I often write about the economic, public health, public safety and other benefits that accrue to communities where people make bicycling part of their daily lives. I'm intrigued and encouraged by the innovative ways cities and towns all over the U.S. are using bikes to solve their most pressing problems.
No less interesting to me, but harder to quantify, are the ways that bicycling can change our perceptions of the world around us and help us find those solutions. When we speed through our surroundings in cars, we are unable to detect details about our neighborhoods and public spaces. It's equivalent to the compression algorithm used to create MP3 files. Data is lost. Musical nuances disappear.
In his book, "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places," Harvard professor John R. Stilgoe suggests wandering by foot or bike and keeping a watchful eye can help expand our thinking and change our perceptions. Taking a long walk or "riding a bicycle down a different street" puts us in the position of "seeing what no one photographs and noticing what no one realizes."
Now that summer is here, the longer days provide an opportunity to examine the previously unexamined. I've begun varying the routes I take to my regular destinations and have been pleased to find myself seeing things for the first time — or more likely, noticing them for the first time — despite having lived in my neighborhood for a decade.
Long summer days also stoke the desire to pedal beyond the boundaries of one's own neighborhood and explore other parts of the city. Unfortunately, in many parts of our community, riding outside of bicycle friendly areas forces cyclists to contend with roads engineered to maximize motor vehicle speed and capacity.
These sorts of thoroughfares are, to borrow a phrase from the Transportation for American coalition, "dangerous by design." We have sacrificed the safety of pedestrians and cyclists in hopes of shaving a few seconds off our morning commutes. The streets produced in service of this futile pursuit can dissuade even the most adventuresome bicycle explorer. That's unfortunate. But the real tragedy is that many people must ride and walk these streets and the results can be deadly. While those responsible for creating these roadways will probably never walk or ride a bike on them, the fact is that people have no choice but to do so.
Still, people are making the choice to ride or walk in increasing numbers and they are searching for solutions. Stilgoe suggests that when we explore our surroundings by bike or foot, we may be able to "see great cultural and social and economic and political patterns unnoticed by journalists and other experts."
We see how a safe route to Tybee Island would transform the concept of a day at the beach for many Savannahians and attract cycle tourists from around the world (While also alleviating Tybee's notorious summertime parking crunch).
We know that completion of the long overdue Truman Greenway will be a blessing to residents who will use it for weekday trips to the store or work, or leisurely weekend rides or walks to socialize with family and friends.
We realize that even a minor tweak, such as a thoughtfully placed bicycle cut-through, can link neighborhoods to more destinations and help cyclists avoid unfriendly roads.
We understand that small changes can yield real results and that in aggregate they help us create a community in which people of all ages and abilities have the freedom to go by bike.
We become aware of the desirable shifts in cultural, social, political and economic patterns that become possible when we expand our transportation options.
So get out there and explore this summer. Look for the patterns and imagine the possibilities. Then share what you see. Talk to your neighbors and elected officials about what could be.
Even if you don't experience a major revelation on your first exploratory bike ride, you won't be disappointed. Simply riding a bike on a summer evening has its own rewards. The sensation of catching a cool breeze while riding your bike is far superior to the feeling of cold air blasting from a floor vent. And if you're diligent about exploring you may encounter one of the great pleasures of summertime cycling: an improperly aimed lawn sprinkler spraying into the street. Feel free to turn around and ride through it again.
John is executive director of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign.
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