Cook: Like riding a bike

Cook: Like riding a bike

September 24th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Monday at lunch, I went for a little bike ride with Blythe Bailey, who's the transportation director for Chattanooga.

On the outside, it didn't look like much: two guys, 40ish, dressed in button-downs and Doc Martens, pedaling blue Bike Chattanooga bikes shoulder to shoulder in the right-hand-lane from Porker's Barbeque on Market Street all the way to the North Shore.

But on the inside? Man, I felt like Fonda in "Easy Rider." Armstrong in the Alps. We were kings of the road. It was the first time in forever that I found myself commuting through busy downtown streets ... and enjoying it.

"That was great," Bailey said as we parted ways.

Totally, absolutely great.

And that's the message Bailey and some Dutch experts hope to send to Chattanooga this week, as a two-day Think Bike conference on cycling in the city wraps up this afternoon with a 5:30 open-to-the-public presentation on the fourth floor of the downtown library.

"It's a matter of improving the viability of choice," Bailey said, as we were stopped at a red light.

Perhaps the greatest invention in human history, the bicycle is a most democratic form of transportation: for rich and poor, urban and rural, young and old.

Since Henry Ford, though, the bike has become bridesmaid to the American car. But across the nation, things are quietly shifting, as more and more people choose to live downtown, thus erasing the need for a surbuban commute, thus helping the bike return as a realistic choice of urban transportation.

That's why members of the Dutch Cycling Embassy are in town, talking with leaders here about ways to make cycling more of a realistic possibility in parts of Chattanooga. The North Shore, for example, or St. Elmo.

But can you import Amsterdam?

"You're not getting our cycling culture," said Dick Van Veen, a Dutch architect and traffic engineer and part of the Cycling Embassay. "You're getting Chattanooga cycling culture."

Three summers ago, a group of us was in Amsterdam, where everybody rides bikes, wherever they go. To work, to school. Two or three to a bike, like a clown car, with adults pedaling and kids sitting in the basket, legs dangling over the front wheel. Handlebar bells like horns. Not a helmet to be seen.

Find a magic wand and wave it over Frazier Avenue at rush hour, turning every car driver into a bike rider. That's Amsterdam.

"The mentality you see is the result of 20 years of bike planning and bike education," said Van Veen, 33.

When we Americans take short trips -- say across downtown, or to the neighborhood store -- we are automatically inclined (thanks to 50 years of car planning and car education) to take our car, regardless of the mileage.

So Bailey's work is to nudge that mindset a bit, to introduce another way of travel for short and appropriate distances. Not to suddenly criminalize cars, but to give bikes a better share of certain roads.

Because if we build such an infrastucture, bikes will certainly fill it. (Before we started riding, City Councilman Larry Grohn walked by, and mentioned to Bailey the idea of using all the land under TVA power lines as bike corridors. Hmmm.)

"If you go downtown to get fish and chips," suggested Van Veen. "If you go to the pub, especially take your bike."

I didn't have the heart to tell him that nobody here's going to cross the street, much less ride a bike, for fish and chips. But his point was valid: can we rearrange the traffic landscape in parts of Chattanooga so that biking becomes a real option? A safe choice?

A habit?

"You can actually get the car virus out of your mind," said Van Veen. "Just like an addiction to cigarettes."

The lunchtime ride reminded me that a bike is more than a bike. It is a way of being, a way of moving through downtown space. There is a freedom and honesty and poetry to it -- bikes have a kindness that cars don't possess -- that both energized (more trips by bike in my future, I swear it) and embarrassed me (how many times had I walked by those blue bike hubs without even considering them).

After we were done, I kept thinking of the Dr. Seuss persuasion: just try them, try them, and you'll like them.

Not fish and chips. Not green eggs and ham. But the old bicycle, suddenly new again.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.