CONTACTTRAFFICABOUT TOM VANDERBILTOTHER WRITING CONTACT ABOUT THE BOOK

Guns, Germs, and Bikes

I was struck recently, as I read David Byrne’s The Bicycle Diaries, by this passage, which refers to the author’s time in Buenos Aires:

Built on the floodplain of La Plata River, the city is fairly flat, and with the temperate weather and the streets more or less on a grid it is perfect for cycling around. Despite this I could count on one hand the number of locals I saw on bikes. Why? Would I inevitably find out the reason no one else was pedaling around here? Was there some dark secret explanation about to pounce on me? Am I a naive fool? Is it because the driving is so reckless, the theft so rampant, the gas so cheap, and a car such a necessary symbol of status? Is it so uncool to ride a bike here that even messengers find other ways of getting around?

I don’t think it is any of those reasons. I think the idea of cycling is simply off the radar here. The cycling meme hasn’t been dropped into the mix, or it never took hold. I am inclined to agree with Jared Diamond, who claims in his book Collapse that people develop cultural affinities for certain foods, ways of getting around, clothes, and habits of being that become so ingrained that they will, in his telling, persist in maintaining their habits even to the piont of driving themselves and sometimes their whole civilization to extinction.

I’ve not been to Buenos Aires, and it would certainly make an interesting South American point of comparison to, say, Bogota, where an activist mayor and many others helped to transform cycling in that city (and did I just read that Santiago is pursuing bike lanes rather energetically?). But it is an interesting question: The mixture of infrastructure, social norms, behavioral change, incentives, and whatever else is needed to get a bike culture off the ground. After all, as Mikael has noted of Copenhagen, for example, these things are not necessarily a fait accompli; Copenhagen could easily resemble Madrid or any other more auto-intensive European capital today were it not for a set of discrete historical events — and ongoing campaigns. Any cycling Porteñas happen to be reading and care to comment?

I thought of this again recently when an old chum from Portland, Steve Johnson at PSU, sent along his interesting essay on the prehistory of Portland’s bike renaissance. In the early 1970s, for example, he writes: “Sam Oakland estimated there to be about 400 people riding bicycles into downtown Portland on a daily basis (Frazier, 1971).” The number over the Hawthorne Bridge in 1975? 200. It’s a bit higher than that today, and the piece chronicles the long story of bureaucratic finagling, community activism, the endless hours of debates — bike lanes or bike education? — the entrenched opposition, the long miles traveled, etc., that have all led to this historical moment.

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This entry was posted on Monday, November 2nd, 2009 at 2:14 pm and is filed under Bicycles, Cities, Traffic Culture, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Slate.com Transport column to me at: info@howwedrive.com.

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