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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fight Terrorism, Ride a Bike!

It's been a bit over two years since I have driven an automobile. I rarely even ride in a car. About 99% of my personal transportation is effected on my bicycle—one of the greatest inventions in human history (although under-utilized in many societies). The personal automobile certainly has a place in modern transportation models but to base our entire scheme on cars seems completely insane. Even if we could make cars that run on air, we would still be strapped with all of the other massive failings of the automobile such as the high cost of building roads, safety issues, and parking, to name only three. Airplanes are another highly flawed means of transportation but they are still the best means to travel great distances. America almost completely gave up on trains many years ago and it may be too late to create the infrastructure necessary for this to be a major player in the country's future. But the cheapest, safest, and easiest solution for many of society’s transportation demands is still the bicycle.

Just about the entire infrastructure necessary to include bicycles in urban transportation models is already in place. Sometimes the only thing required to make a bike line is a line of paint in the street. If a city wishes to be a bit more aggressive in incorporating the use of bikes, they could remove an automobile lane or on-street parking and hand this over to cyclists. If cities are looking to go way overboard on the inclusion of bikes, they can look to Amsterdam as their model. Starting in 1992 Amsterdam has been working to minimize car traffic in its historic center. Over the years the city has drastically reduced parking in the center while continually widening bike lanes and sidewalks. This certainly makes sense when you consider that the historic center of Amsterdam was designed before cars were around.

Valencia has to rate somewhere near the top of the list for bike-friendly cities—at least as far as I am concerned. For its population, Valencia is very small in area, at least compared to an American city of the same size. You can bike from one end of Valencia to the other in about a half an hour—I doubt there are many American cities where you could make that claim driving. The network of bike paths in and around Valencia is a dream come true for cyclists. The fine weather here also helps to encourage cycling. Another advantage for cycling in Valencia is that the city is very flat. In Eduardo Mendoza's hilarious farce, Sin Noticias de Gurb, the space alien visiting the very hilly Barcelona proposes a bike exchange program where citizens of that city can grab a bike at the top of the hill, coast down to the city's center, and then leave the bike. Trucks would then come along and drive the bikes back up the hill. People would have to make their own arrangements for getting back up the hill. As it turns out, Barcelona has a bicycle exchange program called Bicing and they do in fact find an inordinate amount of bikes at the bottom of the city and must transport them back to the top of the hill every day. I thought about the same thing in Seattle which has many heart-shatteringly steep hills. Valencia, as I said, is as flat as a tortilla (Mexican or Spanish versions both work for this simile).

There is almost nothing in the way of urban sprawl in Valencia; the apartment buildings of the city abruptly end where the agricultural fields begin. There are neighboring towns but they all look pretty much like Valencia: apartment buildings that are between four and six floors. I have never heard or seen any traffic reports here. Although Valencia doesn't have the nightmarish gridlock of American cities it has its own share of problems with the automobile. Traffic in the city itself is pretty much a nightmare, at least on weekdays. You won't run into huge delays. More than anything it is just annoying to drive around town. As I write this I look down on the street in front of the Ruzafa Market which, during working hours, is backed up for several blocks.

It amazes me that so many people here still choose to rely heavily on the automobile to get around day-to-day. I could understand this if it were all families choking up the streets in their cars, but most of the traffic is the same sort you see in just about every city in America: single drivers. I don't even take cabs in Valencia because the traffic is maddeningly slow. Once you arrive at your destination, parking is even more horrendous than the drive to get there. I can't see how driving in this environment can be any sort of convenience.

Automobiles in Valencia seem to be more of a status thing than a necessity. People drive because they have cars and can afford the gas. Public transportation is inexpensive and very efficient yet many people opt out of it and drive. I'm sure that many have practical reasons for making this decision but I am equally sure that many other people drive for reasons other than necessity. I would guess that a great majority of the people who now drive cars in Valencia could easily choose to ride the bus or bike to their destinations. I am surprised that the city hasn't made a greater effort to convince these people to make the change. Instead, Valencia keeps building wider roads on the outer ends of the city and erecting public parking garages at different points around town, all with the purpose of encouraging automobile traffic. It seems this money would be better spent on mass transit projects.

It's remarkable the degree to which societies subsidize the automobile while practically ignoring other means of transportation. In the United States people scream bloody murder when public money goes to fund mass transportation projects like Amtrak (America's passenger rail system) but nothing is said when tax dollars pay for airports and the incredible infrastructure necessary for automobiles. Even a city that is purported to be as “bike friendly” as Seattle seems to only grudgingly add bike lanes to the urban transportation model—and in Seattle this usually means merely slapping down a line of paint in the street to designate the bike lane (which works rather well, I might add).

What I can't understand about bike transportation is why it isn't more popular. Why aren't as many people riding bikes in Seattle or Valencia as in Amsterdam? How can we get more people out of their cars and on bikes? I have an idea, try asking. I have seen a couple of posters around Valencia on the metro routes encouraging citizens to ride bikes but I think the movement needs a little more of a push. How about a few television commercials of attractive people choosing to ride their bikes instead of dealing with the hassles inherent in automobiles?

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