Tales from Bike Town

by Justin Short, Everyday Cyclist columnist

It was the Wild West, or rather it was Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I had been living in southern California for a couple of years when I went home to visit family. I hopped on my dad’s Auto Bike for a ride into town, a bike somehow worse than a department store BSO (bicycle shaped object) because it had an automatic drive train designed specifically to skip your feet off the pedals.

I had the devil-may-care attitude of a Santa Cruz bike messenger, and when I was riding down a hill with a ditch for a shoulder, I took the lane. This was standard procedure back in “Californy.” If you don’t feel safe, take the lane. In the 40 miles from dad’s farm into town I got passed by three dump trucks on downhill blind turns. They skidded to a stop in the middle of the road, drivers jumping out swinging.

Since then, Pittsburgh has become a BIKE TOWN. I don’t know what came first there, the bike infrastructure or the bike culture. In Portland, it was the culture. When I moved there in 1999, I encountered the most courteous drivers I’ve ever seen. All the while, the safe and useful infrastructure for cyclists began to blossom over the next dozen years.

It seemed the opposite in Denver. In 1995 there were bike super highways going everywhere. We would ride all day and see only a handful of people on bikes. Now the bike paths there are filled with riders, and you’ve got to be ready for crowd control to ride them.

What to say about Spokane? I believe it’s on the brink. Last year’s uptick in new and returning riders saw parks filled with whole families riding bikes, and our cycling community at large here is inviting and encouraging enough that we will likely retain some of those smiling faces, if the dearth of useful bike infrastructure doesn’t scare them off. With a little luck and a few thousand calls and emails of support to our elected officials in support of any positive developments for cyclists, Spokane could see better bike infrastructure and more riders out there in the near future.

Illustration of a mom biking with a child sitting behind her, arms outstretched and having fun.
Illustration by Justin Short

An example at the federal level, Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer, founder and co-chair of the Congressional Bike Caucus, has introduced a bill that would give up to $1,500 in tax credits to anyone buying an electric bicycle. The bill, known as the Electric Bicycle Incentive Kickstart for the Environment or E-BIKE Act, would provide a tax credit of 30% of the cost of an e-bike (up to $8,000). The idea here is that e-bikes help make bike commuting more attainable for more people, and a substantial tax credit will encourage more people to purchase an e-bike and start driving less and riding more.

Boosting our numbers of utilitarian riders can only help drive the necessity of expanding the bike infrastructure we have here. I got sloshed by a wall of slush on a recent morning’s commute down a snow-packed Broadway through “trucker town,” a stretch of road that is terrifying to ride in the dead of summer. There are a handful of riders in town who won’t be deterred by that sort of thing, but we won’t retain any new riders who have to commute through places like that.

Just maybe, though, parents riding to work or to Trader Joe’s for groceries without a safe route will recognize that their own children don’t have safe routes to walk or bike to school either. Call your own or other influential representatives to push for support of Blumenauer’s bill. The Inland Northwest deserves more smiling faces with bugs in their teeth. Let’s give them safe places to ride, wherever they’re going.

Justin M. Short is a trucker and bike commuter. You may see him out there turning pedals in the winter’s snow and muck of spring as he prepares for the Cross-Washington Mountain Bike Race in May.

[Feature illustration by Justin Short.]

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