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Bicycle Nation

by Jay Walljasper - August 18, 2008

There's a battle raging in the streets of America.

Anyone who regularly rides a bicycle knows all about this. Some motorists have declared war on bikes as pesky nuisances that slow traffic. They honk, shout or curse at two-wheeled travelers. A few will do even worse.

The New York Times reports that incidents of aggression toward bicycle riders appear to be growing this summer, as bike riders take to the streets in order to save gas and money and fight global warming.

In Denver, nearly 11,000 first-time bike commuters turned out for Bike to Work Day in June. The bicycle, public transport, and pedestrian advocacy group Transportation Alternatives estimates that the number of New Yorkers who cycle daily has risen 77 percent since 2000.

Clearly, it's a new era on the streets. Automobiles have claimed supremacy on the American road ever since they muscled bicycles, horse carriages, streetcars and pedestrians out of the way during the early 20th century.

Even though virtually every state grants bicyclists the same rights (and responsibilities) as motorists to use the streets, many drivers still refuse to accept this. They view themselves as Kings of the Road--an impression that has been strongly reinforced by the transportation planning profession, which has designed our cities and suburbs as if people did not exist outside of their cars.

But a big new idea to settle this conflict and improve life in the streets for everyone is now taking root among community activists, urban planners and traffic engineers.

"Too many of our streets are designed only for speeding cars, or worse, creeping traffic jams. They're unsafe for people on foot or bike--and unpleasant for everybody. Now, in communities across the country, a movement is growing to complete the streets. States, cities and towns are asking their planners, engineers and designers to build road networks that welcome all citizens," declares the website of a new organization promoting this idea, Complete the Streets.

Complete the Streets--an ambitious program of adding bike lanes, pedestrian amenities and traffic calming measures--is the best idea to hit our communities since pizza, or even the bicycle itself.

And I think we'll eventually see a ceasefire in the battle between two-wheelers and four-wheelers, based on my own long experience as a bike commuter.

My home of Minneapolis is one of the biking capitals of America, ranking behind only greener-than-green Portland in the percentage of people who commute to work on bicycles in a big city. But it hasn't always been that way.

When I moved here many years ago, I was shocked at the flagrant hostility directed toward me whenever I dared pedal my bike down the street. Drivers would suddenly swerve in my direction, and then laugh as they nearly knocked me onto the ground. I remember being in a perpetual state of fear--and rage--whenever I mounted my bike.

I am now happy to report that most Minneapolis drivers have undergone a transformation. Nine times out of ten when I approach an intersection where a car has already stopped, they wave me on.

As the amount of bikes on Minneapolis streets has grown, people have become much more comfortable sharing the road with two-wheelers. Indeed, I get the impression that most motorists now envy rather then resent me, and can't wait to get home where they can hop on their own bikes.

This will happen everywhere as more and more Americans discover biking as a great way to get around, save money, lose weight, protect the planet and have fun.