Cycling city?Bicyclists disagree on whether Columbus’s first Bike to Work Week will have a lasting impact
by RICHARD ADES / May 8, 2008
Out to change people’s lifestyles: Cyclists Jeff Stephens, Matt Young, Meredith Joy and Austin Kocher (from left) are helping to organize Bike to Work Week, which kicks off Monday morning on the lawn of the Ohio Statehouse
Just what will it take to turn Columbus into a real cycling town?
A flat, easily ridable terrain? It’s got it.
Bike racks on buses for trips that can’t be completed on two wheels? It’s got them.
Gas prices in the $4 range? It’ll have them soon enough.
The city also is promising more bike lanes, more bike trails and even Downtown shower facilities as part of its Bicentennial Bikeways Plan.
But all it really takes to turn Columbus into a cycling town, some bike advocates say, is more cyclists. And—oh, yes—drivers who know how to share the road with those cyclists.
Others say it’s unrealistic to think a city as spread out as Columbus will ever become as much of a cycling town as, say, Portland, Ore.
Unrealistic or not, city officials and biking fans will encourage residents to clean the cobwebs off their Schwinns and Fujis next week when Columbus holds its first ever Bike to Work Week. Mayor Mike Coleman himself will take part in a kickoff rally planned for Monday morning on the lawn of the Ohio Statehouse.
Other events include a bike tour, a lecture on how to ride safely and legally, and a two-wheeled pub crawl—during which, for the sake of safety and legality, participants will be urged to postpone their drinking until the final stop.
The week’s chief organizer is Austin Kocher, a 26-year-old Ohio State student who’s president of a campus group called Bike OSU. Kocher said Columbus could become a cycling town even though its size presents a major hurdle.
“It is spread out,” Kocher acknowledged. But he said people can overcome that drawback if they’re willing to change their lifestyles.
“If shopping for us means driving 20 miles to a mall and then another 15 miles to another mall to compare prices,” Kocher said, “we’re never going to be that city.”
On the other hand, Columbus has “fantastic neighborhoods with a lot of diversity,” he said, mentioning German Village, Victorian Village and Clintonville, among others. Columbus can become a bike town if people start scaling their lives back to the neighborhood level rather than the citywide level, Kocher said.
“And that’s what you see in cities that are really bike-friendly. When you think of Portland or Toronto or Quebec or even New York City, all of those cities have scaled themselves down to the sort of really fascinating neighborhoods.”
Bike-friendly cities have another advantage that Columbus doesn’t have, said Meredith Joy, co-founder of a bike-advocacy website called considerbiking.org. Namely, they have drivers who know how to behave around two-wheelers.
“I mean, I’ve biked in Chicago, and there’s a difference,” Joy said. “It’s just a different feeling in terms of simple things like, you know, cars waiting for you at the red lights and giving you a little bit of space and going more cautiously.”
One possible antidote to dangerous drivers is the creation of more bike lanes. But Joy said cyclists are mixed on whether using them is actually safer than using regular traffic lanes. Perhaps their biggest advantage is that they may encourage more cyclists to ride, she said, which will force motorists to slow down and drive more thoughtfully.
“Like, really, truly, the only way to calm traffic is to get more cyclists on the road,” she said.
One cyclist who doesn’t believe in bike lanes is Casey Bellman. And he believes even less in bike trails, especially in a big, conventionally laid-out city like Columbus.
“I mean, all the roads in this town go straight. So why would you go roundabout to get on the bike trail and go roundabout to get off of it if you’re already going too far as it is on a bike?” he said.
Bellman said cyclists can maximize their safety even on regular streets by riding consistently and confidently so that drivers know how much room to give them. He also suggested posting reminders that bicycles have just as much right to the road as cars do.
“You could put a sign every half-mile on High Street that has a car next to a bicycle—with a slash by it—that lets car drivers know that the roads are meant for cars and bikes and motorcycles,” he said.
As for the argument that bike lanes encourage more cyclists to use the roads, Bellman expressed doubt that many more cyclists will ever be seen on Columbus streets.
“It’s never going to be more convenient to bike from Hilliard to Downtown than it is to drive your car,” Bellman said. Not only is the distance a barrier, he said, but parking is cheaper and easier to find here than it is in many other cities.
“See, the reason why bikes are prevalent in cities like Chicago and New York and San Francisco is because it’s convenient cost-wise,” he said.
A committed cyclist himself, Bellman said he’s happy when he runs into people who have taken steps—such as moving closer to work—that make it easier for them to rely on bikes for transportation.
“So it makes me optimistic,” he said. “But I know the constraints of the city.”
Despite those constraints, Kocher is hopeful that more and more Central Ohioans will begin relying on two-wheeled transportation. After all, he did it himself, and not that long ago.
“The real turning point for me was last spring,” he said. “I had a little Volkswagen Jetta at the time. It was a great, zippy little car, but it kept breaking down.”
At $1,000 or so a pop, those repairs started becoming a serious expense for a college student. So, even though he was serving an internship with a company in Hilliard—one that forced him to make a 15-mile round trip five days a week—he eventually decided to scrap the car and rely on his bike.
“And I just haven’t gone back. I just haven’t found any reason.”
Regardless of whether Bike to Work Week convinces others to make similarly life-changing decisions, at least it will give them opportunities to meet other cyclists and to get some exercise in the process. In addition, said Joy, it will include a “Bike+Art=Show” where they can ogle decorated bicycles and shop for accessories for their own two-wheeler.
“It will be a really fun, festive sort of atmosphere,” said Joy, who is organizing the art show.
She didn’t add that there might be an ulterior motive behind the event: Once people have accessorized their bikes, maybe they’ll be inspired to take them out of the garage a little more often.
People, not Speed.