I ride for… a better world.

by hhf3

Today I participated in a memorial ride for Sylvia Bingham, the cyclist killed last week here in Cleveland. It was at the same time an incredibly heart-warming event as well as an incredibly heart-wrenching event.

Imagine 150 cyclists all wearing white riding in silence behind a police escort. Imagine 150 people placing beautiful flowers next to a ghost bike. Imagine 150 people joining in song in front of Hard Hatted Women, the agency where Sylvia worked.
Tell me that is not something powerful to see. There was hardly a dry eye today.
Let me remind you that this took place in Cleveland. I haven’t really had much a chance to really bike around other cities, but from my own experience, the culture here doesn’t really support cyclists. Given the rash of cyclist deaths, accidents, crashes, and near-misses in the past few weeks here in Northeast Ohio, it’s enough to give one pause. Maybe it is some freak coincidence, but it very much unnerves me. Especially since I’ve had a few near-misses myself. Is there something about NEO recently that actively discourages cycling and makes it dangerous?
Aside from this steak of cycling accidents recently, I’ve had some less than positive interactions with non-cylists about cycling lately. Especially tonight. Miss JF and I were biking back from the west side (we helped run a community meeting) and were harassed by some teenagers in, of all things, a soccer mom van. Later, when Miss JF and I boarded the train with our bikes to take us back to our apartment building (we’re neighbors!), we were appalled when the train driver delayed the train and called in four transit cops solely to kick another guy with his bike off the train. We weren’t in the least bit making a scene, but apparently there is a two bike limit on RTA trains in Cleveland. I have a bunch of issues with this rule, the least of which is that is not posted anywhere. Okay, fine, have a stupid rule, but don’t expect compliance unless people actually know about it. If you want to be instantly nauseated, read some of the comments on the Plain Dealer article about Sylvia’s death. It’s so disheartening to experience a culture actively trying to discourage me from cycling.
That being said, the cyclists themselves to me so far have come across as really great people. Yeah, I see people salmoning and riding at night without lights and messengers cutting through traffic without helmets on, but for the most part, the cyclists I’ve interacted with have been really great. Today, for example, a complete stranger and his girlfriend stopped in the middle of their ride to help me change a flat tire. And the simple fact that 150 people came to ride in Sylvia’s honor, even though I’m sure many, myself included, did not know her. This might be indicitive of cyclists in general but regardless, it means a lot especially here.
I do my best to promote and support cycling, especially cycling as transportation. Recreational and sport cycling is great, too. I think the culture here is pretty supportive of that. I see a slew of roadies out in the Chagrin River Valley when I bike there on weekends to get my fill of nature. People are pretty deferential to the cyclists out there, too. Cycling as transportation, on the other hand, is far less accepted here. I’m car-free in a city that doesn’t support it. Bike facilities are few and far between and not well connected to each other. People yell nasty things out their car windows at me. I navigate potholes and broken glass daily. Near-misses unfortunately are a part of my life, no matter how many rules I follow (or don’t follow). I often am the only cyclist I see in any given stretch of road.
Sylvia wanted to make shirts that said “I ride for ___” and people could write in what they rode for. Today I rode for Sylvia. But tomorrow and from here on out, I’m riding for a better world. The one Sylvia envisioned, so I am told. I see cycling as freedom, as sustainability, and as an income-independent mode of transportation. I did not choose to be car-free, but I have unexpectedly ended up a major proponent. I’m not saying I’m never going to own a car, I’m saying I think people shouldn’t knock this whole living sans-automobile thing. At the very least, they should respect it as a choice for others, and make it easier for those who don’t even have that choice.
Utility cycling isn’t just for the well-to-do with expensive bikes, it’s a tool for poverty, too. Being unable to afford a car, and often not sure whether I’ll be able to make ends meet at the end of the month, I can understand a little how important cycling can be to people of all incomes. Watch this video from Streetfilms profiling a bike parking facility outside of Sao Paulo. Aside from the mind boggling number of bikes, pay attention to the social, legal, and bike education component. Every once in a while something knocks you on your ass with its genius. It’s not aimed at middle-class, bike-to-your-white-collar-office-job cyclists, like I feel is the case in what little bike planning Cleveland really does. This is for everyone. Cleveland has a lot of poverty. Anyone else making this connection?
Cleveland, you have a great opportunity to be world class here. You want to be a city of choice? Well I chose to bike. I’m not the only one. You want to attract the creative class? Well they like to bike. Make it easier for them. You want to be sustainable? Promote cycling as a mode of transportation. You want to be a green city on a blue lake? It won’t be that until it’s bike-friendly. You want people to like me to stay after I graduate? Put in the infrastructure for me to live without a car. You want to do something about poverty? Give them (us) a way to get to work safely and quickly on bike. You want to have a depressingly inadequate and grossly overpriced public transit system? Fine. Let us get around by bike instead.
Biking as transportation isn’t for everyone. I know that. But it is for a lot of people. And so I will ride for a better world, one where cycling is used at its fullest potential to do good in this world.