Bicycle Commuting: A US System and A World-Wide Guide

beijing bike 3 copy.jpg

To my pleasure, there is now a United States Bicycle Route System that goes more places than Amtrak and Greyhound do. Have a look at the proposed map of the national corridor plan.

The goal is to create clearly marked north-south and east-west routes, as romantic as the Oregon Trail or as functional as the Erie Canal. The trail of Lewis and Clark is on one of the routes.

I can only hope that the plan serves as an inspiration to would-be cyclists and every-day bike commuters. To be fair, it takes years to master the dark and often wet arts of cycling. My riding-to-work garb includes reflective gear from London, Alaskan socks, a headlight from San Diego, a lock from Amsterdam, and a rain jacket from Ohio. On my first commute, after a year of wondering of “whether I could do it,” I searched so hard to find a safe route that I got lost.

Serious bike commuting requires owning two or three bikes, as one or two will always have flats or breakdowns, and, you need a rain bike. Plus, strategic wardrobe planning can take hours. But bike commuters get to have the satisfaction of passing cars stuck in traffic, and tired legs at the end of day leave you feeling more virtuous than Mother Teresa (if you want more inspiration, there’s a cycling jersey with her picture).

Just to be clear: No one behind the car wheel likes a cyclist, because bicyclists run red lights, hop up on curbs, pound on hoods, drop F-bombs, and give drivers the middle finger salute. Politically, cyclists fall on the spectrum somewhere between Greens and Anarchists. In some 300 cities — it's a global movement— to protest local (car-inspired) injustices, they have formed into Critical Masses that parade around like errant storm troopers.

I am surprised that no one has articulated a bicycle foreign policy — in German it would be Fahrradweltanschauung — given that there are more bikes in the world than cars and they are used more often. Fifty million bikes are manufactured annually worldwide, versus twenty million cars. China’s market share is 400 million. But many American states and counties fight having a bicycle coordinator on their payroll.

Here's a highly personal comparison of where some cities and regions currently stand in relation to a world of bicycles:

Geneva: My hometown, so I know the roads well. The city is trying to expand its bike lanes and trams. Whenever road construction is completed, a new bike lane emerges from the rubble. Biking works in Geneva, despite the hills, wind and rain, but many bike lanes are stopped by dead ends or traffic. I am forever lifting my bike over curbs, cobblestones, or rails, and searching for a better way around the medieval town.

New York: I can thank former New York mayor Ed Koch for converting me into a bicycle romantic. In spring 1980, he decided to accept a strike from New York’s Transport Workers Union that, for eleven days, mothballed the city’s buses and subway. (Koch referred to the strikers as “wackos.”) The only way to get around New York was to walk or ride a bike. I dusted off my childhood Raleigh Grand Prix and rode off to work, never looking back on a life that did not involve bicycles.

Although I no longer live in New York, I still like riding there. The West Side, Central Park, and the Brooklyn Bridge are bike friendly. If you want to understand why George Washington lost the battle of Harlem Heights (as I do), a bike is the only way to get there. But, as much as biking has improved in and around New York in the last thirty years, it remains a “car” city. Cyclists are an afterthought, and poorly represented by messengers flying down Seventh Avenue, no hands on their bars, talking on their cell phones, flipping off confused pedestrians.

The administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed a master plan of 900 miles of bike lanes around New York, up from 400 miles, bringing out pools of angry car drivers who hate sharing the road with cyclists and haunted pedestrians. A New York Magazine cover story called it “Bikelash.” But 100,000 riders mount a bike every day in Manhattan.

Hanoi: In 1993, before the Politburo began importing waves of noisy scooters and small motorcycles, to bike around the old French quarter and West Lake (past General Giap’s house and Ho’s mausoleum) was a delight. Everyone rolled at slow speeds, and no one stopped at the intersections; the bike traffic just melded together, like DNA. In the Vietnam War, bikes beat B-52s.

Berlin: It’s expansive, like Los Angeles, but flat as a dish and with many bike lanes, all of which go to places of historical interest: the Reichstag, the Holocaust Memorial, the remnants of the Berlin Wall, or Checkpoint Charlie. Each time I am there, I rent a bike, and it takes me everywhere. The only downside to Berlin biking is the weather, which has a lot of cold rain. Bikes make Berlin.

Amsterdam: I find the biking to be hair-raising. The Dutch power through intersections or along bike paths as though they were in a bonus sprint on the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix (the famous bike race). Yes, the lanes go everywhere, and bikes in Holland — at least those not stolen and thrown into the canals — are sacred objects. But think about wearing some body armor.

Beijing: My favorite bicycle city. To be in the saddle enables you to go almost anywhere. Bike lanes are wider than many Western boulevards, and you can bike around Tiananman Square, to the Forbidden City, down to South Station, and out toward the Marco Polo Bridge (where World War II began in China). The way to see the hutong — ancient alleys — is on a bike. Beijing treats its citizens with more respect when they are cycling than it shows them at other times.

London: Cyclists wear reflective vests, stretch rubber bands on their pants legs, and blow strange whistles at anything in their way. Coming out of the mist, they look prehistoric and think nothing of biking in rain, sleet or snow, doing battle with buses, cars, and pedestrians, or riding bikes that look like they survived the Blitz. The London mayor has introduced a fleet of shared bikes that can be used around town, based on annual membership. Because traffic is on the “wrong side,” I find biking in London scary, but it delivers the goods.

Suburbia, USA: I have spent more time that I would have wished biking around suburbs, exurbs, malls, highways, and developments. It’s the least satisfying bicycle experience. I grew up in the suburbs, with baseball cards in my spokes. Suburban drivers hate cyclists. Integrating bicycles into suburban life, with its SUV panzer divisions, will be a national challenge.

Toronto: Canada's guerrilla team, the Urban Repair Squad, goes out at night to paint bike lanes onto city streets. (“They say the city is broke. We fix it. No charge.”) So effective is their painting that the city of Toronto maintained the counterfeit lanes for two years, thinking they were official.

Southampton, New York: Southampton prohibits riding a bike through town. It’s fine to thunder through the Potemkin village of million dollar boutiques in a gas-guzzling, tinted-windowed pimp mobile, but God forbid that anyone should roll through on their own power. It gets my vote as the worse bicycle town in America.


Like all bikevangelists, I dream of highways given over to cyclists, and see cycling as the way wean the U.S. from Middle Eastern oil and solve every problem from global warming to obese children. Consider this: Compared to the costs of high-speed rail and highway construction, the U.S. Bicycle Route System requires only maps, sign posts, imagination… and strong legs.

Photo by the author: "My bike in Beijing. One gear. Heavy as bricks, but very smooth".

Matthew Stevenson is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical essays. He is also editor of Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper's Magazine. He lives and rides in Switzerland.

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When I read this I laugh so

When I read this I laugh so much. I totally agree with you about Amsterdam and Berlin, although in Milan, Italy the bicycle traffic is very organised and the lanes are like very good made.

Jerico at web hosting