behoove them to check out the places they are losing their kids to. This book provides a nice, shall we say, bike route map for creating places which attract & retain a thinking, creating and just plain competent populace. Smart people don’t like to live in places that suck. Bicycle-friendly places tend not to suck. (Note to the recession-ridden: Your giant highways suck.)

To give the reader a feel for how far cycle advocacy has come, Mapes takes a trip on the Way-Back Machine to interview the old bulls of the bike world–the likes of Dan Burden, Bill Wilkinson and, of course, John Forester. By bringing us all the way up through the history of the movement to the present, Pedaling illustrates just how far we’ve come since Effective Cycling was the be-all-end-all of bike advocacy. Not that there is anything wrong with EC; I am, after all, a League Cycling Instructor (LCI 636-C, Sir!). But there is a lot more to changing the world than just learning to effectively defy death on auto-centric roads.

Though Mapes essentially confesses to being a partisan of the larger cause at the outset of the book (he is a dedicated bike commuter), he does a marvelous job of even-handedly teasing out the oft-conflicting factions within the bike movement. (He is a journalist by profession, after all!).

The book celebrates bike celebrants—characters like the inimitable Reverend Phil of Portland, the wacky connoisseur extraordinaire of all things bike culture. And to be sure, it is heavy on analysis of what makes the hip bike capitals the hip bike capitals they are (the Portlands, the Amsterdams, the Davises, etc.). But I found the book most compelling, in a glimpse-into-the-future sort of way, when Mapes picks the minds of unlikely proponents of bicycling:

*The Mayor of patently un-hip Louisville, Kentucky, who sets out to create hundreds of miles of bikeways, with an eye toward creating an environment that retains and attracts an educated and creative workforce,

*A world-renowned Safe Routes to School coordinator who came to bicycling via asthma,

*Public health professionals/academics who finally “got it” in the late 90s (yes, Virginia, there is a connection between land use/transportation policy and health!),

*An old-line New Dealer in Congress whose district probably doesn’t need much bike infrastructure given its rural nature, but who fights like mad for bike & pedestrian funds nonetheless,

*The former Parsons-Brinkerhoff (yeah, that mega-highway building concern) executive who is single-handedly taming New York’s mean streets—as an appointee in a Republican administration!—to the benefit of cyclists & pedestrians,

*The tech entrepreneur who sees beyond his own fast growth business but uses that tech prestige & cachet to leverage better bike conditions, i.e., a better world around him.

The bicycle-wielding barbarians have crashed the gates…Indeed, They are in the king’s court! Mapes notes with relish that Obama is the first president to have specifically included bicycling as a major component of his transportation platform during a campaign (results TBD,of course!).

The one quibble I have with this tour de politique velò is Mape’s heavy reliance on the paid & professional. Pardon the metaphor, but, in a way, it is kind of like a car mechanic diagnosing a sputtering car by only looking at the engine block while ignoring the spark plugs. The folks who actually show up at city council meetings—civic minded volunteers one & all—are discussed and even lionized here, but only in a lumpen sort of way. This is too bad, because, after all, it was their dreaming, manifested in their political pressure which brought about paid positions for the bicycle professionals in the first place. The individuality of the professionals comes through loud & clear; the civic volunteers, not so much. This quibble notwithstanding, the auto-centric world has much to learn from this encyclopedic look at the cities winning with a bicycle-centered strategy.

The Madison Connection: There are several other reviews out there that will probably do more justice to the book than what I could write here, including David Byrne’s recent review in the New York Times. But I do want to highlight an unsung hero in the fruition of this book: My good friend Mary Braun. A former grad school colleague of mine in the UW-Madison Geography Department, Braun is now the acquisitions editor at the Oregon State University Press (the publisher of Pedaling Revolution). She met Mapes at a history conference where he gave a talk, and he mentioned that he was writing a book on the bike movement. Braun signed him up for her press, and, well, the rest is unmotorized history, published. This is a case of great minds thinking alike, because some months before that encounter, Braun had emailed asking if I knew anyone who would be up to writing just such a book. I didn’t have a good answer, but it’s obvious that she found a winner in Mapes—a natural given that he is based in one of those hip bike capitals and covers politics.

But the Wisconsin connection is very important. A good Wisconsinite through & through, Fondy born & raised, Mary Braun will be horrified that I even mention her here. But I’m tired of the unsung heroes going unsung. So here goes: This long-time Madisonian (Madison being a Mapes-certified “bikey” [sic] city)—and former acquisitions editor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Press—was a lurker on Madison’s “Bikies” listserv since its inception back in the early ‘90s. “Bikies” (the proper spelling, btw!) is one of those (in?)famous bike advocacy listservs that Mapes cites as a major factor in organizing bike politics. Braun was there—the proverbial villager supporting the bike insurgents—back when Al Gore invented the internets. She has long wanted bicycling as a movement to see the light of day. With this book, not only did she accomplish that dream, she helped produce the manifesto for a better day.