This morning, I was having a little trouble feeling completely awake, and needed to wait to be able to write. Instead of watching Netflix, I decided to look through YouTube to see if there was anything worth writing out later there. Instead of finding one video to cover, I ended up falling down a transportation rabbit hole. The YouTube algorithm kept feeding me more and more transportation content that not only informed, but made me a little uncomfortable (which is a pretty good sign that you’re learning instead of looking for things to reinforce your preconceptions).
An hour and a half later, I realize that YouTube had given me a pretty good dose of information about city infrastructure that’s worth an article. I wouldn’t really go as far as to call myself a “researcher” this time, but finding good videos that challenged my American perspective wasn’t bad, either. As a Vulcan professor said in a Star Trek series, “Challenge your preconceptions, or they will challenge you.”
In this article, I’m going to share what the algorithm gave me and give some commentary on what I learned from it.
This first video hooked me as a person who rides e-bikes for recreation and exercise. I only rarely use them for transportation, though. Ranging from $1500-4000, I’ve been afraid to take the bike anywhere that it needs to be locked up, and in the semi-rural area I live in, I’m basically stuck using a car to take the kids to school due to the limited time between dropoffs at three schools that aren’t close to each other.
The video did get me to thinking about how much easier the e-bikes would be to use for normal transportation than my bikes ever were. One of the schools is 25 minutes away by bike, and maybe 15 minutes out if I were to max out the pedal assist and hold a high speed. Being able to go there and back without breaking a sweat would be even better.
The virtuous cycle hasn’t quite happened in my area yet, though. Most of the route to my youngest kids’ school looks like the above photo, and the cars usually go 50-55 MPH next to minimal shoulders.
The next leg of the route to the next school is worse. Most of the next road has no shoulders, and the sides are sandy. The road also has several blind curves coming up a hill, so I wouldn’t be comfortable at all riding on this with my kids.
Long story short: e-bikes have helped make distances less of a problem, but good bike infrastructure is the other half of that problem in much of the US.
This next video showed me just about exactly what they’re doing wrong in the States. I don’t think we should try to emulate everything we see in Europe, but making things better for bikes doesn’t have to come at the expense of cars. Moving people out of cars and onto bikes by making it more convenient and safe helps make the experience better for the remaining drivers.
Where I live, we’re lucky to see a paint stripe alongside a US “stroad” that separates fast-moving cars from a thin strip of real estate bikes can use. One minor misstep, and a driver will drive right over that stripe and take you out. On stroads without a bike lane, I often see a “share the road” sign that encourages cyclists to share the road with two-ton machines piloted by people using cellphones.
Yeah, I’ll pass. Putting “I had the right-of-way” on my headstone doesn’t make me any less dead. Better infrastructure for bikes is definitely needed.
Next, YouTube made me realize that most of my e-bikes are basically the equivalent of a Jeep. My RadRovers have fat tires that are great for sand (a big problem in the desert), but they’re not really the most practical transportation machines. The closest thing I have to the highly practical and durable Dutch bikes is my Townie Path Go.
It’s got the fenders, step-through frame, chain guard, vertical seat, kickstand, cargo rack, and even a built-in rear-wheel lock. At $3600, it’s not quite something I’d leave outside of Walmart, though. On the one occasion I took it shopping, I sat outside with the bikes while my wife went in and got a few things. There’s a bike rack near one of the doors, but it’s the kind you can only slip a front wheel into, and that gives you no way to really lock it up securely.
Private infrastructure is important for e-bikes, too. Secure storage is another key to getting more people to use them.
Public transportation is another alternative to cars in the States, and like the video points out, it’s wildly apparent that western cities (and their nearby rural and semi-rural areas) are just built for cars.
My kids’ school situation is a good one. Sure, the school has buses, but we have the kids in the district for where my ex lives and not where I live, so on the weeks I have them, I have to take them to school. For parents dropping kids off, the elementary kids have to be there at 8 AM, the high school kids (3 miles away from the elementary school) need to be there before 8:30, and the middle school kids have to be there by 8:45. That last leg, from the high school to the middle school, is six miles on roads not suitable for a bike.
There’s some very limited city and county bus service, but it wouldn’t be able to get any of the kids to school on time from where I live.
I have a car, and it’s an EV, so my costs for doing this driving twice a day 5 days a week are minimal, but if someone doesn’t have access to a car, they’re basically screwed where I live. Most US cities are exactly the same way, with limited or useless public transport, a frightening bike experience, and distances far too much for walking. If I only had one old car (a common situation for poorer and young Americans), I’d be just one major mechanical failure from being unable to get around.
What all of this made me realize is just how vulnerable that leaves our transportation system. It’s a monoculture that makes things like gasoline shortages, natural disasters, and other problems a much bigger problem than they would otherwise be if people had several options. It may sound alarmist to say this, but it’s really a national security issue that we refuse to fix because we largely just won’t accept that it’s even a problem.