Category Archives: Books

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 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 kilometer of too narrow bike lanes in an 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 and 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 street 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. Examples should be sufficient to make the case for helmet use. (A longer discussion is here.) But — 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 simple 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 the gears: “high”, “low”, “lower”, “super low”. 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 (practical, sensible, expensive but worth the price) bicycles he manufactures. 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.

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.

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.

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…