Cycling isn’t free; we’ve got to pay for it.

Sweaty riding on a stationary trainer

Sweaty riding on a stationary trainer

Yesterday evening I set up my bicycle on a stationary trainer outside the most popular pizza restaurant in Berkeley. The line always stretches out the door in the evenings, so it offered an opportunity pedal and sweat (lots of sweating) and talk to people about cycling and explain why I’m riding 320 miles in June to raise money for cycling advocacy. I’m slowly learning the importance of creative fundraising, so that was pretty easy math: good pizza + quick-moving but never-ending line = captive audience.

So I set the trainer resistance to roughly the equivalent of riding up a three-percent grade and just pedaled. I barely got off the bike for 2 hours and 43 minutes. As I said, lots of sweating.

All the while, hundreds — literally — of people waited in line patiently for their pizza and most of them read my sign about how giving money would make cycling easier for them and for all. If someone really stared, then I’d engage them in more conversation. I took brief breaks when kids (or one man) wanted to pedal my bike for a bit.

And I raised $52.

I’m thankful for the generosity of strangers, but I of course overheard some dismissive comments. For example, one young man remarked to a friend, “I don’t know why he thinks I would give to that. Like, why should I pay money for something that’s free?”

I wasn’t there to argue so I let that one go; but it’s worth a bit of discussion, because, well, cycling is not free.

First, and most obviously, cycling infrastructure requires significant funds to pay for planners, architects, engineers, constructors, etc. plus the actual materials. No one thinks that road (re)construction or parking garages are free; neither are lanes, trails, bike racks, bus mounts and all manner of other facilities for cycling. Second, behind all of that material development of cycling as transportation is another expensive process — the education, advocacy, debate and discourse that create cycling as a viable, safe, equitable and sustainable form of mobility. That’s the cost of the work done by NGOs like Bike East Bay, for which I’m raising money.

Of course, that all seems reasonably obvious. But the fact that cycling development does cost money and yet a fair number of people treat it as essentially free is problematic for a few reasons.

First, and this is most obvious, it means that cycling infrastructure will rarely ever been provisioned privately. This stems from cycling infrastructure’s role as what social scientists would call a public good. It’s difficult to exclude or privatize cycling infrastructure (though certainly not impossible) and there is not a clear consumption that takes away from someone else’s consumption. In other words, the “market” will almost always undervalue it precisely because it profiteering is difficult. In property regime theory, that guy on the sidewalk — the one who said he wouldn’t pay for cycling — becomes a “free-rider.”

A second problem compounds with the first, because cycling as a whole — not just material infrastructure like lanes or racks — constitutes a public good. That’s because there are tremendous spillover effects of as more people cycle. In short, society as a whole benefits from cyclists. Cycling improves individual health, reducing burdens on a stretched healthcare system. Cycling also improves public health — primarily through a lack of pollution-based transportation — so that air we all breath is improved. Cycling of course reduces climate change causing emissions — burn fat not fuel! — which will otherwise have cascading detrimental effects on ecological, social, economic and political systems. Cycling also can improve communities by literally increasing the number of eyes on the street moving at speeds slower than the auto-transit car; cyclists are more able to notice when something is “wrong” from a pothole to a home invasion. Cycling is actually fun and can serve as a critical if overlooked source of individual and social happiness, through activity, parks, adventures, etc. Cycling often benefits conservation and preservation in that trails and parks tend to provide additional motivations and protections for green spaces. Cycling benefits also multiply more-than-linearly — i.e. they snowball — as ridership increases, because the more people that ride, the easier it is for others to ride.

A third problem exists in the social inequity that arises when cycling as treated as free. Of course, it is not and so often more affluent people, groups and communities will inevitably find ways to pay for cycling; they may have more political pull and will draw disproportionately more from limited government funds. They may also be able to contribute to private initiatives in their immediate area. Cycling is sometimes intertwined with gentrification as new developments treats cycling infrastructure, active transport and other new urbanisms as luxuries that attract premiums. In short, poor and political marginalized neighborhoods are often less cycling-friendly precisely because they have less ability to pay or advocate for this thing that people treat as free even when they can see it isn’t.

Finally, because the “market” is unlikely to fully value all these benefits of cycling and because we live in an era of government defunding and retreat — a political project of the free-marketers — the development of cycling culture and cycling as acceptable mobility is held back in ways the chief “competitor” to cycling wasn’t. Consider that the automobile became widespread amid government spending projects over decades such as the unfurling of the interstate system and suburban development models, aided by governments; even today massive amounts of federal infrastructure dollars go to projects that benefit drivers to the exclusion of others. Cheap fuel is an official and historical government policy. Car manufacturers are treated as too big to fail. But cycling is trying to come into its own precisely at a time the government is pushed by political ideologues to not spend on other public goods, Parks and public lands are under assault; sustainability and climate change mitigation are black listed topics; research on spatial inequity is actually something the government is trying to disallow. Simply put, cycling has a steep hill to climb.

So while it’s a critical and long-term political project to grab back the reins of government and refocus taxing and spending priorities on projects and programs that can serve so many, in the meantime civil society is desperately needed to fill gaps and fight for all the good that cycling can provide.

And that’s why I’m raising money for Bike East Bay and the cause of bicycling and sustainability. Because, no, in truth, the benefits of cycling are not at all free. They MUST be paid for, by us all.

To support me in this, click here.

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Help! I’m biking 300 miles to fund sustainable cycling and transportation advocacy

A photo stop during a 42-mile training ride in October

A photo stop during a 42-mile training ride in October

Dear family, friends and strangers:

This summer I’m going to cycle 300 miles for a good cause, and I need your help. Let me explain:

In August 2016, I began a PhD program in geography at the University of California at Berkeley. I study human-environment relations in cities and the ocean. On the side, cycling forms a personal and intellectual pet project.

Most of you know that before I moved to California, I lived in India and witnessed some of the great environmental challenges of our time. I have seen first-hand the devastation of both wilderness and urban greenscape, on which people depend for life and livelihood. I have biked and jogged in smog-choked cities where life expectancy drops by years because of toxic air quality. I have sweltered in drought made worse by climate change and walked in villages and neighborhoods where wells continue to run dry. And I have worked for small NGOs that fight for sustainability, conservation and protection of livelihoods linked to the environment.

These issues are hardly limited to the Global South. Industrial pollution weighs heavily on neighborhoods in U.S. cities and even the countryside (often disproportionately hurting minorities and the marginalized). Close to my home in California, drought threatens both farmlands as well as urban drinking water. Of course, most of us, urban or rural, practice lifestyles that generate staggering amounts of waste and greenhouse gases. And now, the current political turn in the U.S. threatens to set back environmental protection by decades.

I try to confront mounting environmental challenges through a personal commitment to cycling — for my daily commute, for exercise, to run errands and for fun. I know I’m lucky in that my circumstances permit me to primarily cycle everywhere (with some supplementary public transit). I don’t have children. I don’t play a string bass or carry power tools. My work is flexible, and no one expects me to wear a suit. I have large thigh and calf muscles.

To make it easier for others to ride a bicycle, I’ve now joined a national charitable campaign called Climate Ride. In June 2017, I’ll be pedaling close to 300 miles along the California coast, all the way from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo, to raise money and awareness for bicycling and sustainability.

I’m asking for your encouragement, support, and, yes, sponsorship. I’ve set a personal fundraising goal of $7,001 and I’m going to need help from a network of family, friends and even strangers.

I’ll be riding on a team funding Bike East Bay — an important NGO that works toward sustainability and active transportation around my home, the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay. Money I raise helps Bike East Bay educate and advocate for better bicycle infrastructure and protections on the very roads that I ride.

You can make a secure online donation on my personal fundraising page (here). You’ll automatically receive an acknowledgment, and I will be notified of your support. If you’re not comfortable donating online, you can also donate to me directly and I’ll contribute on your behalf.

What do you get by donating?

  • First and foremost, you make a real impact. Climate Ride donations constitute Bike East Bay’s single largest funding stream. Your dollars mean more cycling lanes, more education, more advocacy, more protection. Again, Bike East Bay quite literally makes my life safer every day.
  • You also get a chance to participate with me through my sweat. I am incredibly lucky to have the flexible life needed to dedicate time and energy to months of training. I’ll happily endure muscle pain or an inevitable crash on our behalf. Your contribution means you ride vicariously. See the above photo from my first-training ride in October
  • Regular updates from my training, adventures and snafus. Laugh when my cycling shorts split open; be ready to write a lawmaker when you hear about my crash because of horrendous traffic signaling.
  • As a special bonus, folks who contribute $50 or more will receive a set of high-resolution, print-quality landscape photos from my ride through coastal California. Think iconic Highway 1!
  • Finally, you can answer my own challenge to donors. If I reach my fundraising goal, I promise to turn one of my big ride days into a full “century,” voluntarily tacking on about 30 more miles. That’s 100 miles of sweat and tears in a single day!

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me (see the upper right sidebar of this page).

Thank you, in advance, for your help. Let’s do this together.

Adam

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