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Tuesday, 8 January 2008
Travel mode
Topic: urban issues

I’ve just returned from Cyclotopia, formerly known as Ecotopia or the Pacific Northwest, and I’m brimming with thoughts about urban transportation.

In cities like Seattle, which I explored for five days, and Portland, the locals take transportation seriously. I understand their high-ranking public officials actually utter words like “bus,” “rail,” and “bicycle,” and not just as token references.

Take Seattle. Though this major trade, commercial and aerospace hub is notorious for sprawl and traffic jams, it’s remarkably friendly to bikers and pedestrians. There are marked bike lanes aplenty, and locking posts in all the logical spots. (The posts are actually steel pipes bent into a squarish “C” with the end-points bolted to the pavement; the horizontal section sits conveniently at the level of a traditional bike’s top tube. This design, elegant in its simplicity and probably cheap as dirt, allows for locking two bikes, one on each side. I suppose it would be simple to use two locks per bike for added security – and the two-lock method is certainly preferred in urban settings.)

The bike literature says Seattle has one of the most organized and largest biker populations in the country, and the infrastructure bears this out. Yet I was surprised at how relatively few bikers were on the streets. The weather was no obstacle. Seattle gets lots of slow, steady rain in the winter - Cyclotopian bikes are equipped with full fenders at a rate well above the national average - but the temperatures are moderate, even in January. And the trendy areas of town were packed with Gore-Tex’d and sumptuously fleeced yuppies, a naturally bike-inclined demographic. But still: I don’t think there were more bikers actually biking than you’d see in mid-winter in Rochester. Not even around the home store of REI Coop, the premier outfitter, which has surrounded itself with a quasi-wild microhabitat complete with MTB pseudo-trails - right next to thundering Interstate 5.

One reason might be the lay of the land. Seattle is mighty hilly. If your daily commute took you west from the Volunteer Park area, a delightful set of neighborhoods, to downtown and the waterfront, you’d start the day with a schuss. There are some great downhill runs, for sure. But as every experienced biker knows, what goes down must later grind upward. And for many Seattle downtown office workers, the trip home is a long pull - even adjusting for a possible boost from a tailwind off Puget Sound.

And this is where Rochester and other cities in our region have the upper hand. The terrain here is conducive to bike transportation. You may not be riding in a marked bike lane, and you may have to hunt for a signpost to lock up to, and you may have to slip-and-slide through slush in December and January and beyond (though, thanks to our fossil-fueled competitors, global warming may make slush a thing of the past, even deep in winter). But no matter where you go around these parts, you won’t need to power up a 10 percent grade for a half mile - and then after stopping for a red light, contemplate an immediate repeat performance.

Don’t get the wrong impression, however. I think the Pacific Northwest is great, and I plan to explore it by bike this coming year, possibly as the first leg of a cross-country trek. (I planned to do this last summer, but stuff happened, and I switched to a tour of Northern NY and New England.) But the truth is, the ideal place for biking is wherever you happen to be – you know, that old business about “being present” and “in the moment.”

Right now, I’m thinking about my commute to RIT tomorrow morning. It will be windy and a little cool (we hit 64F here today!), and the Lehigh Valley Trail will be open. Maybe I’ll see a red-tailed hawk along the way, as I did on Monday. It doesn’t get better than that.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 22:16 EST
Updated: Tuesday, 8 January 2008 23:49 EST
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