Who knew what a litmus test simply riding a bicycle could be? I’ve been running errands for the past hour. Library. Pharmacy. Grocery Store. Bank. I got flipped off twice (both times by teenagers in passing cars), and glared at with disgust several other times. The only other bicyclists I encountered were indigents, who acknowledged me as one of their own with kindly nods. Really? Because I’m on a bike?
Sarasota is flat, its weather is fair, its downtown is compact. By choosing to bike my errands I get some exercise, some sunshine. I pay nothing for gas. Bike lanes are virtually nonexistent here, as are pedestrians, so I mostly ride on sidewalks and save myself the hassle of traffic. And I complete my errands faster by bike than by car. So why am I the only one doing it?
Actually, I’m not the only one. A handful of homeless men and women tote their wares like grubby peddlers. A local eccentric blares greatest hits of the ‘80s from the radio strapped to his handlebars. Hispanic laborers cycle to and from work. Mostly men, mostly white, bearing the scars and wardrobes of lives hard-lived, turn to bikes when DUI charges temporarily revoke their license. There is also a small group of highly skilled street cyclists, the kind that pull wheelies on their twenty-one-speeds. Another wee contingent wear the funny spandex and space helmets and knock off fifty miles before breakfast. To sum up, most people who ride bikes in Sarasota do so for pleasure, fitness, or because of poverty or legal trouble.
I’ve long been a car guy. Or, more precisely, an SUV guy. I spent much of my childhood in a rural New England town and had to drive to everything from the grocery store to school. Winter practically required 4WD. Bikes were for kids, buses were for poor city folk, and trains were for history class. I got my first SUV, a Chevy Blazer, when I was nineteen, and later moved on to a Ford Explorer and now a Honda Element. I was an inveterate road-tripper (still am), and insisted on driving a vehicle that could suit my every whim. I had to be able to take it off-road, camp in it, tow with it, and load it full of supplies. Then I moved to Los Angeles.
It’s inaccurate to say that Los Angeles is in love with cars. True, I met a number of guys who slept in their Mercedes because they couldn’t afford rent, but most Angelenos are simply dependent on their cars. They live in one area, work in another, and meet up with friends in yet another. Transit infrastructure, while improving, can’t compete with auto infrastructure, and the availability of cheap parking (infinite compared to San Francisco, New York, or Boston) renders transit efforts impotent. I drove a lot in LA. I spent a lot of money on gas and repairs, and a lot of time sitting in traffic wishing I wasn’t.
Driving so much stressed me out, and since a twenty-two mile ocean front bike path passed within a few blocks of my apartment I bought a bike. Two, actually. My wife and I began by riding to the Santa Monica pier and back, a five mile round trip. Then we started riding to coffee shops to sit and work. We rode to the grocery store, to the bank, to as many of our errands as the surrounding canyon inclines allowed. Errands became fun, and cardio work at the gym became redundant. Our gas bill went down. As did our frustration level.
Biking in Los Angeles is not without its challenges. Bike lanes are scarce, as is bike parking. Bike-auto interactions are often caustic and occasionally disastrous. But biking, when feasible, still beat driving. And Los Angeles, car culture and all, seems to understand that. Residents there like to be fit, they like to be progressive, they like to be green, they like to be casual, they like to have fun. I occasionally saw men in suits riding bikes or skateboards to the office. Biking makes sense to Angelenos, even if it’s rarely practical.
Of course people in Los Angeles choose to ride bikes for the same reasons that people in Sarasota do, but they also ride bikes for the reasons that many in Portland, Seattle, Davis, and increasingly New York City do: because being shackled to one’s car sucks, for the driver, for other motorists, for neighbors and pedestrians, and for the environment. Bikes are cheap, quiet, and easy to repair. They don’t pollute. Far more bikes than cars fit on the same stretch of road, or in the same garage, and bike infrastructure costs roughly 95% less to build and maintain than auto infrastructure. Over short distances, bikes allow for greater productivity and freedom of movement than cars. They are the ideal urban vehicle for 99% of in-city trips.
Take a look at any list of the great cities of the world. For most of those listed bicycling is an essential and integrated form of transit. Less reliance on cars means roads can be narrower, which means means density can increase without excessive verticality. Cities and towns dominated by auto-centric platting are a recent and American invention, but they are all many Americans (and Canadians, and residents of a number of other countries) know, and so they are the de facto models that define the city. That’s too bad, because cities that integrate streetcars, light rail, buses, bicycles, and foot traffic with autos are more efficient, more productive, better connected, and generally more enjoyable places to live.
For the record, I’m not anti-auto. In fact, I just returned from a week-long road trip during which I covered 2400 miles. I went further than bikes would allow, and to places trains and buses don’t go. Cars are ideal for that sort of thing. For running errands in a compact downtown, my bike is ideal. I just wish I could ride a bike in Sarasota without people staring at me like I’m some kind of deviant.