Jeff Mapes isn’t your typical revolutionary. He doesn’t sport a moustache or carry a little red book, and you won’t find his face on any T-shirts. But he’s peddling radical change with his investigative book on cycling culture, Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities.
The change may come sooner than expected. Some one million people regularly commute or run errands by bicycle, many of them in cities that have accommodated their needs with bike lanes, shared roadways, or weekend street closings.
“There’s been a steady growth of interest in this subject,” says Mapes. “Obama’s transportation department is quite interested. The stimulus bill early last year had a good chunk of transport money in it, with a pot of money for enhancements that states and locations can spend on biking and walking projects.”
This week, the Clemson Architecture Center is flying Jeff Mapes in from the bike-friendly town of Portland, Ore., where he works as a political reporter. He’ll talk about the alternative transport movement taking place in enlightened cities around the country, from Long Beach, Calif. to New York and Chicago.
“I hear from people in towns I knew nothing about,” he says. “I just heard from a guy with a blog in Wichita. There’s progress everywhere. Maybe it’s only a half dozen folks, but they’re vigorous bike advocates.” There are far more in Portland, which Mapes describes as “the most bike friendly place, with the largest road share for bikes in a large city.”
In his book, Mapes explains how forward-thinking cities in Europe and the U.S. have adopted policies that encourage cycling and walking. He uses statistics and hard facts to show that cyclists, aided by sympathetic politicians and urban planners, are helping to transform their streetscapes.
“People in the urban bike movement are rethinking how cities function,” says Mapes. Instead of organizing a city so that traffic flows in and out of it as quickly as possible, their goal is to make the journey more enjoyable. This goes beyond simple bike advocacy to a desire for “active transportation” — avoiding the asphalt jams in commercial centers where the public can do more without having to get in their cars.
Mapes supports denser living within a two to four mile radius because he understands that “when they get used to it, get comfortable and strong enough, people love riding around. A bicycle is a more elegant way of getting to a destination,” he adds. “It’s a great way to experience a city.”
Mapes particularly enjoys the unanticipated things that happen on a bike ride, the people you meet and things you see that would be missed if you’re stuck in a car. He recounts a recent example of the unexpected effects a ride can have. “I went to see Avatar at a big old fashioned theater three to four miles from my house. It was raining like hell, the wind was blowing in my face and I thought, ‘This is pretty sucky.’”
After the movie everyone ran for their cars, creating an instant bottleneck. “My bike wended through the crowd. The wind was at my back, pushing me along. I was speeding past the cars and I felt like I was an Avatar character, swooping and flying back home on a big beast. That blew my mind! Where else does a 55-year-old man have adventures like that?”
Signed copies of Pedaling Revolution will be available at the event, at Blue Bicycle Books on King Street, and online. The talk is sponsored by the Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston and the Charleston Civic Design Center as part of a series called Revolution on 2 Wheels.