Amy Walker On Bicycles’ Interview

Amy Walker is the editor of the recently published On Bicycles: 50 Ways the New Bike Culture Can Change Your Life and is also co-founder of Momentum Magazine which focuses on transportation cycling and covers all aspects of urban bike culture throughout North America. We caught up with Amy to ask her a few questions about the importance of cycling in urban environments.

This book is about ways that bicycles can change people’s lives. Why do you think people’s lives need to change?

Many tribal human societies based their traditions around living in harmony with nature. The modern attitude assumes that humans have dominion over the elements and the plant, animal and mineral kingdoms. Since about the 1960s we’ve been scientifically measuring and understanding the negative impact that our industrial manufacturing, transportation, ways of using materials and ways of growing food have on the earth, air and water.

In 2006 the film An Inconvenient Truth made the issue of climate change a topic of discussion at dinner tables across mainstream America. With such clear and incontrovertible evidence that human activity is a threat to our own survival and to the wellbeing of all the diverse and amazing life forms with whom we share this planet, we have the choice to ignore the facts or to do whatever we can to reduce the environmental impact of our lives. We can do this by living more simply. Biking for transportation is one way to take a load off the environment – and have a lot of fun while doing it. Since people’s lives are always changing anyway, my interest is to shed light on a path for positive change that I have found to be effective and joyful.

If bicycling is so great, why isn’t everyone doing it already?

Everyone is not bicycling already because our cities and suburbs were designed around cars and favor automobile drivers so it’s not always possible or feasible to make bike trips to work, school, shopping, etc., given the distances between these destinations, the quality of the road space and surface, and the traffic patterns which currently exist.

Though many cities are bikeable, there is some planning and re-engineering which must occur to make our North American communities truly bikeable. Where this is being done, you’ll see the cycling population rising. Where it is not being done, you’ll see people forced to rely on automobiles for their transportation. In many cities, towns and suburbs there are not even safe ways to walk from home to a variety of destinations. The 20th century obsession with automobiles created suburban sprawl and rights of way that only accommodate cars. Cyclists need safe, continuous networks of bikeable roadway (shared with cars) bike lanes, or multi-use paths.

Another reason why everyone’s not already biking has to do with attitudes and perceptions rather than facts. People often don’t bike because they think it is dangerous though it is not. People think that biking is physically difficult and you need to be an athlete to bike to work (bicycling is the most efficient form of travel and many people who bike to work never even break a sweat!).

People perceive cyclists as unusual and this is true – cyclists are not the norm – but as more people start cycling for transportation, everyday biking is becoming more commonplace every year. This is a positive shift and a very important one: people are often reluctant to do something different but once they see their peers, friends and family members doing it, it feels a bit safer and easier for them to try it.

How has cycling changed your life?

Cycling has given me a way to stay fit that is fun and easy. Choosing to bike in a place where the majority of people drive has helped me to question many of the common assumptions and conventional ways of living in North America. By riding a bike every day I freed myself from owning a car and being connected to the problems associated with that: oil dependency, resource extraction, pollution, space issues, deaths and injuries from collisions etc.

Cycling has introduced me to some wonderful people who also question the world around them and celebrate it joyfully and meaningfully. My bike friends are the ones I want to build the future with. They are intelligent compassionate and responsible people who are also action heroes with great legs!

What is your advice to people who are just starting to bike?

Get a bike route map and find the most car-free routes possible to your usual destinations like work, school and shopping. Many people who switch to biking continue to take the same routes as they would in a car because of habit. Taking a designated bike route is often safer, more relaxed and fun.

Learn to lock your bike securely (lock the frame AND wheels) and get the best lock you can afford. There’s nothing more discouraging than having your bike stolen before you’ve even had the chance to really enjoy it.

Wear comfortable clothing or bring a change of clothes. Wear layers when the weather is colder.

Learn whether buses and commuter trains in your area carry bikes in case you get too tired to ride or want to only ride one way. Having support from public transit can make the decision to ride that much easier.

What clothes should I wear to bike?

While there is a lot of special gear designed for cycling, you don’t need to wear anything special to ride a bike. Most people in Europe and Asia ride bikes in their everyday clothes and you can too. There are a few things you can keep in mind to make your ride more convenient and comfortable, but don’t let a wardrobe crisis keep you from enjoying your bike. Keep loose, flowing, flapping clothing from getting caught in your bicycle’s moving parts.

You can also buy a bike with a full coverage chain guard or have one installed on your bike – you can wear whatever you like and you’ll never have to worry about your clothes getting caught in a greasy chain again.

Sports cyclists wear padded shorts (or chamois –pronounced “shammy”) but these are not necessary for recreational riding and most commuting. If you ride for over an hour you might want shorts with a chamois, but for anything under an hour your regular clothes will do. I tend to buy clothes that I know will work well on a bike. I choose stretchy or flared skirts that come down only to the knee, Capri pants or pants that have some stretch to them and are not too tight.

My bike is also in an upright position so that makes it possible for me to wear most street clothes comfortably. Riding bikes with a more aggressive riding position will stretch clothes and create gaps between jackets and pants.

What kind of bike is best for riding in the city?

The best kind of bike for riding anywhere is the one that you love. Some people ride what seem to be impractical or unsuitable bikes – yet they ride it faithfully every day because they love them – and why not? That being said, a practical choice for a city bike is one that is comfortable to ride. I recommend a bike that has an upright riding position because it puts less strain on the rider’s neck and back when shoulder checking in traffic. Also consider the bike’s weight: a lightweight frame will be easier to pedal up hills and easier to lift onto busses and bike racks. If your city has lots of hills, a bike with a wide range of gears will be better than a single or three-speed. In the city I prefer to ride a lightweight road bike with upright, backswept handlebars. Some would call this the “English Roadster” style. The reason I love it is that I get more efficient use of my leg power and I can still sit almost straight up and see everything around me.

What do we need to make bicycling possible for everyone?

•    We need to ensure that roadways, bike lanes or cycle paths are of an adequate size and design to accommodate bike riders from age 8 to 80.

•    We need to provide secure bicycle parking and storage space at destinations including our homes, workplaces, schools, shopping centers and entertainment areas.

•    We need to educate more people including new and experienced cyclists about how to ride safely on our roads and pathways and about their rights and responsibilities.

•    We need to educate drivers of private and commercial vehicles about the presence of cyclists on the roadway and how to safely navigate around them.

•    We need to encourage people to cycle more by creating a culture of respect and consideration toward cyclists and all road users.

Where is the best place to ride a bike?

If you are asking “where is the best place in the world to ride a bike?” I might think of Copenhagen, Amsterdam or Germany, or I might suggest that Portland has become a very nice place to ride a bike, or New York City.  But I also think it is wonderful to be able to ride a bike somewhere near our own homes. To open our door, hop on a bike and pedal down to the shops, the beach or to visit friends is convenient and pleasant. Among the qualities that make a place good for riding are the freedom from broken glass, uneven pavement, unpredictable movements of cars and pedestrians and car doors.

It is very pleasant to ride on a pathway that is well-designed and designated for cycling in a community which has respect for the cyclist. Another “best” place to ride your bike is where your curiosity leads you. Bikes allow for exploration. They are light, small and nimble so they can get through small spaces and they are fast and efficient so they allow us to cover a lot of ground. Bikes are also open-air theatres, so it is fabulous to ride a bike through fragrant, warm spaces where there are lots of trees, flowers and sunshine.

October 3, 2011