Jeff Mapes has good timing. When the veteran Oregonian political reporter began researching his new book on the resurgence of bicycles, he couldn’t have predicted that within months, gas prices would soar, a recession and mortgage crisis would mark the beginning of the end of suburban sprawl, or even that his hometown, America’s Bikevana, would suffer a rash of bike-car conflicts that made national news. All those developments and others, including the election of a government friendlier to transportation alternatives, thrust bicycling into national political debates. And Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities (Oregon State University Press, 288 pages, $19.95) arrives just in time to provide two critical elements in those discussions: facts and perspective.
The book opens with a brief, useful history of American biking that reveals that today’s conflicts are nothing new. “Bicycling, once largely seen as a simple pleasure from childhood, has become a political act,” Mapes writes, and his years of covering politics gives readers a solid grasp of the bike revolution’s political currents, not just in government but also in the often-fragmented bicycle advocacy movement.
From there, Mapes travels to New York, Seattle and other cities at the vanguard of the revolution, finding progress in even the unlikeliest places (L.A.?!) His colorful look at the new urban bike culture, from Critical Mass to the Naked Bike Ride, is balanced by examination of the more practical cultural developments fueling this latest bike boom. And he highlights the role of schools and education in extending the revolution. Mapes’ chapter on Portland will remind newcomers that, as with Euro bike capitals such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam, the relative ease of biking we take for granted here wasn’t ever thus.
Pedaling Revolution’s broad perspective is a cure for complacency even here. Mapes shows how progress has slowed even in the American pacesetters, Portland and Davis, Calif.; how far behind Europe’s livable cities we are; and as with healthcare policy, how much we can learn from them. In the engaging narrative of Mapes’ 2005 trip to bike-happy Amsterdam with PDX bike planners, you can see the experience opening his eyes to how much richer life can be when cities offer real choices for how to get around.
What’s most impressive is the sheer amount of good reporting that permeates the book, packed with numbers documenting trends in biking, driving, safety, spending. Mapes has doggedly perused dozens of studies and books and interviewed a wide range of sources. Pedaling Revolution is an essential handbook of facts to rebut the mis- (and dis-)information—more bikes means less safety! Bicyclers don’t pay their fair share of road costs!—purveyed by grandstanding politicians and right-wing talk-show hosts.
But Mapes is a journalist, not an academic, and he astutely weaves those facts into a tapestry of personal experiences and interviews. Mapes, who bikes to The Oregonian’s downtown newsroom from his Irvington home, acknowledges how riding gradually changed his outlook and even (in the context of a chapter on biking’s health benefits) his body.
Still, he maintains his journalistic balance, acknowledging the appeal and usefulness of cars while demonstrating how the reigning auto-centric perspective skews Americans’ perceptions. Mapes’ refusal to engage in prescription or rhetoric, both needed now that we have political leaders ready to implement transportation alternatives, may disappoint bike advocates. Then again, there’s plenty of rhetoric out there already; maybe an evenhanded, fact-stuffed, easily readable work of honest journalism is precisely what’s needed now for intelligent discussion of what’s becoming one of the most important urban issues of our time. .
READ: Jeff Mapes reads from Pedaling Revolution at Powell’s City of Books on Burnside, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. Thursday, March 19. 7:30 pm. Free.