Tony Desnick and I both write about and are ardent promoters of bicycles for daily transportation. Tony also works for bikeshare outfit Nice Ride and is part of a car-lite household. He rides a bicycle to work nearly every day, on even the most brutal and inhospitable days that MN can throw at him. Yes, Minnesotans are a hearty bunch (Note that this winter wimp of a writer is from Alabama).
Not surprisingly, our getting together is often premised on something having to do with bicycles (and desire for finding good cappuccinos). Our conversation though, always includes talk of cars. A lot of talk about cars. Not how bad they are but how great they are.
We are both car guys. We’ve worked on a lot of cars over the years and we’ve both raced (though my SCCA racing is piddly compared to his pro racing). I also raced motocross (Bultaco) and still enjoy occasional trail rides.
I’m writing this from a suburban coffee place where I arrived in my not-so-small SUV. I’d like to have a smaller car for when I don’t need the hauling capacity of the SUV but the economics haven’t yet worked out (though a Leaf or i3 may be in my future). For Garage Logic fans, I have a cylinder index of 35, soon to be 39 with the addition of a new fishing boat.
One thing I really enjoy about my frequent trips to Europe, besides eating, is that driving is much more pleasurable, in general (Italy and Belgium sometimes excepted) and there’s nothing like cruising down a motorway at 120mph. There’s also the drool element—cars that you rarely get to see in the U.S. Lot’s of them.
I’d guess that this is not the image most people have of someone who writes about our need for more and better and safer bicycle infrastructure and is a supporter of using cars less and our legs more.
I’m not unusual. There are certainly some folks who think that cars are bad and that we should get rid of them all. I’m obviously not one of those, nor are most of the people I know who promote better bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure. At a recent get together of about a dozen streets.mn folk, half had come by car.
Note: in case you haven’t guessed, streets.mn has no editorial position—discussions amongst writers are far from kum-by-yah moments though there is still a great deal of mutual respect. And this is also one of the great strengths of streets.mn. It’s not an echo chamber.
Cars are Good
I often ride my bicycle or bakfiets for local trips to a cafe, grocery store, or hardware store. Once a clerk at an auto parts place commented that it was too bad I had to ride my bicycle to get parts to fix my car. I told him my car was fine, the parts were for our ski boat (old Nautique w/ an 8 cylinder 343), and that riding was more enjoyable than driving. His reaction was priceless.
However, if the weather is really uninviting, I need extra cargo space, have a long way to go, or am crunched for time, my truck is my vehicle of choice. Let’s be real, most of us don’t want to spend much time outside when it’s -20f with a stiff breeze (Bill Lindeke, Julie Kosbab, and Tony Desnick excepted). A three block walk is quite doable and enjoyable, on even the coldest of mornings, but a three mile bicycle ride to the hardware store, and then back, ain’t gonna happen. For me anyway.
Today it was -4f when I left Shoreview for a meeting seven miles away in Roseville. While Shoreview has safe bicycle infrastructure, Roseville does not. I know people who would have ridden their bicycle today. Not me. Besides, my truck has heated seats, my bicycle does not.
On my bicycle I’m realistically good for about one mile in any temp, two miles if it’s over 10f, four miles above 20f, and almost any distance above 30f. Heavy snow can sway me to my car as can heavy rain.
Weather aside, I’ll almost always ride my bicycle for forays of five or so miles round-trip. Less often for longer journeys, though with good infrastructure, not-so-miserable weather, and time, I prefer riding.
The above is based on my office in Shoreview where I have relatively safe and segregated bicycle paths to numerous places I routinely go. From my home in Vadnais Heights, due to the lack of safe bicycling infrastructure, I don’t ride at all during the winter and am less likely on other days, even though destinations are closer.
To borrow a thought from Joe Soucheray, it’s simple garage logic—the right tool for the job. My preference for traveling to Duluth would be by train. Since that is not an option I’ll drive (and I’d prefer to be able to do so at about 90 to 110 mph). From Shoreview to downtown Minneapolis I’d prefer a rail option, but lacking that, time, and decent infrastructure, I’ll be driving.
My principles say that I’d like to ride my bicycle for nearly all of my transportation. Practical reality messes that up when my wife is healing from a broken hip and refuses the offer of extra pillows in the bakfiets (and besides, it doesn’t have heated seats).
We have to play the hand we’re dealt. For me that’s living somewhere that makes cars a bit more of a necessity, for many of us anyway, than I’d like (note that most families in The Netherlands do own and drive cars as well).
But I’ll keep pushing. And hopefully next year I and my neighbors will ride or walk a bit more and drive a bit less and over time we might make some progress. A mile here and a mile there and pretty soon we’re talking real transportation.
Can’t Have It Both Ways?
To hear some folks, it’s hypocritical for someone like me, who drives a car, to shout about our need for more and better bicycle and pedestrian ways. Fortunately these are few and far between. I will confess though to a bit of guilt for how many mornings I’ve driven 10 miles, past numerous Caribou’s, to enjoy a good cappuccino.
Europe is, for me anyway, car nirvana. Not only is it a better place to drive, it’s also much safer. For each mile you drive, you are about three times as likely to die on a U.S. roadway as on one in Europe.
Many people in the U.S. say you can’t have it both ways. Building safe and segregated bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure will cause great harm to drivers. It will take space and money away from them and slow them down.
Yet, Europe manages to be much better and safer and enjoyable for all three; driving, bicycling, and walking.
We can do better and I’m confident we will, one mile at a time.
Authors Note: I was surprised and a bit hurt by a couple of comments that implied I was bragging. That was not my intention. Minnesota is quite cold and snowy in the winter and owning a car or SUV is a priority for most people. Minnesota has 89 light cars or trucks per 100 people (well over one per adult) and has the second highest rate of SUV’s per capita. While heated seats might have been somewhat unusual 20 years ago, they are quite standard on cars sold in Minnesota today (and since this is my first vehicle with them I will heartily say worth every penny when it sits outside overnight in -30f temps). Minnesota has 10,000 or so lakes and the highest or second highest rate of boat ownership with between 35 and 50% of households owning a boat. In the end, we are a fairly average Minnesota family.
I was however, quite intentionally over the top a bit in writing this. The point is that those who support improved bicycle and pedestrian (and transit and rail) infrastructure are not limited to what is often termed the anti-car left. And that, I think, is a good thing and a base that we want to continue to broaden. These things are not mutually exclusive.
It’s good to hear from another urbanist who has a car-lover deep, or not-so-deep, inside. The way I’ve come to deal with it is the realization that cars *are* a bad thing in cities, and especially the suburban disaster they’ve wrought. Cars are a wonderful thing taken individually, as one of humanity’s better canvasses for art and engineering.
We do have a huge infrastructure built for cars, and they’re going to be around for a while, and during that time I hope people learn to use the right tool for the right job. Slowly we’re going to extracise them from cities, and eventually, hopefully, replace some of them with trains for regional travel. Until then, we should embrace electric cars and efficient cars when they can do the job.
Most people don’t truly love cars — after all, consider the highest-selling cars are never the ones appreciated by enthusiasts — and as they become less necessary, most people won’t miss them. And the real car dorks will actually play a cool role in preserving a bit of history, and using them for occasional fun, which is what they’re best for anyway.
You know you’re a car guy when the first thing in your head when you look at that picture of Tony is the deep throated guttural sound of that thing (the engine, not Tony) idling.
I was once lucky enough to get up near the starting line in Brainerd. Holy shit that’s loud.
Yep. I grew up going to Talladega for the 500 and other races. If you didn’t wear earplugs you’d be hurting and half deaf for several days.
I once biked to Elko Motor Speedway. I was the only one. They don’t have bike parking…
Probably going to bike to the car show tomorrow.
I don’t love cars. I love driving, but only when it’s fun. Commuting by car is not fun. Cruising the lakes on a beautiful day, or getting out on the open road, can be a lot of fun.
But I’ll walk to work for as long as I can, thank you very much.
Nothing wrong with cars. Cars are amazing tools. Especially for things other than commuting within a metropolitan area. If we didn’t spend so much money making everything a 20 minute drive from everything else (and then ending up with inevitable congestion anyways) the car experience for everything other than daily commuting would be vastly improved.
It’s fascinating to think about the unintended consequences and costs of our actions. Cars are great, they’ve made life easier and more enjoyable in many ways. And thanks to cars we get to sit in traffic, look at black snowy slush, and have to drive a long ways to get to many places we want to go. Oh the dichotomies 🙂
I’m a big reader of Jalopnik.com and they like to point out that it’s not car culture that’s a bad thing; it’s commuter culture. They’re huge gearheads (ideal Jalop car: a brown manual wagon) but also big proponents of public transportation. Why? Because if people use public transportation for commuting and their cars for other trips, they’re more likely to buy an awesome car instead of a beige appliance. And that’s why Yerp gets all the sweet cars and we get a single Toyota Camry in a dozen different flavors.
My car preferences are the same way: love to drive, hate to commute. I have a 6-speed VW GTI that is a blast to throw around curves and accelerate on straights. I’m going to have to trade it in eventually (my wife can’t drive a manual), but I’d love to get something like the new GTE (a plug-in hybrid GTI) that VW just introduced. Too bad it’s not coming to North America. Curse the boring suburbanites ruining the automobile selection for the rest of us!
I have not followed Jalopnik, but agree with their assessment of the problem being not so much cars, but commuter culture. I’d love to see us get to the point where our cars stay at home more days than they’re driven or where more families use car-share than own a car.
You hit on a good point about Europe. Not sure what role it plays, but it’s certainly a lot easier to afford a better car when you only have one per family and that one is not even driven that much. (BTW, I drove a 2004 Jetta for a few years. It was a non-turbo 4 but a fun and peppy car (when it wasn’t trudging through snow)).
Believe it or not, I like cars too. My one and only car was a mid 80’s BMW two-door with an inline 6 and a 5-speed manual transmission. Rear wheel drive. I loved the feeling of driving that thing around curvy roads in Western Massachusetts. That thing was great. If I ever got another car, I’d probably get something similarly impractical and fun.
The problem isn’t having cars. The problem is having to be in your car every day for hours, having to use your car to go everywhere all the time no matter what, having absolutely no alternative. That sucks.
You can have a car, America. Just don’t drive them more than a few times a week, please.
You are totally ruining my image of you.
Alternate title: “Affluent American Author Affords Frequent Trips to Europe, SUV Featuring Heated Seats, Fishing Boat, Multiple Imported Bicycles, including Bakfiets. P.S. Europe > USA”
I like the youtube, but Walker’s position is relatively normal in today’s America… Maybe most people haven’t been to Europe, but most households have multiple cars.
Actually, for the price of a monthly car payment you can get a decent bike…
Are affluent American authors who travel frequently to Europe to write about it, drive SUV’s with heated seats, plan to buy a fishing boat, have multiple imported bicycles (note that almost every bicycle from Wal-Mart to County Cycles is imported and those made in the U.S. are typically the most expensive you can buy), including a bakfiets, not supposed to write about our need for better pedestrian and bicycle facilities and fewer roads and cars?
I don’t think they’re not supposed to voice their needs for better ped/bike infrastructure…but I do think the article came off a little braggy. Like, look at me and my weird Dutch bike filling up gas for petroleum powered toys, freaking out all the normals at the gas station!
I agree with the aspects where Europe does things better (in general) than we do. Motoring in America was and is marketed as ultimate freedom. Watch any car ad, and it’s folks zipping along care-free on the open road. Perhaps that’s what motoring used to be like here, but I would venture to guess that 1% of all motoring trips in the US are for pleasure driving like that.
The ironic part of this is, the suburban experiment is much to blame for this. It takes FOREVER to get to any sort of “open road” when you try to escape the city, and by the time you’ve gotten there you’re completely fed up with highways, other drivers, gridlock, etc. In Europe, at least moreso than in America, the city is the city and the country is the country. You drive slowly on narrow streets in the city (if at all) and you zip fast in country. So, there’s a touch of humor in bemoaning how we’re not European enough from an outer-ring burb.
Thanks Clancy. Bragging was not my intention and hopefully I’ve clarified that a bit now in the end of the article.
You’ve nailed it with the country vs city thing, or at least highway/motorway vs surface streets. That is the key behind my St Paul: Ripe for Ruin post. What we have today is kind of pablum—little distinction between surface streets intended for basic access for all and motorways intended for faster motor vehicles only.
Absolutely. I commend your plight battling for bike facilities in Shoreview and I agree with your message. Particularly the notion that normal people can use bikes/walking in plain clothes for everyday errands, not just commuting.
Just realize there is a hint of irony when the advocate casually refers to a $2k+ cargo bike with one hand, while writing blog posts making poking fun at “lycra clad riders on $5,000 carbon bikes” with the other hand (http://localmile.org/?page_id=25). You can imagine yourself an every person Minnesotan, but leave the confines of Shoreview and you might be surprised.
I’m not sure I’m getting the irony (and maybe that’s ironic as well). I wasn’t poking fun at lycra clad riders (well, not more than very lightly), but making a distinction between the complicated, expensive, not-so-fashionable view that many people have of bicycling and what bicycling can be.
They don’t need the special clothing or complicated bike. They don’t need a bakfiets or other cargo bike. They don’t need a Dutch city bike (though if they can afford it I do recommend them). That said, Dutch city and cargo bikes are nice to have and I know of a few folks who have them and had to really pinch some pennies to afford it. If we want to see more people riding I think it’s critical that we help them understand all of their options.
Whatever I do or do not imagine myself, the issues are largely the same. The vast majority of people in Minnesota drive cars today and will continue to do so for decades to come. These same people, rich, poor, urban, suburban, rural, average, or even those above average in Lake Wobegon will likely not begin walking or riding a bicycle instead of driving until it is made more appealing and they have infrastructure to ride on that they feel safe riding on and that will take them to places they want to go.
I have to say that I’m torn between agreeing with Walker’s article and agreeing with Dave “Oh Good For You” P.
I have a car. I have groceries and kids and other cargo. I haven’t been on my bike since… late November? Sometimes I feel guilty about not bike commuting, and I work just off my living room! (I’m not quite ready for biking up and down my stairs.)
Walker, and I myself, speak from a position of (white,? evidently; middle-class? I’m guessing so) privilege, and I think it’s important to recognize that. For many people the problem is exactly what Bill Lindeke unintentionally says two comments above: “The problem is not having cars.” (Emphasis and change from “isn’t” to “is not” all mine.)
I wrote a post last Friday about bike commuting driven by economic necessity. I bet if you asked most of those “non-kitted-out” cyclists I’ve seen this winter if they’d rather have a car, they’d all say yes.
None of this invalidates Walker’s opinion or argument. However, it does beg the question of transportation equity and how “privileged” advocates of increased cycling (and other transit) infrastructure can ensure that their efforts address the needs of all the systems’ varied users.
I don’t have a lot of ideas beyond consciousness raising right now. If someone else does, I’d love to hear them.
The barriers to bike commuting are a lot smaller than the barriers to car commuting.
To your point and Rebecca’s. I think that on the surface the barriers are smaller. But in reality it gets more complicated. Regardless of income level, infrastructure is an issue, though I think, unfortunately, less of an issue for lower income folks who have no choice but to ride. Availability of rideable bicycles (typically used and in decent condition) seems to be a barrier as well.
Image is also a barrier. Many lower income folks don’t want to ride a bicycle because they fear that doing so will only call out their status. Many would rather walk, even when it’s several miles. This is where an increase in normal everyday people riding normal everyday bicycles on normal everyday physically segregated bicycle paths in normal everyday clothes will make bicycling an acceptable normal everyday mode of transportation.
“This is where an increase in normal everyday people riding normal everyday bicycles on normal everyday physically segregated bicycle paths in normal everyday clothes will make bicycling an acceptable normal everyday mode of transportation.”
…unless you have kids to drop off at daycare and school and bike commuting extends your trip time 3x or more. That’s a huge barrier, and one more frequently encountered by women.
Edit for broken linky: https://streets.mn/2014/03/07/when-can-you-ride-your-bike-up-a-ladder/
To be fair, I’m not a huge fan of winter cycling. When it’s -4F, I do enjoy cross-country skiing and snowshoe. (Note that -4F is right around the FIS limit for competitive ski competitions!) Neither is truly a transport method so much as it’s recreation.
I’ve done a lot of defense of the automobile, especially for women with children. The stories you hear about the mom with the 6-seater and etc. are edge cases. I don’t always have the option to choose to make my commute 3x longer, and it’s a challenge to bring $200 of Costco goodies home unless I use a cargo trailer (thereby not allowing me to cart a kid safely/reasonably).
I’ve always felt that using the edge cases as examples to “encourage” women is really tone deaf. I’ve heard it from both the edge cases (call it a case of mompetition/sanctimommy applied to cycling), and from dudes (STFU).