Category Archives: Reviews

A review of the film Bikes vs. Cars

I knew I’d have a problem with the film just based on the the title.

There can be animosity between people on bikes and in cars, but bikes and cars are machines, which have no feelings and generally don’t get into trouble unless there is a person is behind the steering wheel or the handlebars. The title “Bikes vs. Cars” reminds me of a frequent complaint of bicyclists who have had incidents in traffic, “the car didn’t see me.”   The title and that statement both reflect a fear-based mental block which has led to the inability to conceive of the car as a machine under control of a human, with whom it is possible to interact, and so, much more often, to avoid incidents…

Enough. There’s more to say. My facebook friend Kelley Howell has posted a detailed review, which follows here:


Why I think the film, Bikes Vs. Cars, is a waste of money:

by Kelley Howell

It was a scattered, gawky film filled with untenable contradictions. Some thoughts:

The film switched back and forth between a desire to own the streets and use them as if they belonged to bicyclists who have a right to drive on them, free of cars, but then it dropped its pretense to militancy asking for small slivers of space on the edge, as if if that edge were some Magic Kingdom of safety. On one hand, the people in the film seem to be demanding a right to take the entire road and get the hated cars off it. On the other hand, it’s all about scampering out of the way, deferring to a dominant majority no one knows how to handle, let alone challenge.

As an example, there was a line in the film which went something like this: “At 1 AM, during the quiet of Carmeggedon in LA. I sneaked on to the 405 and rode my bike on this massive highway. It was beautiful. I owned that feat of human engineering. For the first time, I felt it was a marvel of human engineering that was made for me.”

Then they switch to Sao Paulo in Brazil, to capture the happy reactions of bicyclists who learned that the city is laying down 100s of kilometers of too narrow bike lanes in a very congested city where few people appear to follow traffic law to begin with. I was hard pressed to imagine all these scrappy motorists would respect the painted lines of a 4 foot wide gutter bike lane.

Which is it: do you want to drive a bike on that feat of human engineering, the 405, or a 4 foot bike lane with cars passing too close, driving out into your path, and right- and left-hooking you constantly? How is that demanding your rights? How is it safe? Accepting a scrap of asphalt, some of it carved out of a gutter built for sewer water? After all that rhetoric of wanting access to feats of human engineering, how is that you want to operate in a gutter bike lane?

The film trades in the imagery of the bicyclist, rolling free, free of motorists, free of the burden of a body on pavement, free because it can dodge the confines of hated “traffic”. The magic of the bicycle is its thrift, its speed, and its nimble ability to slip through crevices of urban congestion. It is at once traffic and the supposed escape from it.

But this is reminiscent of the propaganda that dominates the most pedestrian – har! – of auto advertisements where cars mean freedom, an open road, an endless horizon. This imagery in commercials is a stark counterpoint to the reality of miles of congested freeway, gridlock, and, well, to borrow a phrase, the hell that is other motorists at rush hour.

This trope — the bicycle as freedom, magically evading being captured in traffic — is present in an amusing fantasy entertained in the film: pulling 20% of all motorists off the Los Angeles roads and reinserting them with their derrieres planted in bike saddles. Apparently they will accomplish their 14.7 mile commute on their Dutchie or Cruiser, pedaling along at 10 mph?

Going by LA county numbers, 20% of the ~4.5 million motoring commuters is 900,000 bicyclists. Even if their commute where far shorter – say a manageable 5 miles at 10 mph — that’s a lot of bicyclists who get to share those four foot wide gutter bike lanes. Good luck with that!

Then, there was a main protagonist, name escapes, in Brazil. She says, to paraphrase, “What I want is some respect for human cooperation.” And then the film plugs away about the lack of bike lanes. Having apparently conceded that motorists will NOT actually give bicyclists that respect or cooperatively share the roads, they ask for a sliver of space in the gutter.

Which is fine. Really. If that’s what you want. But don’t imagine segregating modes is about cooperating. It’s rather about demanding public resources be spent on gutter-based infrastructure in Brazil precisely because motorists WILL NOT share the road. No one has actually changed the domination of motorists. In this “victory,” existing configurations of power remain the same, leaving bicyclists just as powerless as they always were, only now they are marginalia set off by 6 inch stripes of paint.

The incident with the Dutch cab driver was high camp and deserves its own post. It was my impression that the cabbie staged the whole thing, a real drama queen pining for his 5 minutes on camera. Basically, it was exemplary of what Nietzsche called a transvaluation of values[1]: an opportunity for bicyclists everywhere to make the motorist suffer for a change[2].

The problem is that this is an exercise in punishing schadenfreude. We are all supposed to love it that the roles have reversed in the Netherlands. The taxi driver has to be troubled, delayed, and dominated by the majority, bicyclists. We get to engage in gleeful enjoyment to see him upset, angry, cowed by the throngs of bicyclists blocking his every move. There! Take That, you bad, bad motorists. How do you think it FEELS to be marginalized like we were?

This is a stupid and shameful sentiment that shouldn’t be tolerated by anyone doing bicycling advocacy. But it is, unfortunately, celebrated by too many participation advocates – including this film, which trades in cheap theatrics and, well, quite frankly, trashy propaganda. At least have the decency to be sophisticated about it if you are going to trade in such infantilizing sentiments.

[1] I am unhappy with the choice of ‘transvaluation of values’ to express what I mean here. But it’s been a longass day. Tant pis!

[2] As for the transvaluation of values thing, for more detail on the problems with this position, see Wendy Brown’s work States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Here, Brown captures the problem as one where, basically, an oppressed or marginalized group rises in power and status, promoting a compulsion to repetition rather than liberation:

“Initial figurations of freedom are inevitably reactionary in the sense of emerging in reaction to perceived injuries or constraints of a regime from within its own terms. Ideals of freedom ordinarily emerge to vanquish their imagined immediate enemies, but in this move they frequently recycle and reinstate rather than transform the terms of domination that generated them. Consider exploited workers who dream of a world in which work has been abolished, blacks who imagine a world without whites, feminists who conjure a world either without men or without sex, or teenagers who fantasize a world without parents. Such images of freedom perform mirror reversals of without transforming the organization of the activity through which the suffering is produced and without addressing the subject constitution that domination effects, that is, the constitution of the social categories, “workers,” “blacks,” “women,” or “teenagers.”

It would thus appear that it is freedom’s relationship to identity-its promise to address a social injury or marking that is itself constitutive of an identity that yields the paradox in which the first imaginings of freedom are always constrained by and potentially even require the very structure of oppression that freedom emerges to oppose.”

About Grant Petersen’s book, Just Ride

Just Ride, by Grant Petersen

This post is a review of Grant Petersen’s book Just Ride, partly in response to a New York Times review.

The basic premise of Petersen’s book is that racing culture is bad for bicycling.

My main goal with this book is to point out what I see as bike racing’s bad influence on bicycles, equipment and attitudes, and then undo it.

I agree in large part, but by no means completely.

I rode a bicycle in everyday clothes for transportation years before I took up bicycle touring and joined a recreational bicycle club. It was several more years before I first wore the much-derided spandex outfit for my tours and club rides.

So, I live in both worlds. I do think that some elements of racing technique and equipment are useful to everyday cyclists — especially concerning nutrition, how to propel the bicycle efficiently, and how to maintain it. On the other hand, faddish imitation of racers leads to some very poor choices. A fiendishly expensive, fragile racing bicycle buys the typical club rider a couple percent greater speed on a ride with no prize at the finish line. Hello, hello, you’re being taken for a ride! The bicycle industry has discovered how to churn the market with yearly model changes and planned obsolescence! It’s like choosing a Ferrari when a Toyota Corolla would be much more practical — except that a more powerful engine isn’t part of the package.

When rain starts during a bike-club ride, why must I be only among the 5% of participants who have a bicycle with fenders — or that even will accept fenders?

I have a few points of disagreement with Petersen, and the Times reviewer. About only wearing a helmet at night: it’s your choice to make, I hope. I’m not in favor of mandatory helmet laws. On the other hand, examples should be sufficient to make the case for helmet use. (A longer discussion is here.) I’ve had to replace three helmets so far in my bicycling career. All of the crashes were during daylight hours. Bicycle gloves, too, are very nice if you are going to have to put a hand out to break a fall. And a rear-view mirror? I don’t think it should be required by law, but I find mine highly useful when interacting with motorists, and with other cyclists on group rides. Actually, the Times reviewer gets this wrong — Petersen recommends mirrors. But the ones I like best attach to a helmet! (My take on mirrors). I use walkable cleated shoes, too. Disparaging practical and effective equipment doesn’t play in my book.

Petersen states that a bicyclist needs only 8 gears — somewhat in jest, giving vague (and charming and humorous) descriptions of them. Here, as elsewhere in his book, Petersen gives simple and direct advice, poking a finger at silly fads, while avoiding details that would bog down his presentation. That’s good as far as it goes, but gearing requirements depend on the cyclist, ride purpose and location. I know that Petersen knows this, based on the way he equips the bicycles he manufactures (practical, sensible, expensive but good value for money) . Most have more than 8 gears.

Petersen gives no coherent or comprehensive advice on how to ride in mixed traffic, though he describes something which is a little bit like “control and release” lane usage. Going into detail would, again, bog him down, though in this case, I get the impression that he may not be an expert on the topic.

All in all though, I really like this book. It’s refreshing. Its common-sense perspective is all too rare. And it’s a lot of fun to read, too.


Some Commie Kitsch

Commie Kitsch from Dero Racks

Commie Kitsch from Dero Racks

This bright red shirt — with a design like a poster in “Soviet Realism” style, a mock Soviet propaganda message, “Ride Your Bike for the People!” in fake Cyrillic type, and a portrait of Vladimir Lenin himself — was a giveaway from the Dero company, which makes bicycle racks. I picked up the shirt at a National Bicycle Summit — in 2007 or 2008, I think. The Summit is a national conference and lobbying event organized by the League of American Bicyclists. The event is funded by the rather high admission fee and a substantial grant from the bicycle industry’s lobbying arm, Bikes Belong.

The logic, and for that matter the question of good taste, with the Commie kitsch on this shirt baffle me. The JFK Library here in the Boston area is about to hold a panel discussion on the 50th Anniversary of Cuban Missle Crisis. Living in a world that included the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was scary —

— while Dero is very squarely situated within the seriously capitalistic U.S. bicycle industry.

The bicycle industry has more recently inverted the Bikes for the People slogan with its PeopleforBikes campaign, but that’s another story. I certainly can be thankful, though, that here in the USA, I can comment about “People’s” movements which actually serve some other constituency, without being hauled away in the middle of the night to some Gulag, or worse.

Anyway, I have adopted the appropriate stern expression and raised fist for the photo, in keeping with the spirit of the shirt.

Review of Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities by Jeff Mapes

Review of
Pedaling Revolution: How cyclists are Changing American Cities
by Jeff Mapes

cover of Jeff Mapes's book Pedaling RevolutionI bought my copy of this book at the 2009 National Bicycle Summit, a conference and lobbying event organized by the League of American Bicyclists.

Jeff Mapes is a political reporter for the Portland Oregonian newspaper, and often commutes to work by bicycle. He took a sabbatical to write this book.  He attended the Summit, and he inscribed my copy:

To John. You made this a better book. Thanks for your help. Jeff Mapes.

(You’re welcome!)

Mapes had interviewed me when he visited Boston, and I had taken him for a ride on my tandem  bicycle, showing him bicycling conditions, and techniques for a safe ride in Boston urban traffic.

Mapes has a keen journalist’s eye and sense of where to look. He found his way into a number of previously obscure corners of the bicycling advocacy landscape. An example: do you wonder sometimes about the wide-ranging online presence of Streetsblog and Streetfilms, which relentlessly promote urban bicycling? Turns out that they are bankrolled by Mark Gorton , a successful New York City hedge-fund manager who also is a “streets for people” advocate, and that many Streetsblog activists are on staff in the New York City  Transportation Department. More about Gorton is here.

Mapes traveled in Europe as well as in North America to research the book. He describes the endemic lawlessness of Amsterdam cyclists, and the frustration of driving a motor vehicle in that city – partly a consequence of the ancient street layout, partly of the complicated and slow traffic patterns with bicyclists separated from motor traffic, and partly of the need to pay very careful attention to avoid collisions with the bicyclists. The crash rate is low, but speeds also are low, and for bicyclists too. This portrayal contrasts with the unfailingly rosy pictures painted by many cycling advocates, who emphasize bicycle mode share over everything else.

While Mapes touches on many of the social and political issues concerning bicycling, I’m not moved to consider that he explores them deeply. Mapes, for example, expresses the opinion that people of all ages, including children, should be able to ride bicycles anywhere in an urban area – without immediately raising the cost/benefit issues for the majority of the bicycling population and others, or whether it makes sense to accommodate cycling at a child’s level of skill in a financial or industrial district where children are unlikely to go.

Mapes describes bicycling advocates as “unlikely transportation revolutionaries” seeking to “seize at least part of the street back from motorists” with “a contest for space on the street and alternately as mixing it up.”  I find the huge red flag and the subtitle on the cover a bit much: probably the publisher’s wretched excess. Most bicycling “revolutionaries” are comfortably middle-class. The meaning of “mixing it up” is unclear – street demonstrations, or simply taking one’s place in traffic? – but Mapes doesn’t exactly sprint away with these premises in top gear. He acknowledges the impediments to bicycling – the size of the US urban areas and that bicycling is not practical for many trips for many reasons – physical impairments, age, weather, the need to carry passengers or tools.

But, again, the value of this book is in that Mapes really got around, both in North America and in northern Europe, and he interviewed many people,  so he is able to offer many aha moments of insight into the history and character of bicycling advocacy. The book is all about details, as befits a journalist’s work. I wrote several pages of detailed notes as I read the book, then had to put them aside so this review wouldn’t go on and on. For historians some twenty or fifty years in the future, the book will be a valuable resource, as it already is for anyone interested in surveying the bicycling advocacy scene today.

Classic bicycling instructional film now online

The classic instructional film Bicycling Safely on the Road is now online, thanks to League of American bicyclists instructors Martin Pion and Dan Carrigan.

Bicycling safely on the road, 1979 from danc on Vimeo.

The film is 25 minutes long.

Dan has asked me to compose this announcement, as I know the film better.

Its description in the IMDB online movie database is:

Author: Iowa State University. Research Foundation.

Publisher: Ames: The Foundation, 1979.

Producer, Richard H. Kraemer ; writer-director, Mark Shumard.

Summary: Defines the role of the bicycle rider on the road as that of a vehicle operator. Emphasizes the importance of skill in controlling the bicycle and adherence to traffic laws as prime factors in safe riding. Shows examples of proper riding procedures in various situations.

Narrator: Doug Brown. Based on the effective cycling program of the League of American Wheelmen.

The actual author of most of the content, and director during filming, was John Forester, pioneer in cycling education. He is listed in the end credits.

The motor vehicles, bicycle helmets and clothing shown in this film date it, and some of the lane positioning shown is not as assertive as many instructors recommend today. On the other hand, the video provides a concise and well-structured introduction to bike-handling and traffic-riding techniques.

Especially, check out the unplanned event at 12:40. You couldn’t pay anyone to get a clip like that.

The author and publisher have given permission for posting of the film online. You may use it freely.

The online version is transferred from a VHS tape. Another transfer from an original film print, in HD resolution and with color correction, is in the works. I’ll announce it when it is available.

Street Traffic Regulations: classic book online

My friend Bob Shanteau writes:

Another reason scofflaws give [to justify their behavior] is that traffic laws are intended only for motorists, reflecting a total ignorance of the origins of those laws.

Google has made the 1909 book “Street Traffic Regulation” by William Phelps Eno available online.

This book makes it clear that the first rules of the road preceded the dominance of the streets by motor vehicles. The behavior of … scofflaw cyclists now closely mirrors the behavior by all road users that Eno observed in the early 1900’s, leading to the need for street traffic regulation in the first place. He focused his efforts on education about his proposed rules of the road. That education is what the bicycle scofflaws of today sorely lack.

Alleycat racers

A British cyclist who goes by the online name gaz545 on YouTube has posted a version of one of Lucas Brunelle’s “alleycat race” videos, with voice-over commentary. Bravo gaz545!

Lucas Brunelle is, or was, a bicycle courier, but he distinguishes himself by shooting videos of the alleycat races — anything-goes races through cities, in urban traffic. The racers are mostly from the bicycle courier community. A Brunelle video is now making the rounds of 40 cities in a bicycle film festival.

Brunelle’s colleague Kevin Porter, who appears in some of his videos, served with me on the massbiek Board for a ocuple of years, something of an attempt to draw the courier community into mainstream advocacy.

Allow me to describe the fundamental difference between alleycat racing and responsible, sane cycling (or responsible, sane driving a car, for that matter — it’s the same idea).

The rules of the road establish who may go and who must yield right of way, so road users know what to expect of each other — but also, beyond that, in every situation where it is possible, both the road user who may go and the one who must yield are in full view of each other and able to avoid a collision if the other makes a mistake. Where sight lines are obstructed, traffic signs and signals direct road users to slow or stop, and allow them to take turns where flows of traffic cross.

Alleycat racers flout all this. They rely on their wits, and on guessing what other road users will do. They ride as if they were invisible. Much of the time, they are invisible, hidden behind sight obstructions where they can only guess what is around the corner. They ride opposite the direction of traffic, between lanes, where one driver’s slight change of direction will result in a head-on collision. They ride in extremely close quarters with vehicles which, if the driver doesn’t do as the alleycat has guessed, will sideswipe them, collide with them or run them over.

Alleycat racing is an extreme sport: a sport that involves a serious risk of severe injury or death — but more than that. Most so-called extreme sports, for example motorcycle jumping, involve only self-imposed risks. Participants in extreme fighting sports impose serious risks on their opponents, but by consent. Alleycat racers, on the other hand, impose serious risks on other people without obtaining consent and without warning. There’s an expression to describe this: breaking the social contract.

Brunelle’s videos are of high technical quality. Also, I’ll admit to some admiration for the skill of the alleycat racers. It is a level and type of skill normally required of a soldier in combat, a police officer confronted with an armed and violent offender, a cyclist or motorist facing an imminent threat of a collision. Skill is good. Any cyclist, any driver will face emergency situations occasionally. I’d think that perhaps the most skillful cyclist imaginable would be a reformed alleycat racer, if such a character exists.

Tamer motorists and cyclists can learn anticipation of hazards, braking, swerving — through training, and practice in the controlled environment of the skid pad or empty parking lot. My Bicycling Street Smarts turorial is one of a number of resources that teach these skills. But to put these skills intentionally to the test in the public streets is to court unnecessary risks, and to put other people at risk as well. The crash types and crash rate described in the Dennerlein-Meeker study of Boston bicycle couriers reveal the risks that couriers take — and the couriers aren’t even riding at nearly the extreme level seen in alleycat races.

Gaz545 doesn’t know of any injury that occurred during the London alleycat race, though I saw a number of very close calls in his video. However, in an alleycat race in Philadelphia which passed through the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, a participant came racing down off an overpass on a campus walkway — going from right to left here —

View Larger Map

(The break in the image of the overpass is due to the boundary between photos used in the satellite view)

The alleycat racer collided with a pedestrian — a student’s mother who was visiting the campus — knocked her down, injuring her seriously, and raced off. Other racers witnessed the incident. Police interrogated several but were unable to obtain identification of the hit-and-run racer from any of them.

Let’s describe the alleycat racers for what they are: outlaws who pump each other up to ever more extreme conduct in traffic, endangering others, not only themselves, and then when that danger results in injury to an innocent bystander, they adhere to a code of silence.

The pedestrian in the Philadelphia incident filed a lawsuit against the University for allowing the race to take place on its property, though the University had no idea that there would be a race. Suing the University was the only way that she could hope for any recourse.

It isn’t too far-fetched also to ask whether police might infiltrate the alleycat community to find out where a race is scheduled and perform an effective sweep-up. Alleycat racers are not “silly cyclists” (gaz545’s term, describing the cyclists in his other videos) making dumb mistakes in traffic because they don’t know any better. Alleycat racers act in wanton disregard for public safety. They do serious damage to the reputation of other cyclists as well, and I have very little sympathy for them.

(And here’s a link to Lucas Brunelle’s Web site, now that you have read what I have to say about it. There is no mention on it of the Philadelphia race, for whatever reason.)

Safety in numbers: if and when so, why?

I write here in response to an online article in the Grist blog, which addresses the concept of “safety in numbers” among cyclists and pedestrians. As is all too common, the article takes this phenomenon for granted, and ascribes it entirely to changes in behavior of motorists. There is no mention of changes in behavior of cyclists and pedestrians themselves.

The concept of “safety in numbers” is often applied to animal behavior, and a couple of examples might be useful. Here’s one from the University of Rhode Island Sea Grant program:

A potential predator hunting for a meal might become confused by the closely spaced school, which can give the impression of one vast and frightening fish. Additionally, there is the concept of “safety in numbers”—a predator cannot consume an unlimited quantity of prey. The sheer number of fish in a school allows species to hide behind each other, thus confusing a predator by the alteration of shapes and colors presented as the school swims along. Of course, those on the outside edges of the school are more likely to be eaten than those in the center.

Here’s a video of such behavior.

A herd of animals may actively defend its members, as shown in this astonishing video.

In warfare also, there are issues of safety in numbers, discussed in terms of “swarm warfare“. In some cases, the opposite tactic is applied, for example, in dispersing troops to avoid their all being taken out in a concentrated attack.

Bicyclists and other road users, on the other hand, don’t generally interact like prey and predators, or like armies in battle. I mean, motorists may sometimes be careless. A few may intentionally take risks with the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians, or be in denial about the hazards they pose. Motorists, however, generally aren’t intentionally out to kill and aren’t contemplating having us for dinner. What, then, is the mechanism of so-called “safety in numbers”? When might it exist, and when not?

First, there are different kinds of numbers.

  • The general level of bicycling or walking in a population.
  • Different locations in the same area that have different numbers of bicyclists/pedestrians/motorists, but all from the same general population.
  • Different areas, with different populations and different rates of use.
  • Numbers which increase on particular days, for example in nice weather.
  • A population in the same area but changing over a span of years.

In an earlier post, I examined an Oakland, California study of pedestrian crashes at different intersections in the same community. The researchers’ text claims safety in numbers but the graphs show otherwise: the crash rate was moderately higher at intersections with more pedestrians. It was also higher at intersections with more motorists. It would take further analysis to determine how these two factors correlate with each other.

The well-known Jacobsen study of safety in numbers of bicyclists (also here) compared different communities at the same time. It also has been criticized (including in the Oakland study) for faulty math that shows a hyperbolic descending curve even if the input data are completely random.

The Jacobsen study also says:

Whose behavior changes, the motorist’s or that of the people walking and bicycling? It seems unlikely that people walking or bicycling obey traffic laws more or defer to motorists more in societies or time periods with greater walking and bicycling. Indeed it seems less likely, and hence unable to explain the observed results. Adaptation in motorist behavior seems more plausible and other discussions support that view. Todd reported three studies showing “motorists in the United States and abroad drive more slowly when they see many pedestrians in the street and faster when they see few”.27 In addition, motorists in communities or time periods with greater walking and bicycling are themselves more likely to occasionally walk or bicycle and hence may give greater consideration to people walking and bicycling. Accordingly, the most plausible explanation for the improving safety of people walking and bicycling as their numbers increase is behavior modification by motorists when they expect or experience people walking and bicycling.

This dismisses the learning experience: that the more people walk or ride bicycles, the better they get at recognizing and avoiding hazards. Other studies have demonstrated that the length of bicycling experience has a dramatic effect on crash rates. This occurs whether or not people are obeying traffic laws or deferring to motorists. Jacobsen identifies bicyclists as being able to take no active measures to improve their safety.

In order to maximize safety, we need to know not only what happens, but also why. My own opinion is that there is generally an increase in safety over time as the number bicyclists and pedestrians increases. This occurs due to a number of different factors but also is impeded by others.

Some factors increasing safety:

  • Longer experience, on average, of cyclists
  • Cyclists’ better understanding of how to ride safely in a group
  • Higher average age of cyclists
  • Multiplicative effect of mentoring of cyclists by other cyclists (especially, children by parents)
  • Change in attitude of motorists
  • Presence of one cyclist directly increasing the safety of another by blocking traffic.
  • Better facilities design, resulting from a more refined understanding of how to provide for bicyclists’ safety.

Some factors decreasing safety:

  • Entry of new and inexperienced cyclists into the mix
  • One cyclist’s concealing another from view when there many
  • Sense of entitlement leading to scofflaw behavior
  • False sense of security — “follow-the-leader” behavior when riding in a group
  • Rush to build bicycle facilities, resulting in design compromises and inherent flaws
  • Facilities that favor the least skillful, but are overprotective and frustrating for the more skillful, promoting scofflaw behavior
  • Placing all eggs in the basket of “safety in numbers” and neglecting other approaches to increasing safety

There’s clearly much more research yet to be done in this field.

Review of The Birth of Dirt

Review of
The Birth of Dirt
By Frank J. Berto

I’ve just read Frank Berto’s book The Birth of Dirt (second edition), about the origins of the mountain bike.

It’s a quick, fun read, and offers quite a thorough review of that history, illustrated with numerous photos and drawings. Berto was for a decade the technical editor of Bicycling magazine, and he has a fine command of the technical issues of bicycle design. But this is a history about people and what they did, not only a technical history. Berto has the advantage of living in Marin County, California, where the mountain bike originated, and of knowing and having interviewed most of the pioneers in its development. The book offers a thoughtful and probing exploration of the question of who invented the mountain bike. Berto’s conclusion is clearly justified by the evidence: many people were involved, and no one person could claim to be the inventor.

I did find some minor errors of fact: for example, what is described as an Atom drum brake is a Maxicar brake; Berto also locates the home of the late John Finley Scott in Davis, California rather than in nearby Dixon. The exact truth always lies somewhere in the past, and in the future…

Review of J. Harry Wray’s book Pedal Power

Review of
Pedal Power, the Quiet Rise of the Bicycle in American Life
By J. Harry Wray

I purchased this book at the 2008 National Bicycle Summit (conference and congressional lobbying event), where the author spoke. He inscribed my copy:

“John – Pedal on! We skipped over the 20th century to take over the 21st. J. Harry Wray”

OK, that’s a friendly inscription, so I’ll tell you what I like best about the book first. It gets most interesting about one-third of the way through, with vignettes of individuals and organizations involved in bicycling and bicycling advocacy. You could

  • follow several Chicago-area utility bicyclists on their daily commutes and errands;
  • learn what motivates bicycling advocacy honcho Randy Neufeld,
  • visit with a group of counterculture types who ride around Chicago on bicycles and glean most of their material possessions from dumpsters,
  • read pocket biographies of politicians who champion bicycling causes, including members of the U.S. Congress,
  • Read some useful descriptions of the history and workings of various local and national bicyclists’ advocacy organizations.

and more.

But now, backpedaling to the start of the book: Wray’s discussion of car/bike cultural differences wanders far from bicycling and from hard fact. Culturally-mediated perceptions are so important to him that he literally holds Ptolemaic (flat-earth-centered) and Copernican (round-earth, sun-centered) astronomy equally valid (see page 11). Let’s recall that one major goal of scientific and historical research is to refine perception. Wray clearly is not cognizant of bicycling research literature, and he draws some unsupported conclusions e.g., that special bicycle traffic signals increase efficiency and safety. In fact, special signals increase safety only if they are obeyed. They more usually reduce efficiency, and then often are not obeyed. Wray is weak on data which would, for example, quite certainly refute the statement on page 24, “I am absolutely serious about feeling less vulnerable to some violent act on a bicycle than in a car.”

Page 30 begins a chapter discussing bicycling in Amsterdam, where scofflaw bicyclists, as Wray acknowledges, are the norm. They serve the same traffic-calming function that scofflaw pedestrians commonly do in crowded cities. But Wray doesn’t address an important difference, that North American, British and French cyclists more generally expect a climate of equal rights and responsibilities as vehicle operators, making for a huge difference in advocacy goals.

The following chapter covers – take a deep breath – American materialism, individualism, inequality, capital punishment, the lack of guaranteed health care, the weakness of the labor movement, television watched alone, mass consumerism, the Super Bowl as a national religious rite, and the American dream of a house with a fenced backyard with a patio, and car. (I’d turn to James Howard Kunstler for a more compelling discussion of such topics.)

Wray predicts a resulting “culture storm”. Time will tell whether his claim is prophetic. In any case, only the last paragraph of this entire chapter is about bicycling!

Then there’s the useful stuff in the middle of the book, followed at the end by a couple more chapters about global warming, ill effects of motor vehicle use, and societal benefits of bicycling.

Also, Wray and his editors got on my nerves rather quickly by way of sprawling sentences, poor grammar and incorrect word usage. There are some real howlers — here’s one from page 17: “[S]truggling up the mountain, the smell of pine was unmistakeable and exhilarating” — this from a tenured university professor! Wray’s sloppiness with language can lead to confusion, not only eye-rolling. He, for example, frequently uses the word “bike” instead of “bicycle” even when misreporting a proper name, for example “Congressional Bike Caucus” and “San Francisco Bike Coalition.” He calls the Cyclists’ Touring Club (U.K.) the “Bicycle Touring Club”.

And so on.

Enough. I like Jeff Mapes’s book Pedaling Revolution better, and I’ll be reviewing it soon.