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.

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

  1. Thanks for the review, John.

    “…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 as well as for others…”

    Some of our advocates in Los Alamos express that opinion, too, almost verbatim, without any justification other than idealism and some anti-car ideology. For what reason would a child want or need to ride a bike on a heavily used arterial such as New Mexico 502, especially during rush hour? Is there anything wrong with having some key streets designed for competent adult vehicle traffic? Are there other options that provide good connectivity for young, very old, or inexperienced cyclists without a loss of benefit to other users such as experienced cyclists (who would have to suffer with facilities designed for a child) and motorists going to work (and thus driving the local economy)?

    Such idealism, not tempered by a firm grasp of costs and benefits, doesn’t really solve problems very well.

    A better question to ask is whether we design our urban areas such that children or the elderly can navigate to their destinations (schools, homes, friends homes, playgrounds, parks, libraries) under reasonable conditions and if not, why such bad urban planning?

  2. Personally, I found the most intriguing elements of the book were the glimpses into cycling advocacy politics that I have never elsewhere seen from an “observer.” Unfortunately, he left those woefully incomplete. The Forester/Clarke interaction by itself, and the financial ups and downs of organizations such as LAB would have merited at least a chapter. Also unfortunate is that our diligent blogger is constrained by fiduciary and other moral duties to be discreet…

    • I agree with you about the glimpses into bicycling advocacy politics. As to Forester and [Andy] Clarke (currently President of the League of American Bicyclists), Clarke doesn’t discuss this topic in public, but Forester has a large amount of commentary on his own web site. Thanks for the complement about diligence and discretion. For an abbreviated treatment of League history, you might have a look at the Wikipedia article about the League. It does not, however, discuss the ups and downs of the League in the 1970s and 1980s. Bruce Epperson has written an article in Transportaiton Law Journal which touches on these topics; and which discusses Forester at length, but I can determine based on my own involvement in bicycling advocacy that Epperson’s article has some serious inaccuracies. I understand that Forester will publish a rebuttal in the same journal. Yes, there is much yet unwritten about the League. No, I am no longer a League Board member.

  3. Pingback: John S. Allen's Bicycle Blog » Review of J. Harry Wray’s book Pedal Power

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