Thursday, August 20, 2015

There Goes the Neighbourhood

It was a rare sunny day in the city of Derry and I was sitting on a bench eating lunch with a friend, when beside us a party of four began to lock up their bicycles to a nearby pole. There was a woman in her 30s, two girls aged around 10 and 6, and another woman, perhaps in her late 60s, who looked to be the younger lady's mother. The children had arrived on some brightly coloured kiddie mountain bikes. The adults rolled in on loop frame city bikes with panniers and baskets. After wrangling a cable lock around all four machines, the mother started to extract things from her bags while the grandmother herded the boisterous girls toward a bench on the far side of the square. Just like us, they were about to have lunch under the leafy shade of chestnut trees, beside medieval city walls, overlooking the river. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched them with the same relaxed curiosity as I would any other mildly interesting, but not especially remarkable, street scene.

My friend, however, shook his head in happy disbelief once they were out of hearing range. "You would never see that in Derry 5 years ago."

"Is that so?"

"Derry folk on ordinary bikes in the town? With children? You're joking!"

The family we'd watched had gone about their activities so matter-of-factly, that I'd failed to process the scene as in any way unusual. But he was right of course. Even today, Derry - a small, very hilly, and rather isolated city straddling the North/South border of northwesternmost Ireland, is not exactly teeming with bicyclists. But the rise of everyday cycling, even compared to when I first got here two years ago, is visible. Not only are the numbers of people on bikes increasing, but the types of bicycles they are riding are changing from sporty to utility-oriented, with choices in clothing following suit.

At least one cause of this change in Derry is the Peace Bridge - a new pedestrian/cycling bridge across the river Foyle with an accompanying network of mixed-use paths. Completed 3 years ago, this bridge links up two previously severed parts of the city through a series of walking and cycling trails. The bridge now also makes it very easy to access the city center from residential areas in the outskirts, as well as from the train station. When I arrive in Derry by train with my bike, directly from the station I enter a world of idylic riverside trails completely separated from motorised traffic, allowing me to cross the bridge and roll right into the city center without so much as seeing a car, let alone dealing with intersections and traffic circles. It is actually a remarkable bit of cycling/pedestrian infrastructure that I hope will be all the more widely used in the years to come.

Still, infrastructure is only a part of it and must go hand in hand with cultural changes that normalise cycling. And the cultural changes can take time to catch up. I remember when I started cycling in Boston in 2009, the genuine shock on some drivers' faces when they would see me out on the roads. "But honey, you're not allowed to do that! Get on the sidewalk, I'm begging you, before you get killed!" I remember a woman pleading with me in this manner - as upset by the sight of me as she would by the sight of a stray, disoriented cat stumbling along a busy street, destined to become roadkill.

By 2012 that dangerous, unfathomable road I'd been riding on had become one of the more popular cycling routes in the Boston Metro area. Come time for the morning and evening commutes, the procession of cyclists along it would seem unending. There is now a bicycle lane there along this road as well - although whether its appearance caused the influx of cyclists, or was prompted by it, no one can say for sure.

While it is easier for cultural normalisation of bicycling to gain momentum in cities, it is not impossible in rural areas either. Two years ago, local farmers would stop when they'd see me pedaling home in the rain. "Hop you in, poor thing, and I'll throw your bike in the back!" Similarly when I used to walk the 1 mile down my lane to the shop along the main road (because, you know, sometimes walking is nice too!), every single neighbour passing me in their car used to stop and offer me a lift. Each time I would explain that I was cycling/walking deliberately and enjoying it very much, and each time I'd be met with a look of disbelief and pity (maybe I could not afford a car and was just saying this to save face?) followed by several iterations of "Are you sure now?" before I'd be allowed to continue on my way.

But as time went by, seeing me pedal past their houses with an idiotic grin on my face must have taken its toll. Because now most of these very same neighbours do some cycling and walking themselves. I had not realised quite the momentum this practice had gained until, one sunny evening not too long ago, I opened my upstairs window to take in the laundry hanging outside, and saw, with some surprise, multiple figures making their way along the lane in the golden light. There was the farmer, pedaling jauntily on a crusty mountain bike toward a neighboring field. Not far behind was Lady M. cycling home with a basket of groceries. Further in the distance the young couple down the road strolled beside their small twins on tricycles. And way out there I could even spot Mr. W. astride his son's old 10-speed.

"Well," I thought, closing the window with a huge smile on my face, "There goes the neighborhood!" Then I got on my bicycle and joined the happy procession before the corner shop closed.

31 comments:

  1. What an inspiring story, thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Lovely as ever! Thanks for this post, so vividly illustrated.

    Grace. Peace. Bicycle Grease!

    Kirk

    PS: Remember, every lane is a bike lane. Share the road.

    Pedalaround
    ..........__o
    ..........\<,
    .......( )/ ( )
    Enjoy the ride home.
    pedalaround.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  3. This sounds like a children's picture book story, in fact I can see the illustrations now. You tend to write that way.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sometimes I think life is a children's picture book story. Gone wrong.

      Delete
    2. Life is rich and complicated and diverse and difficult….full of good material w/o need of frosting.

      Delete
    3. From birth till, maybe, second or third grade I'd take my kids to the library daily and go through stacks of picture books, sitting on the floor and reading aloud and then bringing stacks home for more. Good times. We'd walk even though it was about a mile, rain or snow or shine, it didn't matter, they wanted to go. Some stories dripped off the wall and some stuck. It was fascinating and wonderful. The images and content either connecting or not connecting with their experiences and they asked lots of questions along the way! Makes me wonder about what we're selling.

      Delete
  4. A lovely piece, as always! I moved to Boston from a country with neither culture nor bike infrastructure for transportation cycling, and I remember baulking when my husband suggested I buy a bike to get to places we can't reach with the train/bus easily. But then I saw all the cyclists, and more importantly, the parents riding with their kids in seats / trailers / bakfiets / trail-a-bikes... And then I found your blog... And now I'm a convert!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The public transport situation in Boston was what "forced" me to get a bicycle as well. In my case I lived walking distance from the T, but found it so shockingly unreliable and claustrophobic that I'd taken to walking to appointments miles away rather than risk it.

      Delete
  5. Any of us who choose to walk or ride instead of drive like to think we're somehow changing the world by our example. Doing something one loves, daily, without drawing attention to oneself has a certain power to it. Reading your blog, however, I get the sense you believe you started the whole thing, as if prior to 2009 no one was brave enough in Boston to do what you did, as if before you no one would have thought of walking on a country road. But it's been going on for a long, long time and seems to ebb and flow. It's kind of entertaining, really, to read about your enthusiasm with each new discovery and observation, after all you are a part of the latest spurt and report it faithfully. Still, I'm grateful for all who have been doing this without waving a flag for a generation or two. I find them everywhere. It always seems to be the truth, just when one thinks they've got an idea, they find others with the same thoughts, it's affirmation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I definitely do not believe that I "started the whole thing" or was even instrumental in it; just was part of the flow at an exciting time when momentum was happening. Now I see hints of something similar here. Though perhaps it is just wishful thinking.

      Delete
  6. Awwww... this post makes me so happy! I see a notable change here in Denver as well. Just yesterday I was out and about and there was an older fellow riding along with two grocery sacks hanging from his front handlebars. There was a couple out for a "bike stroll" enjoying the cool weather, a few kids racing each other down one of the big hills in the neighborhood, and the most astonishing part... there was a pack of teenagers... yes, TEENAGERS... you know, "cool kids" hanging out on their bikes! Now that's progress! If teenagers see riding a bike as "cool" rather than "dorky" you know real change is happening!

    ReplyDelete
  7. I have had the experience of being offered a ride in a car whilst walking and politely declining, though here those who walk/ride year round are not seen as odd but rather as 'brave' and or extremely fit - so it is generally seen as something one wishes to do in order to be healthy, rather than perhaps because it is enjoyable. I really like this post, although I certainly never think of myself as trying to encourage others to ride or walk, I'm glad to read that this has happened in your locale where it would seem cars are the first option for transport in every situation. The image of you looking out your window and seeing several cyclists in your vicinity, where previously you were the only one, is just very nice - there is something pleasant about witnessing others enjoying their bikes in these informal and personal ways.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm sitting at my window now and viewing the activity outside. When I moved here ten years ago I was the only one on my block who bicycled for transportation…The weird guy. Then my boys also opted for bikes instead of cars….The weird family. Now younger folks are moving in and I see three or four other families using bikes. Racks, panniers, heading off to work. Most have kids who are older, but it's progress in small steps. That said, this happened in the 70's and then lost momentum, maybe this time it'll stick.

      Delete
    2. Those who use bikes for transport are very much a minority here - more numerous are the racing fraternity, (well they don't go so fast really but they have the 'look'), who apart from cycling along set routes like to sit around outside cafes having (probably) soy lattes and parking their bikes all around 'their' area. I have however also noticed some younger people using bikes for transport - my adult son has no interest in driving and either walks or rides. There are quite a few senior cyclists, riding for transport, shopping etc and I do enjoy seeing them and the individual way they set up their bikes for practical purposes. I am sure cycling assists them in maintaining their mobility and general health - they all look happy to be out and about on their bikes :)

      Delete
    3. Well, we're all doing our bit, right? Bicycling will never be for everyone but I think the critical mass picks up a bit when women get out and about and get serious. There still seems to be a stigma in my area.

      Delete
    4. Well that's it, not everyone will want to ride a bike anywhere, let alone for transport - also many people have chosen where they live and work on the basis of having a car - they may therefore live too far for a bike to be a practical means of transport and I must say, however much I love cycling I would not want to face a long ride daily in order to get to work, shops etc - I prefer long bike rides on free days. In my area males outnumber females as transport cyclists - but still there are some of us getting about on our bikes and that is a positive development. There is no stigma here, thank goodness, but most people just wouldn't consider using a bike for transport - more and more our towns are being developed and re-developed with the motor vehicle as the foremost consideration, or so it seems.

      Delete
    5. The area where I now live used to have a very strong and interesting racing (actual racing - not "looking the part") culture (see: Time Trial Country). For a number of reasons, all this collapsed shortly after I moved here, and we have gone from having several weekly races to choose from, to no local racing at all. Now the roads are dominated by aggressive club cyclists chasing Strava segments who do not in fact race and have never raced in their lives, yet oddly think of themselves as racers. It makes for a weird vibe.

      Delete
    6. Clark in VancouverAugust 31, 2015 at 12:25 AM

      I've noticed as well how more and more people are cycling than ten years ago. I used to be the only one cycling to where I work, (it was because cycling would take ten minutes whereas the bus was 45 minutes) and I was considered odd I think. Then about five years ago coworkers would start asking me what kind of bike I would suggest they buy.
      Now it's become so common here that recently some new people moved into my building who have multiple bikes including a fancy Danish cargo bike and it's not considered something that would make us think we had anything in common. It's just regular.

      Delete
  8. Lovely post. :)
    I was in Zagreb Croatia on vacation this spring, and took a bike tour (naturally) during my stay. When I mentioned to the tour guide that I commuted by bike back home in Canada, he asked if I'd noticed such a practice rising in popularity. I affirmed that I had, and that the better bike paths and so on made it feel safe enough to tackle. He allowed that such physical things might help, but argued that it really was more of a cultural thing. He said that in Zagreb, cycling for transport has also exploded in popularity despite very minimal efforts by government to improve infrastructure. "Sure they paint a line here or there but really, the only thing that has visibly changed is the number of people out on bikes! I think maybe it's fashionable, you know? It's a cool thing to do. But then maybe they then also realize it's cheap and fun too and stick with it..." I had to concede that maybe that was as much the case at home. Maybe I too was drawn in by fashion but stayed for the fun and fortune. :)

    ReplyDelete
  9. I've cycled in my neighborhoods and in a smaller town nearby. After a a few months I noticed other people starting to cycle in those places. I think sometimes a cyclist who rides a lot and appears to be enjoying it gives others the idea it could be fun and soon they want to try it, too. Media can also play a role in cycling popularity but nothing, I think, encourages cycling more than people actually out there riding their bikes.

    ReplyDelete
  10. It's happening in the U.S. South (Greenville, NC), but very, very slowly. When I went largely car-free in 2008, I thought that in a year or two I'd see dozens of new bike commuters every day, within a year or two. Well, seven years later, I see a few, now and then. I did manage to put a couple of people from my office -- who see me arrive by bike every day -- on the right path. Students definitely bike, but they're confined to a small area around the university. Most adults still haven't even thought about biking as transportation (and that includes the sports/club cyclists). In many places (among which I'd definitely list the South), people are, culturally, very averse to any kind of change or nonconformity. Ah, well.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Some folk don't know and they offer to throw my bike on the back of a tractor for a lift up the hill followed by "Are you sure now?" at least twice, the head shake of disbelief as they trundle on. But the real delight is crossing paths with a real ole fella as I grit my teeth and drop into the granny ring, the look he gives me, the slight nod and the smile shared, he knows. If I'm blessed to reach his age I wish to share that smile with someone else peddling that same road.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The awl fellas here are animals on the bike; impressive and sexy as heck.

      Delete
  12. Not especially pertinent to this charming post, but several of the drop-down menus do not allow links to topics, e.g., obsessing, tinkering, etc. If you have nothing to say on these topics (which I doubt) please don't tease me with vain hopes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They're working fine for me in Chrome on a Mac. Try a different browser?

      Delete
    2. Mea culpa, y'all - I still have not hooked up all the menu links on this "new" version of the website!!

      Delete
  13. Loved your post as usual! (I had wondered if I would still find them interesting after you moved from a large city to rural Ireland, but that did not occur and it is also nice seeing the land where at least 1/2 of my ancestors came from, via your beautiful photography). There has been steady growth in the amount of people I see using bikes for transportation in my neighborhood and seemed to increase after I started doing the same. But this is the only place I have lived since I started being car-free. But I think there may be a few in my neighborhood that have been reminded to ride more after seeing me out and about. Whether coincidental or not, I do count more and more cyclist travelling down my street (which has a cycle designation and lanes in some parts). I tend to naturally be on the cutting edge of what is new though, haha. It also helps that the infrastructure is steadily improving in my area because of a very active local bike advocacy non-profit as well. Very nice that it is all coming together for what ever the reason. I have only been asked if I could use a lift during some very cold (cold for Atlanta) weather. It took a bit to prove to the concerned driver that I was dressed for the occasion and enjoying my bike ride.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks as always for reading. Having lived and cycled in some very different places at this point, I find that all/any cycling experience has relevance across the board. At the same time all cycling experiences are different, as no city, suburb or countryside is the same. I imagine Atlanta would actually be a pretty challenging place to cycle!

      Delete
  14. This talk of "normal" folks riding bikes is really just the first step. When the Bikey Revolution finally comes to pass -- the two-wheeler subversives have been secretly planning it for decades -- it will be led by guys like this: http://www.chicagotribune.com/chi-odd_archive_02920081029184248-photo.html

    ReplyDelete
  15. Haven't read your blog for a long time. It is inspiring as always. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete