Bike Nation: How Cycling Can Save the World

Peter Walker

Yellow Jersey Press 2017

Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy

Elly Blue

Microcosm Publishing 2016
A book review by Danny Yee © 2018
As their similarly ambitious subtitles suggest, Bike Nation and Bikenomics are both broad-ranging overviews of the benefits of cycling. Both are written in the first-person and include a range of other personal stories, involving and engaging the reader and trying to reach a broader audience than most bicycle books. Both include detailed endnotes and are robustly connected to the evidence; there is no need to exaggerate here. Peter Walker is a British (London-based) journalist and Elly Blue is a United States (Portland-based) activist.

Walker begins Bike Nation with the startling health benefits of cycling, concentrating on the dangers of inactivity and the advantages of "accidental" exercise. He considers safety, touching on the Dutch "Stop the Child-murder" campaign, real and subjective safety, and the failure to prosecute car murders. And, turning to social justice, he surveys the benefits of cycling for those with disabilities, women, older people and the poor, and its potential for reducing greenhouse emissions.

Appealing to monetary self-interest, Walker considers the gains cycling can bring to business and property prices — and the hidden costs of parking. On infrastructure, he looks at the London cycle superhighways, Seville, Houten, and the Dutch CROW manual, as well as 'the human measure' (fallibility) and the vehicular cycling aberration.

The stigmatisation of cyclists as an out-group is widespread; Australia is an extreme example of political and media hostility. Walker's examples of political bravery include Andrew Gilligan in London, Janette Sadik-Khan in New York, and others from Montreal, Odense and Seville.

Walker takes on the ever-contentious issue of bike helmets, in the context of broader safety issues. And he concludes by looking at technological innovations such as Strava, e-bikes and cargo bikes, and dockless bike systems — and less useful ideas such as fancy hi-viz jackets and carbon-fibre flyover bicycle paths.

"Paul Steely White believes it is high time cycling infrastructure becomes viewed 'not as an optional amenity that is open to local veto, but really as a necessary public safety improvement that we now make in these modern times'
He argues persuasively: 'It would be akin in the time of cholera to saying, "We've got this engineering approach that involves separating our water from our sewage, and it involves digging up the street — what do you think about this? Are you okay with this?"
There's a way to design streets now that kill many fewer people and are much fairer, more equitable, and more efficient, and we're just going to do it, dammit.'"

Blue's Bikenomics begins with a preface explaining that the "economy" of her subtitle is not as limiting as it might seem. She argues that "there are really two economic cases for bicycling": the first is the obvious one, that it contributes to growth; the second is the more radical one, that it offers people the option to "opt out of the cost of car ownership or reliance on largely dismantled transit systems", as well as connecting and strengthening communities. And as an introduction she offers an emotional exhortation which seems to be aimed more at activists than the general reader.

She then covers much the same material as Walker, but broken up and ordered differently: the "free-loader" myth, the costs of owning a car, the costs of road-building, health and happiness, bike-sharing schemes, congestion and demand management, parking, safety and the broader costs of road traffic, controversies over bike lanes on "main street", bicycle deliveries and cycle tourism, and race and gender divides.

"But many people who want to bike tend to balk at the prospect of it, and reasonably so. We've literally built the physical activity out of our environment; in fact, we've created communities where moving about under your own power is penalized, where every incentive urges us to do otherwise. It behooves all of us to make sure that option is not just theoretically available if we want it, but attractive and convenient, laid down in paint and pavement, for ourselves and our community."

There was not that much new to me in either book, but it was good to see different perspectives on familiar ideas, and different ways of presenting them. As mentioned, Blue sometimes seems to be addressing people who are already cycling advocates, or at least familiar with the terrain. I think Walker's book is likely to work best conveying the potential of cycling to people who don't cycle, or who are only recreational or sports cyclists; if I were going to "book bomb" my local councillors, Bike Nation would be what I'd send them.

December 2018

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Related reviews:
- Peter Walker - The Miracle Pill: Why a sedentary world is getting it all wrong
- books about Britain + British history
- books about the United States + American history
- books about transport
%T Bike Nation
%S How Cycling Can Save the World
%A Walker, Peter
%I Yellow Jersey Press
%D 2017
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN-13 9781911214946
%P 255pp

%T Bikenomics
%S How Bicycling Can Save the Economy
%A Blue, Elly
%I Microcosm Publishing
%D 2016
%O paperback, 2nd edition
%G ISBN-13 9781621062400
%P 191pp