On Bicycles: 50 Ways the New Bike Culture Can Change Your Life

Book Review by Kelly Nelson

There is always room for a book about bicycles as transportation in North America so kudos to editor Amy Walker and publisher New World Library for putting out this book where the words lycra, competition, racing and Lance Armstrong do not appear in the index. The contributors to this friendly, upbeat collection include journalists and editors, transportation planners, architects, professors, lawyers, bike shop owners, transit workers and some interesting folks who defy a single occupational label. The 33 writers all clearly like biking. The editor met most of the them through Momentum Magazine, which she co-founded in 2001 to focus on transportation cycling.

The first part of the book (“All the Reasons”) presents justifications for riding a bike for transportation without sounding too preachy. It includes the usual reasons (save money, be nice to the environment, stay in shape) but also details the experiential aspects of riding around town: the fun, the freedom, the zen-like simplicity, the mini-adventures of encountering other lives. The most novel enticement was Kristen Steele’s reasoning that men who bike keep off belly weight which makes their penises appear larger than if they had belly fat.

The second part (“Gearing Up”) focuses on bikes and accessories. Some of the entries are aimed at newbies (types of bike stores, basics on lights, racks and panniers and how to tote kids and cargo) while other entries are aimed at the more advanced rider: an argument for the supremacy of internally geared hubs; the option of a handmade bicycle (costing between $4,000 and $10,000) or making your own freak bike (hacksaw and wrenches required). With the content of each piece clearly labeled by its title, readers can easily choose the pieces that match their own experience and interest level.

Parts three (“Community and Culture”) and four (“Getting Serious”) include a few practical, how-to pieces (how to bike when traveling, how to have a bike party) but mostly these sections take on broader issues.  I applaud Deb Greco’s candidness in describing her former bad biking behavior: flying through red lights and cursing the cars that nearly hit her. Her message of riding with courtesy for pedestrians, other cyclists, and yes, even for motor vehicles, is a welcome one. Another important piece is Eric Doherty’s discussion of multi-modal transportation, combining bicycling with walking and riding public transit. Perhaps this points the way for a future New World Library book: how to live as a multi-modalist. Elly Blue raises an interesting question: how could we encourage more women in the US to become transportation bicyclists?  The vast majority of utilitarian bike riders in the US are men, unlike in many European countries where it’s closer to half and half. She suggests women prefer not to ride on major roads. This issue is picked up later by John Pucher who discusses how separated bike lanes, traffic calming measures and traffic signals for bikes would help all bicylists, male and female, feel safer and less stressed. Prickly issues such as funding and political support for biking infrastructure are skirted. More “shoulds” than solutions are posed but it keeps the tone of the book hopeful without bogging down in recession-era realities.

If I had a magic editorial wand, there are two things I would change about this book, First the subtitle. I don’t see how the “bike culture” itself is a life changer. (And do people really want 50 ways to change their lives?) Seems to me that a change in transportation behavior is what changes your life. So I’d prefer a subtitle such as How becoming multi-modal can change your life. Item number two: tone down the overemphasis on Portland, Oregon. Yes, Portland, all of us NOT living there whisper your name with reverence for the number of bike businesses and the miles of bike lanes you have. You are awesome. But try not to gloat too much. It can make those of us living and biking in the rest of the country feel grumpy.

Overall, this book is a welcome addition to the car-free and car-lite literature and it leaves you feeling that biking around town is cool, hip and possible.

— Kelly Nelson has been living carfree in Phoenix, Arizona for 12 years.

Related links:
http://velocouture.wordpress.com/ — the intersection of biking and fashion
On Bicycles: 50 Ways the New Bike Culture Can Change Your Life
Amy Walker, editor
New World Library, 2011, 372 pages

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