Monday, May 17, 2010

Biking for Life

[A piece honed from this post is published on The Rag Blog, and on Common Dreams, May 22,2010]

May is National Bike Month, highlighted by National Bike to Work week, which begins today and culminates on Friday, May 21, National Bike to Work Day. According to the League of American Bicyclists, the first Bike to Work Day took place in 1956!

Reading more about the history of this event on the League's website, I learned that this bicycle advocacy group was founded in 1880 and was originally called, "League of American Wheelmen." The reason for organizing around bicycling was because then, as now, bicyclists were often marginalized by other road users -- even pedestrians. And, in 1880, roads were rutted and difficult for bicyclists to navigate, so the group pressed for the paving of roadways. According to the organizational history described on its website, "The success of the League in its first advocacy efforts ultimately led to our national highway system."

Whoa. Didn't the dominance of our highway system ultimately lead back to the marginalization of alternative transportation systems, including bicycling? And yet, it's true: most cyclists rely on smooth, paved roads if they are regular commuters.

Figuring out how to share our paths of transportation will likely always vex us. Austin's new communter rail crosses many roadways, slowing traffic, including buses trying to move other public transportation users to their destinations on time. Concerns about the rail line and its long delay in start date centered around safety issues at all its road intersections. Despite the intensive focus on safety, accidents are still possible. And, when cars and bicyles must share space, accidents are inevitable.

When my father was a boy growing up as a work hand on his parents' dairy farm, his first real accident happened off the farm on a dirt road nearby as he was riding his bike to school. A driver of a Model-A Ford accidentally clipped him and knocked him and his bike to the ground. Fortunately, he was not badly hurt, but both he and the driver were shaken. Had the road been paved, would that have prevented or worsened the accident? Without a bike lane, the driver likely would have been traveling at a greater speed, and the possibility of a more serious injury would have increased.

Keeping bicyclists and drivers separated by bike lanes became a key goal of bicycle advocates, but I wonder whether bike lanes were discussed back in 1880. If, beginning then, bike lanes had been consistently included in every road project as roads were paved and widened, how different things would be now. The US might look a lot more like Holland, with a large biking population riding on dedicated pathways. Surely, the US would have been far less reliant on oil and gas. Offshore rigs might have been completely unheard of.

Speaking of my dad, he has a bike history that is quite rare, I think. Despite his early bike accident, he became a regular rider as an adult soon after he began his teaching career at a small college in Wisconsin in 1958. My dad bought a used Schwinn 3-speed from a student, and he has ridden that bicycle to and from the college and around town to do errands ever since. He is now 82 and continues to use the bike for his local business whenever weather allows.

When I visited my parents last month, I asked my dad more about the bike, as we figured it was about the 50th year of their rather remarkable long-term relationship! He said he'd replaced the tires a few times, the brake pads maybe once and the pedals once. But, the simple gear system was original -- he'd just kept it oiled. Yes, the frame is rusty, but that probably has helped keep the bike from looking attractive to a thief. My Dad has never used a bike lock. Even parked along a busy road near his office almost every work day during his 35 years of teaching, the bike remained untethered and unstolen.

When I read about Schwinn on wikipedia, I learned that my dad's black and white cruiser was probably manufactured at the company's original plant in Chicago sometime in the 1950's. According to its wikipedia history, Schwinn was founded in Chicago in 1895 and reached its peak of production around 1900, when 30 factories in the city were busy producing bikes for eager commuters. Just 5 years later, however, production had dropped by 25% as the auto industry gained momentum.

Schwinn held on to its brand, but the company had its ups and downs and finally was bought by larger businesses. Manufacturing was moved to Mississippi and later outsourced to China and Taiwan. Schwinn is now owned by a Canadian company.

I suppose that, if every bike customer rode the same bicycle for 50 years, the bicycle company would not long survive. On the other hand -- think of the great environmental savings if many people could transport themselves with one zero-emission product for a lifetime...

I'm proud of my dad for his consistent and distinguished bicycling history! I am sure that pedaling up and down hills on his trusty steed is partly what has preserved his good health. And, he has helped preserve the planet at the same time. Ride on, dad, and Happy Bike Half-century!

Photo: my dad, Glenn Van Haitsma, on his Schwinn, April 2010

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