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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I ride for... a better world.

Today I participated in a memorial ride for Sylvia Bingham, the cyclist killed last week here in Cleveland. It was at the same time an incredibly heart-warming event as well as an incredibly heart-wrenching event.

Imagine 150 cyclists all wearing white riding in silence behind a police escort. Imagine 150 people placing beautiful flowers next to a ghost bike. Imagine 150 people joining in song in front of Hard Hatted Women, the agency where Sylvia worked.

Tell me that is not something powerful to see. There was hardly a dry eye today.

Let me remind you that this took place in Cleveland. I haven't really had much a chance to really bike around other cities, but from my own experience, the culture here doesn't really support cyclists. Given the rash of cyclist deaths, accidents, crashes, and near-misses in the past few weeks here in Northeast Ohio, it's enough to give one pause. Maybe it is some freak coincidence, but it very much unnerves me. Especially since I've had a few near-misses myself. Is there something about NEO recently that actively discourages cycling and makes it dangerous?

Aside from this steak of cycling accidents recently, I've had some less than positive interactions with non-cylists about cycling lately. Especially tonight. Miss JF and I were biking back from the west side (we helped run a community meeting) and were harassed by some teenagers in, of all things, a soccer mom van. Later, when Miss JF and I boarded the train with our bikes to take us back to our apartment building (we're neighbors!), we were appalled when the train driver delayed the train and called in four transit cops solely to kick another guy with his bike off the train. We weren't in the least bit making a scene, but apparently there is a two bike limit on RTA trains in Cleveland. I have a bunch of issues with this rule, the least of which is that is not posted anywhere. Okay, fine, have a stupid rule, but don't expect compliance unless people actually know about it. If you want to be instantly nauseated, read some of the comments on the Plain Dealer article about Sylvia's death. It's so disheartening to experience a culture actively trying to discourage me from cycling.

That being said, the cyclists themselves to me so far have come across as really great people. Yeah, I see people salmoning and riding at night without lights and messengers cutting through traffic without helmets on, but for the most part, the cyclists I've interacted with have been really great. Today, for example, a complete stranger and his girlfriend stopped in the middle of their ride to help me change a flat tire. And the simple fact that 150 people came to ride in Sylvia's honor, even though I'm sure many, myself included, did not know her. This might be indicitive of cyclists in general but regardless, it means a lot especially here.

I do my best to promote and support cycling, especially cycling as transportation. Recreational and sport cycling is great, too. I think the culture here is pretty supportive of that. I see a slew of roadies out in the Chagrin River Valley when I bike there on weekends to get my fill of nature. People are pretty deferential to the cyclists out there, too. Cycling as transportation, on the other hand, is far less accepted here. I'm car-free in a city that doesn't support it. Bike facilities are few and far between and not well connected to each other. People yell nasty things out their car windows at me. I navigate potholes and broken glass daily. Near-misses unfortunately are a part of my life, no matter how many rules I follow (or don't follow). I often am the only cyclist I see in any given stretch of road.

Sylvia wanted to make shirts that said "I ride for ___" and people could write in what they rode for. Today I rode for Sylvia. But tomorrow and from here on out, I'm riding for a better world. The one Sylvia envisioned, so I am told. I see cycling as freedom, as sustainability, and as an income-independent mode of transportation. I did not choose to be car-free, but I have unexpectedly ended up a major proponent. I'm not saying I'm never going to own a car, I'm saying I think people shouldn't knock this whole living sans-automobile thing. At the very least, they should respect it as a choice for others, and make it easier for those who don't even have that choice.

Utility cycling isn't just for the well-to-do with expensive bikes, it's a tool for poverty, too. Being unable to afford a car, and often not sure whether I'll be able to make ends meet at the end of the month, I can understand a little how important cycling can be to people of all incomes. Watch this video from Streetfilms profiling a bike parking facility outside of Sao Paulo. Aside from the mind boggling number of bikes, pay attention to the social, legal, and bike education component. Every once in a while something knocks you on your ass with its genius. It's not aimed at middle-class, bike-to-your-white-collar-office-job cyclists, like I feel is the case in what little bike planning Cleveland really does. This is for everyone. Cleveland has a lot of poverty. Anyone else making this connection?

Cleveland, you have a great opportunity to be world class here. You want to be a city of choice? Well I chose to bike. I'm not the only one. You want to attract the creative class? Well they like to bike. Make it easier for them. You want to be sustainable? Promote cycling as a mode of transportation. You want to be a green city on a blue lake? It won't be that until it's bike-friendly. You want people to like me to stay after I graduate? Put in the infrastructure for me to live without a car. You want to do something about poverty? Give them (us) a way to get to work safely and quickly on bike. You want to have a depressingly inadequate and grossly overpriced public transit system? Fine. Let us get around by bike instead.

Biking as transportation isn't for everyone. I know that. But it is for a lot of people. And so I will ride for a better world, one where cycling is used at its fullest potential to do good in this world.


  1. Did you go to the Ride for Miles Coburn last week? They had about 500 riders turn out.

    Opinion in Cleveland has for too long been dominated by the closed-mindedness of those in the suburbs. The idea that nobody would ever want to live, work, or visit downtown is still unfortunately strong as is the idea that there is any value in bicycling.

    These opinions are perpetuated using evidence like... "if population in Cleveland keeps shrinking, that must mean no one wants to live there!" or "if so few people are riding bikes, that must mean nobody wants to do it!" The reality is that the people who want to live in a vibrant city or bike everywhere aren't just throwing in the towel and endorsing the suburban lifestyle - they're going to another, more open-minded city. I have another year of grad school in Cleveland, after that, I will probably never come back - and that's fine if it's what the great people of Cleveland+ want.

  2. I rode yesterday for Sylvia, and it was simultaneously uplifting (in terms of how many folks came to be a witness to her) and infuriating (in terms to seeing where she was killed, how wide that curb lane is, and how easy it is to see everything around you at that particular intersection).

    Some thoughts:
    - I ride from Tremont to Downtown as often as I can, schedule permitting, and do not encounter the grief that my friends who commute from the suburbs do. I used to attribute that to the relatively short commute that I have and the fewer opportunities for negative interactions, but I now believe that it is because so many more folks do bicycle in the City, and so drivers have become accustomed to cyclists. Friends who ride from other dense parts of Cleveland seem to experience the same things.

    - It is difficult to increase the breadth of bicycle facilities in Cleveland due to several things: ODOT's recalcitrance, the sheer amount of auto infrastructure built in the 50s which is needs repair (and which saps funds from other uses), and the lack of connection between the urban cyclists and the weekend warriors. But, much is being done. The fact that every bus and train accommodates bikes is a very big thing. Lanes continue to be striped and roads continue to sprout "Share the Road" signs. Certainly the pace is not as rapid as I would like, but it is happening.

    - Culture change is slow, but you are a part of it. One of the brilliant things about Cleveland that we all forget is that it is extremely easy for a young person (like you all, like Sylvia) to step into leadership of some sort and make a difference. Really.

    Hang in there.

  3. I was thinking about this last night (maybe one reason I couldn't sleep at all!) and I don't understand how the train driver claimed it was a rule without any written proof. Sure he said it was a rule but did he pull out a book or anything? Or am I missing something here?

  4. Sadly there is a two bike rule on the rapid. It's a stupid rule and one that I'm sure has long been on the books and just needs to be changed. The rule is posted on the trains at least the ones I have rode.
    Bike culture in Cleveland is there and it's thriving in many ways. The fact that many people are now looking towards biking is a huge oppertunity for cleveland. It's up to the city to make it into a biking Mecca. I think more awareness would be the first step for saftey. There are many towpath routes around Cleveland that are very nice but maybe not to
    well known. All bike shops should be promoting and generating interest in biking through classes and routes. It's I'm everyone best interest.
    Ride on
    and I ride for everyone who says I should have a car

  5. I fear the day when a bus or rapid trains pulls up and there are already two bikes on-board. In the many months I've been taking my bike with me on RTA, this has yet to happen (knock on wood).

    As an east-sider, I think my ride downtown is really very easy, with two exceptions. Cedar Hill is (in my opinion) very trick to maneuver in both directions. I can understand why new riders would be afraid of it. The only other option is MLK/Fairhill, which I think is worse. Also, the clusterF intersection where Cedar, MLK, and Carnegie all come together was obviously engineered to accomodate a huge capacity of cars and little capacity of anyone else.

    If those two spots can be fixed, I think the connection between downtown, university circle, and the heights would be exponentially improved.

  6. I do not have a bike, largely because I don't think the expense is worth it since Atlanta is also not particularly bicycle friendly. If it were, I would certainly have one.

    But I did borrow a friend's bike one time to participate in Critical Mass, and it was one of the most amazing experiences I've been a part of. Probably about 500 bikers got together and took over roads and rode around Atlanta to promote bicycling as a viable means of transportation. Although what we were doing might have been slightly illegal (we held up traffic and blocked roads) it was really inspiring to see everyone come together like that. And the cyclists were all so friendly, calling out and wishing everyone "Happy Friday!" It was really cool to glimpse into that world, even if it was only a day.

    You should consider setting up a critical mass in Cleveland. I don't know what it takes, but it can't be hard; it's nothing formal, no one is "in charge" a meeting place is posted online and people meet there and ride. There are no preplanned routes or leaders and it's all done a beginners pace (I can barely ride a bike and although I was exhausted by the end, I was able to keep up).

  7. Scratch that, according the the Critical Mass Wiki, there already is a Critical Mass in Cleveland.

  8. @ Cleveland Cyclist-
    Sadly did not find out about the Ride for Miles until the day of after the event had already started. Maybe Cleveland needs a comprehensive bike events calendar. And agreed about the suburban sentiments!

    @ Christopher-
    I was also appalled to see where Sylvia was killed. You are right about it being wide and visible there. Totally agreed about ODOT as well. I've interned in the transportation field here and have been frustrated with ODOT! As to the increasing bike infrastructure, I guess I'm just a little impatient! :P

    @ Jon-
    What a great reason to ride. Stick it to 'em!

    @ Rob-
    I once crossed that Cedar/MLK/Euclid intersection once from the bus circle over to the Case quad and I'm suprised I'm alive. What a terrible intersection. It's impossible on bike, dangerous on foot, and not even good for cars either. I also wish there was an easier way to get up what I call the Giant Hill of Doom.

    @ Hungry Grad-
    I will definitely look into going to the Critical Mass here. I'm a bit hesitant about the kinda renegade aspect to it, but the heck with that!