A Cycling Culture: Utah versus The World

By David Ward

Maybe I am a little defensive here. So be it. But to hear some tell it, the rest of the world, or at least Europe and Asia, are cycling meccas. You hear stories from those who have been to Amsterdam, Paris and other areas about how cycling is part of the culture, part of an everyday lifestyle. Well, that is all just a little, or rather a lot, overblown. And I often get tired of hearing it.

I just returned from a trip to eastern Europe where we spent time in Serbia, Macedonia and Greece. In Belgrade, where my daughter, Jessica, lives and works, it was quite a rare sight to even see a bicycle. We drove to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, and I don’t even recall seeing a bike. From there we drove to Delphi and Athens. Ix-nay on the sighting of any cyclists.

Of course, Delphi is perched on the slopes of a mountain, and you would have to be a real mountain goat to do much cycling there. But the winding road up to Delphi would be a great climbing ride. And Athens? Well, you would be risking a lot to ride regularly in that traffic. I felt at risk just driving in it, though in truth it was really rather fun.

We drove over 1600 miles on our trip, probably close to half of it off freeways. Sightings of cyclists were rare enough that we usually remarked on it, and they were fewer than I see on a daily basis right here in Salt Lake City.

Indeed, and thanks in part to the fact that Jessica works for the Foreign Service and thus has lived at diverse locations of the world, we have been able to visit several foreign countries. And honestly, it seems to me there are more cyclists in the Salt Lake Valley than in most of the places I have visited. There are exceptions, of course. Amsterdam seemed to be everything we hear it to be, and my day of riding in Amsterdam was a real treat. (See my article, “Amsterdam Has Me Thinking” in the Fall-Winter 2009 issue of Cycling Utah. http://www.cyclingutah.com/oct/Fall-Winter-2009counter.html ) Paris, and to a lesser extent, Vienna, also had a visible number of cyclists.

In Belgrade, though, cyclists were rare. I participated in a city tour with iBikeBelgrade. Actually, it was a tour of the part of the city known as New Belgrade, developed from a swampy area by Tito’s government in the years following World War II. I found out from Miloš, our guide, that an organized ride and rally to promote cycling had been held just the week before (while we were in Greece). Miloš told me that Belgrade was not so great for cycling, but activists were trying to make it better. It sounded much like Salt Lake, though cycling and cycling activism is clearly far more developed here.

In addition to Amsterdam, I have biked in Dhaka (Bangladesh), Kathmandu (Nepal), Vienna, Quebec, Madrid, and the Alps and Pyrenees in France. I have also had the opportunity to visit, in addition to the countries already referred to, India, China, Ireland, England, Austria, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Singapore, Italy, Belgium and Germany. Wow! Just listing them takes my breath away. Friends call us world travelers, but in truth the majority of these countries were visited in connection with trips taken when we have gone to visit our daughter.

In all these countries, including India and China, cyclists are a clear minority, both recreationally and as commuters. Even in the Pyrenees and Alps, unless a major race is in progress, there are not that many cyclists on the roads. Those that were there were tourists riding the famous climbs of the Tour de France.

As I consider what I have seen and experienced in these diverse places of the world, I begin to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment for where cycling is here in the Salt Lake Valley and throughout the Intermountain area. I have watched over the years the progress that has been made in cycling by activists and promoters. The difference between where cycling was when I became a serious cyclist 30 years ago and where it is now is monumental. I applaud those who have been involved in bringing this progress about.

Still, there is progress to be made. There is substantial debate about how cycling numbers can be increased. Some argue for more infra-structure, some for higher gas taxes, and others for various other efforts, taxes and programs. We all recognize that higher numbers will result in more accommodation of cyclists.

However, my personal observation from our international travel is that motor vehicles will always be the preferred form of transportation for the vast majority of people when they can afford it. After that, public transportation is the next preferred alternative. Motorcycles and scooters come next, followed by cycling and, in last place, hoofing it. India, China, France, Serbia, it doesn’t matter. Most people will prefer expending less rather than more physical exertion to get from point A to point B. It really is only a small minority of us who have or will find satisfaction in cycling as a preferred form of transportation. While working to increase cycling numbers, I believe we need to recognize and accept this order of things.

All this being said, there is one difference that I have observed. In other countries, motorists are more accommodating of bicyclists. I have written before about the sometimes contentious relationship between motorists and cyclists in Emigration Canyon where I live here in Salt Lake. My observation while both riding and driving in other countries is that cyclists are simply accepted as part of the roadway.

This was brought home while traveling through Macedonia. We were driving on a narrow two lane road as we approached a small town. From behind I approached an older man riding a bicycle as he made his way into town. With no shoulder, the cars in front of me and I moved to the left into the other lane to get around him. He ignored the cars and just continued his pedaling. Cars approaching from the opposite direction moved a few feet to their right so all could be accommodated without incident. No one honked at him or each other, or even slowed down much. It clearly was just the accepted method of dealing with this cyclist.

The efforts being made by cycling advocates, as well as those promoting various cycling events, will help in bridging this acceptance gap. As governmental entities become more aware of accommodating cyclists, progress will be made. In the last year and a half, I have watched as my fellow members in the Salt Lake County Bicycle Advisory Committee (SLCBAC) have energetically pursued the goal of having a strong voice with, and influencing, county government and its agencies. I can personally attest to the progress that has been made in this short period of time. Indeed, the progress being made in Emigration Canyon has been exemplary and satisfying.

In the end, this mentality is what I hope for here. I envision the day when no one thinks to honk, yell or make obscene gestures at a cyclist for taking up part of the road. I envision the day when no one thinks twice about slowing down for a very brief period of time for cyclists, and moving a few feet to the left to get around. I envision the day when cyclists are accepted as part of the regular and usual traffic pattern.

 

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