Let Me Get My Flak Jacket On Straight

Background Reading


JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE GLOBE/FILE Bicycle commuters were spotted near Porter Square in 2011.

JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE GLOBE/FILE Bicycle commuters were spotted near Porter Square in 2011.


My that is a provocative title for an article on bicycling. But before you get your ‘knickers in a twist‘ isn’t that the general idea that drives the push for bicycle infrastructure? Every cycling advocates knows that our streets need a bit of tweaking to make them safer for bicyclists. So the question is not that the streets ‘cannot be made safe for bicycles‘ but instead how to go about that.

Here in Chicago we are about to find out just how much people will tolerate when it comes to bicycle infrastructure when there is a threat of a very massive uptick in our overall property tax bill.

And given the fact that much of the justification for bike lanes in high poverty areas is to provide ‘safe routes to school‘ why would we be closing the schools that students are to ride their bicycles to?

Let’s Look At The Numbers

Bicyclists represent less than 1% of the nationwide total of vehicular traffic. Thus far they have contributed to either more pedestrians deaths (we run them over) or have ourselves been victims of collisions.

We are too small a percentage of the general population to have much of an impact when the budget crunch starts to reach our communities.

What Do We Have To Offer?

Most of what I read from the policy wonks who supposedly understand bicycle infrastructure are things like:

  • Road Diets (narrowing streets)
  • People Spaces (closing off streets to make places for human gatherings)
  • BikeShare (rental stations for folks looking to ride a bicycle)
  • Traffic Oriented Design (creating high-rise buildings that limit available parking)
  • Protected Bike Lanes (carving out a strip for bicycles)
  • More Pedestrian Deaths (we have managed to kill enough pedestrians that people are aware that we can be lethal)

From what I can see we are a drain on the economy of most cities. In fact were it not for the federal monies available bicycle infrastructure would need to come from local funding sources. We try to make the claim that bicyclists (at least in cities) are shoppers who can help sustain small businesses. But that probably is only true if the place is serving alcohol and pub food.

Our Competition?

I got my most recent copy of the Rails to Trails magazine this week.

What trail conversions offer are places where people can ride bikes is relative safety (at least it is envisioned as being safer than Milwaukee Avenue) and are far more scenic. And did I mention that the cost of building these things are about one-tenth of their concrete cousins that reside in cities.

Are We Doing All This For A Toy?

When you get right down to it, the problem with bicycles is that they are merely ‘toys‘. These are the things we purchase for our kids and they use them on sidewalks during the day and leave them there for others to trip over at night.

In fact very few adult bicycles are much more than ‘toys‘. They do not have the following things I require in a ‘real bicycle‘:

  • Hub generators to power lights (front and rear)
  • Hub or disc brakes
  • Internal Rohloff rear hubs to eliminate the rear derailleur
  • Integrated kick stands
  • Integrated front and rear frame Titanium racks
  • Frame would be fabricated from Titanium
  • Internal cable routing for shifters and brakes
  • Tires that are essentially puncture-proof
  • Heavy-duty rims that can support a rider using urban pothole lined streets
  • Schlumpf front hub w/ eccentric to manage a belt drive
  • Fenders made of metal and hand shaped
  • and probably a few other things I cannot think of just now…

In short what we see when we pull a Divvy bike out of its stand is what I am talking about. These bikes are slow and heavy and most Urban Cyclists would avoid them if they could. But they are built to a level which is consistent with that required of a ‘real vehicle‘.

We Are Sometimes Our Own Worst Enemies

Bicycles get the bad rap because of us. We do not treat them with much respect. We complain when someone insults them by calling them ‘toys‘. But then we leave them chained up outside in all kinds of weather without ever offering them a lick of on-going maintenance.

Many of the urban cyclists I know through away chains rather than bother to keep them clean and lubricated. That problem of course is that for a ‘real bike‘ (especially one used in urban areas) you need belts and not chains.

But far more than how we treat our transportation steeds is the way we operate them. We simply do not give a damn that others see us behaving like jerks. And in fact we think it important the when the police crackdown on our scofflaw behavior we be ready to stick it to them for even bothering to keep our behavior under control.

Our usual whine is that they should be sticking it to motorists and not us. The truth of the matter is that given our small numbers we should be a ‘no brainer‘ for police. We after all are the ones who whine for greater safety and more consistent road behavior. So why then are we not following our own advice?

Much of this can be laid at the feet of our collective laziness. We ride like maniacs with hair on fire and doing that sort of thing makes for a rather crazy bit of behavior. Unlike our cousins in Amsterdam and Copenhagen who behave in a far more sedate manner, we seem in a rush to get nowhere.

They ride bikes that easily outweigh ours by a factor of two. And yet they behave with a great deal more decorum. Maybe we need not only to improve our bicycle infrastructure but look inwards at ourselves for a chance to reform the beast within.