Monday, April 26, 2010

Why Boston Rocks

For years, America’s bicycle advocates and Bicycling Magazine have scolded Boston as being one of America’s worst cycling cities. We were lumped in with such horror shows as Tampa, Dallas or Miami.

Those brickbats helped to spawn many recent changes. But Boston never deserved to be in the same category as Tampa (where, by the way, I attended college). Boston has stunning advantages over several other cities, including some that are often placed on pedestals as examples of bike havens.

The initiatives of Mayor Thomas Menino and the effervescent Nicole Freedman are to be applauded. I’m a big fan of bike lanes, signage, racks, etc. Not that I needed them but they create a stamp of approval for citizens. I state repeatedly that bike lanes do not gain cyclists road share as much as they gain cyclists mind share.

They have put in 15 miles of bike lanes in Boston, which nicely complements the network of lanes and rail trails in neighboring communities. And the work of MassBike, securing access for cyclists on the local transit system (albeit somewhat restrictive) has yielded great returns. And the recent bike summit in which the top department heads of Metro Boston took their lumps and pledged to improve the cycling environment proved a brave endeavor.

With just a bit more of a nudge, a new study out confirmed for me that Boston could become the Copenhagen of America. While the podium for that competition is currently held by Portland, Minneapolis and San Francisco, I foresee Boston moving to the top in just 10 years.

Many traditional bike advocates will smugly chuckle at my prediction. They would dust off the top spot on the podium for such locales as Chicago, Denver, or Sacramento, where great headlines have been written, before ever considering Boston.

Those cities currently holding Bike Friendly status deserve the applause: Philadelphia, Portland, New York, Boulder, etc. But in 2009 such places as Naperville, Ill., Columbus, Ohio, and Irvine, Calif., and received bronze status as Bike Friendly cities.

Having visited each of those towns, I will tell you that none of them are all that bike friendly. These are sprawling locations with most of its socio-economic pulse beating out of strip malls along arteries wide and fast and clogged with customers of Wendy’s, Best Buy, Home Depot, and Cracker Barrel.

The sum is often a lot less than the parts. I do not state this to tear down these designations nor to discourage those trying to win them, but I must challenge the criteria. Part of the criteria could be the end result of those efforts: what percentage of the population is actually cycling.

I am reminded of some of the horrible tree forts we once constructed as boys. Adding more nails and some scrap lumber did not make up for a poorly designed or executed base of the fort. We cannot simply apply a checklist of items – a bike lane, some racks, a rail-trail, etc. - and attach that to a fundamentally flawed design and label that as “bike friendly.” Frankly, Irvine, California, with its freeways and malls and high-speed limits should NEVER be given such status so long as a cyclist cannot comfortably access the majority of its commercial outlets.

My gut belief in this was borne out recently by the Alliance for Biking and Walking Benchmark 2010 study. It’s a powerful study you can see here: Alliance for Biking and Walking 2010 Benchmark Study

Despite its oft vilified lack of facilities, Boston comes in at number 15 with 1 percent of all trips being done on a bike. And yes, Boston out-pedals New York City, which has made massive advances to its bike infrastructure. So guess who is not in the top 10? Those cities we’ve been celebrating such as Columbus, Irvine, Naperville, and Louisville.

And those Sun Belt nightmares of Dallas, Tampa, Miami and Houston are the bottom of the barrel.

What makes a city truly bike friendly? A lot of people on bikes! Louisville, Ky., is a city I visit often and must compliment for its efforts to improve cycling. They have bronze medal status as a Bike Friendly Community. But they rank 37th on the list with just 0.3 percent ridership.

So what keeps Bostonians riding? Consider these factors:

1. Not much of a college town. Suffolk County alone has 24 colleges and universities. College kids ride bikes. Boston is the world's largest college town. With or without bike lanes, more bikes make it safer and less hostile for more bikes.

2. The T. A critical component to making a city bike friendly is to give the bike commuter a Plan B in the form of a transit system. In our case, this would be Plan T, as in the MBTA. This is perhaps the finest transit system in America and recently they’ve allowed bikes on their trains and buses. This means darkness or foul weather can be overcome.

3. Compact design. When searching for an environmentally benign urban design, a lot of planners point to New England in the 1600s. As one of America’s oldest cities, Boston was built well before the automobile. Boston was built for walking. A bicycle can quickly get a person to any neighborhood in short order using any number of secondary or tertiary routes.

4. Getting somewhere. By bike in Boston one can actually GET somewhere. Too much emphasis is placed on cycling only for recreation. Florida’s Withlacoochee Trail, a splendid 44-mile path is one example, of where bike paths are not needed. It starts and ends nowhere. In Boston a cyclist can get to and from work, clubs, museums, restaurants, pubs, and schools far more conveniently than by car.

5. Bike culture. So much of American bike culture, dating back to Col. Pope’s manufacturing, came out of the Boston area. And much continues to come out of the Boston metro market in terms of shops, events, advocacy, clubs, and industry.

So what fills me with such confidence in our ability to become the Copenhagen of America?

It’s the OTHER half of the study, the walking part. While Boston is number 15 in biking, it is number one for walking. And when you combine Boston’s bikes with its pedestrians it is again number one, with 14.3 percent of the population walking or cycling to get around. And those gritty Northeast cities often shunned by those cyclists in the Pacific or Mountain time zones totally rock the stats. Boston, Washington and New York City have three of the top four slots. Philly is also in the top 10.

When you view the combination of walking and cycling, the list of cities NOT in the top 10 prove astounding. Those not even CLOSE to Boston include all of these communities deemed to be Bike Friendly Communities:
Long Beach

Me saying these Bicycle Friendly communities may NOT be all that bike friendly is akin to saying the emperor has no clothes! But if the true measure is how many people per capita are actually riding the list changes dramatically. As Boston has received little more than brickbats, many of those cities have gotten a lot of bouquets by leaders of bike advocacy.

While San Francisco and Portland will continue to lead the way, Boston will likely gain tremendous ground in short order. And the Sun Belt cities will undoubtedly continue to struggle. Converting a city of pedestrians into a bike friendly community is a far simpler task than trying to overhaul a city where cars are overwhelmingly dominant, transit is non-existent, and bikes are seen as curious toys for weekends.

Should Mayor Menino and his associates follow through on just some of the initiatives outlined last week, we should be enjoying that podium presentation by the year 2020.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Fatty

The Fatty and the Bike

Spotting him from a distance, I felt like that wildlife scientist who rediscovers Elsa, the lioness they once saved and then returned to the wild.
For I believe I had a small role in saving somebody. But in truth, the bicycle had saved him.
Actually I heard him first, loudly calling out “If you want, honey, I can adjust that derailleur!” And then I spotted him in his familiar day-glow green T-shirt on this fantastic April Saturday. And a few feet away stood his wife. Also in day glow green. I served witness to a mating ritual of sorts. And I glowed.
We could hardly describe him as “buff”. But this would be the first time I saw him standing in a single layer of clothing from the side. A large man, he stood about six-feet, four-inches tall and held about 220 pounds on that frame. He stood large, but not fat.
I live in the affluent suburb of Lexington, three towns out from Boston, and positioned on the nation’s busiest bike path, The Minuteman. With three kids, I had done a fair portion of the school pick-ups. With all the nannies and au pairs and stay-at-home moms, we fathers tend to notice one another.
My first reaction to him more than eight years earlier, I must confess, had been smug indifference and superiority. He was, well, a fatty.
He likely tipped the scales then well above 300 pounds. We enjoy writing such people off, don’t we? Admit it. “At least I’m not THAT guy,” we can say to ourselves on our lowest day.
His boy, a few grades behind my eldest son, would become a fatty too. With my pompous jackass attitude, I could recall thoughts of how he had brought that condition on himself with bad food, video games and sedentary behavior.
He wore his hair long, parted on the side so it hung over his eyes, requiring constant swipes of his hand and swings of his neck. And his boy, a miniature replica of the father, had the same hair and gestures. The tenderness of a ritual, however, burned empathy into my impression. This father and son would walk home together, both heads down, in a silent sad procession. The father cradled his arm around the boy’s shoulder for what I imagined to be a daily restoration of his son’s soul. The classroom of isolation and taunts and teases; the schoolyard and daily reminders of all things a fatty kid cannot do.
This would be all I would know of him … or so I thought.
One winter night two years ago I joined my friend and client Anthony Gallino of California Giant Berry Farms for a night out in Boston. I took my West Coast friend to Boston’s North End for dinner at the The Daily Catch. We drank wine and slurped down pasta, with my back to the window and Hanover Street. About 10 p.m. we arose to leave and I turned to see the street covered in three inches of wet snow. The snow fell in a pounding, wet carpet with flakes the size of communion wafers. The storm had hit heavier and harder and about two hours earlier than I expected.
“Whoa,” I said. “I gotta ride home in this!” The Californian implored me to take a cab, insisting such a ride would be impossible. But per usual, my household finances prevented that. I escorted him back to his hotel, took a subway to my office, and then suited up for what I thought would certainly be a sucky ride. Getting ready for a night time ride in snow is like Mike Nelson suiting for an episode of Sea Hunt.
By the time I threw my leg over the bike, the depth of the snow had accumulated to six inches with more coming. From Boston to Lexington is a climb of 300 vertical feet over 15 miles, meaning there would be more snow up there in 30 minutes. I splattered out into the empty city with just myself and the taxis and the plows.
When I went over the Longfellow Bridge into Cambridge, the derailleurs and brakes had become snow-cones. Riding nearly blind, I had dragged my Oakley’s down to the bridge of my nose to allow some air to defog the lenses. I removed them all together once but the deluge, even with a hat and brim, blinded me.
Despite all this apparent hardship, the ride began to improve. I felt better. With the roads evacuated I felt no danger from cars. And the neon and fluorescent signs of Kendall, Inman and Porter squares lit the way sufficiently. By the time I reached North Cambridge this ride had become a spectacular outing. I rolled ghostlike through a city in bunkers, a lone blinking red light pressing through this corridor.
I reached the main intersection in Arlington set to begin the final assault to Lexington. As I waited at the light I spotted the lines. Fresh bicycle tracks drew northward. Another rider rode just ahead.
I pressed on the pedals and within minutes could see the blinking red light on the horizon. I reeled this rider in near Arlington Heights. Although I easily pressed by him, I felt I had to say something on that horrific night.
“Not so bad, eh,” I called out laughing as I pressed by.
I spotted his day glow jacket. He rode aboard a Jamis cyclo-cross bike converted for commuting with racks and lights and a fender.
Then I realized his identity. The Fatty would be the only other cyclist I saw that night. The snow and splash and the boogers glistened on his face, giving the appearance of uncontrollable weeping and rage and determination.
That I rode my bike that night is of no consequence. That HE rode the bike that night is an unimaginable act of courage. I would see him later that winter and in some of the shittiest weather and the darkest of nights. I could blow by him at will but I would always make a supportive comment. I chose to leave our relationship that way.
He made that ride one of the greatest commutes of my life in 30 years. One never knows when one will have a fantastic ride. Often it will start in the worst of conditions.
Spring eventually broke that season, much like it did this past weekend in New England. After four months of serving as monastic beltway for the hardest of commuters, the bike path bloomed again with bright jerseys and tank tops and headphones and sun glasses. I rode home one evening through the fair-weather flower of humanity. There were tri-guys on their bars; bare-chested skaters, tightly clad women, and the rest of the spectrum of humanity drawn to this wonderful facility.
And then I saw the Fatty.
He labored silently forward on his Jamis. Neither the fastest, nor the fittest, and no longer the fattest, he plodded along without any trophy for having gone through the winter. I drew up to him near an intersection where a coagulation of narcissists formed. With dozens of health club escapees paused at this intersection, I put my hand on his back, and loudly said for all to hear: “NONE OF THESE FOLKS WERE OUT HERE IN JANUARY WITH YOU AND ME, EH?!?!?!”
I winked and rolled by.
This man, who perhaps had not a single athletic trophy on his mantle, picked his chin up, drew his shoulders back, and replied loud enough for all to hear, “AINT THAT THE TRUTH, BROTHER!!!!”
And I rolled on.
I’ve seen him from time to time, always peppering the pass with a nice comment….
“Looking skinny!”
“Every day, every day!”
“The tough guys ride in January.”
But we’ve never met. Even this weekend, when he spotted me studying him, I simply tipped my hat and walked back home. Although I felt like some mystical Clint Eastwood character, I confess that HE had become my inspiration for so many things.
I could not help but recall that the weight loss industry in America takes in more than $40 billion every year. And most of their nonsense fails. But the little bike industry, bringing in about $6 billion every year, can outperform that industry for improving the health of our nation, one fatty at a time. This one bike path and some lanes had done that for him; and these facilities can do that for thousands and thousands of others.
Even the worst of the Rascal-driving fatties in the Walmart can be saved by the bicycle. For proof you need only read the amazing story of Scott Cutshall. In 2005 this young father weighed 501 pounds and decided to change his life. On his first ride he managed to pedal 1.9 miles….It took him three hours.
The short story is here:
He also ran his own blog:
The mantra of the blog became this “Ride every day, no matter what they say.”
His blog became a centerpiece of inspiration for heavy cyclists everywhere. Recently he stopped posting on the blog. But he provided a final weight: 170 pounds.
If cyclists want to truly capture the hearts and minds of Americans, I believe we should not simply discuss the Tour de France, greenhouse gases, foreign oil, or the correctness of sustainabilty. We should simply discuss weight loss. That's what so many Americans are desperate to do. And we can do it one Fatty at a time.
Thanks for reading.