What bicycles and light bulbs have in common

bicycle-parkingWhen you study the bicycle as a means of transportation, it’s apparent that at least two things are involved: the bicycle and the infrastructure that supports it (or doesn’t).

A favorite two-part analogy, certainly not original to me, is the light bulb. Edison and other technologists put a lot of work into making a dependable, reliable source of electric light. (One bulb in Livermore, California, is reported to have been turned off only a few times in its 100-year existence.) But Edison’s key contribution to turning night into day was establishing the early infrastructure (there’s that word again) to power lights in lower Manhattan.

Today, it’s so obvious, it goes without saying: no power station or power lines: no light.

The bicycle is a remarkable creation. But like the light bulb, the bicycle by itself is of limited use. It’s when you introduce a trail or a street that an interesting experiment becomes a solid transportation option.

In the 19th century, the League of American Wheelmen began the Good Roads movement to increase the usefulness of the bicycle. Today, where good infrastructure for bicycling exists, people ride bicycles. Where it doesn’t, bicycles are more rare.

Peoria’s streets and roads go everywhere you want to go. But their quality and design don’t necessarily encourage people to go by bicycle all that often. Should that prevent us from pedaling?

Peorian Daniel Waite is the first guest columnist on the Reader Area Development blog. He says, “The only way we are going to show motorists that we should also be on the road with them [is] we need to actually be ON THE ROAD with them.”

It’s a tautology of course. If you want to ride, you need to ride. Hard to argue against that. But it’s important to remember we’re all in this together.

Many people who drive cars also ride bicycles. And we all have to live somewhere. As a result, improving the bicycling environment isn’t so much about overcoming an us-versus-them situation as it is promoting and securing the real benefits of active transportation for all.

A recent Better Cities & Towns essay included this quote from the book Making Healthy Places: “The trouble is that in the last half century, we have effectively engineered physical activity out of our daily lives. Health is determined by planning, architecture, transportation, housing, energy, and other disciplines at least as much as it is by medical care. … The modern America of obesity, inactivity, depression, and loss of community has not ‘happened’ to us; rather we legislated, subsidized, and planned it.” (Better Cities & Towns)

That’s a key insight: Our imperfectly engineered world didn’t just happen. Our singular focus for too long has been on removing all impediments to the flow of traffic. And thanks to the Law of Unintended Consequences, we’ve done a dandy job of removing people on foot and bicycle, front yards, small businesses and entire neighborhoods.

Ultimately, we did it to ourselves.

If we want to change the bicycling environment for the better, and perhaps recover some semblance of community along the way, we have to change our focus. That means reinventing community leadership and engineering. It’s happening in places like Portland and Minneapolis, New York and Chicago.

Signs of life in the middle. In the recessionary 1980s, the saying was “Will the last person leaving Peoria please turn out the lights?” Well, the last person never quite left, but a lot of other people and small businesses did, replaced in turn by expanded city boundaries, longer, wider roads, big box stores and vacant properties.

However, the past is past: in recent years the city has gained a couple of museums, and a hotel is rising downtown. At the other end of town is a sea of new houses. These are things for the city council to crow over. Big things. Easy things.

houseWhat’s more interesting to me are the signs of life in the middle, like small business returning in the guise of art studios and coffee shops on Main Street. Or somebody fixing up a little house on a forgotten street.

Maybe it’s time to turn some of those smaller lights back on. To judge by Erik Reader’s house-rehabbing project, maybe someone is.

The only thing I know is it’s an easy bicycle ride from the riverfront.

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About 16incheswestofpeoria

Former bicycle mechanic, current peruser of books, feeder of birds.
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