I recently bought a Strida collapsible bike and finally made my very overdue entry into the world of urban cycling. My apartment building’s unfortunate lack of bike-locking space made it impossible for me to buy a bike of the non-folding variety, hence the Strida — a British bike designed with the urban commuter in mind. It looks very snazzy but you won’t see me off-roading on these tiny wheels any time soon.
While bicycling has been a growing trend in cities around the world for years now, I hadn’t really paid close attention to just how rapidly it was taking over our car-centric culture until recently, when two bike shops opened in my neighborhood just months apart. There was Brooklyn Bike & Board‘s opening at the end of last year followed by Bespoke Bicycles around the corner from me in May. Both shops are literally crawling with bikers on weekends with people of all ages looking to fix up old bikes, buy parts and get free air for their tires. Given that NYC boasts more bike lanes than any other city in America (with a reported four times more lanes in the works thanks to Bloomberg), it’s not surprising to see why so many people are taking up cycling as their preferred method of transportation. What is surprising though is how popular it is in American cities that don’t necessarily have hundreds of miles worth of bike lanes.
Take Grand Rapids, for example, which my colleague Susan and I recently had the pleasure of exploring. GR is definitely still a very car-centric city. To give you an anecdotal sense of this: the bellhop at our hotel told us it would take about 15 min to walk to a local coffee shop, which in actuality took less than 3 min. And yet even in this very auto-focused Michigan city, the bicycling movement was going strong. We met with Daniel Koert, a young entrepreneur who very recently opened Commute GR Bike Shop on downtown GR’s Division Ave. He’d been open for about two weeks when we talked to him, and seemed optimistic about the spread of biking culture in his city. Every Wednesday night he organizes a group ride that has been growing in popularity, and he told us that he thought more and more young people were choosing not to have cars — quite a big thing to give up in a city without much in the way of public transportation.
It’s exciting to see that 17 years since the first Critical Mass event in San Francisco, cycling as a viable alternative to driving has taken hold of American cities in this way. While the recent collapse of the American auto industry has been a very sad story to follow with regard to laid-off auto workers, the silver lining is that more and more people are going green by giving up their multiple cars and coming back to cities after decades of suburban sprawl. It marks a dramatic turning point for the revitalization of many American cities.