Life and death and bicycling

Cheers to Rep. Earl Blumenauer and his efforts to boost government support for cycling. And tears for the greatest bicycle geek of them all -- Sheldon Brown.

By Andrew Leonard
Published March 13, 2008 6:25PM (EDT)

Let's hear it for Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., the founder of the Congressional Bike Caucus. On Feb. 28, Blumenauer submitted for consideration to the House of Representatives H. Con. Res. 305: "Recognizing the importance of bicycling in transportation and recreation."

Some excerpts:

Whereas a national transportation system conducive to bicycling produces enriched health, reduced traffic congestion and air pollution, economic vitality, and an overall improved quality of living is valuable for the Nation...

Whereas by dramatically increasing levels of bicycling in United States cities tangible and intangible benefits to the quality of life for cities and towns across the country will be realized...

Whereas bicycle commuters annually save on average $1,825 in auto-related costs, reduce their carbon emissions by 128 pounds, conserve 145 gallons of gasoline, and avoid 50 hours of gridlock traffic...

Now, therefore, be it Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), That the Congress-- (1) recognizes that increased and safe bicycle use for transportation and recreation is in the national interest...

And there's much much more: If all the recommendations set forth in H. Con. Res. 305 became the law of the land, it would ring in the dawn of a new golden age of cycling in the United States. And 2008 would deserve the title speculatively proposed for it by writer Neal Peirce: "The Year of the Bicycle."

Wouldn't it be nice. However, the U.S. still has a fair way to go before it even matches the historical peak in cycling interest (measured by bike sales) reached in 1973. A bump up in 2005 that got the industry and cycling advocates excited was followed by a sales decline in 2006, and according to Megan Tompkins, editor of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, 2007's sales numbers are "flat" compared to 2006, notwithstanding gas price spikes, concerns about climate change, and the efforts of Earl Blumenauer.

If that seems a little gloomy, well, that's because How the World Works is feeling a little weighed down by some recent big losses suffered by the world of cycling. On Feb. 3, Sheldon Brown, the creator of the fabulous-beyond-belief repository of all cycling knowledge, "Sheldon Brown's Bicycle Technical Info", passed away, after fighting increasingly debilitating multiple sclerosis for several years. Don't miss a lovely obituary of the man published in the London Times. This unhappy news was followed on Wednesday by the death of Richard Burke, the founder of Trek Bicycle Co., which manufactured both my first mountain bike, and Lance Armstrong's Tour de France-winning racing bikes.

Closer to home, on March 9, a rookie sheriff's deputy strayed far across the center line of a winding mountain road near Cupertino, Calif., and drove head on into three cyclists, killing two, Kristy Gough and Matt Peterson, both of whom were well known to the Bay Area cycling community. Every cycling death sends a shiver through all cyclists, but the bizarre circumstances of this tragedy were especially unsettling. It's hard to imagine how you could defend yourself from a driver who, according to some accounts, may have fallen asleep at the wheel -- at 10:30 in the morning -- before losing control of his vehicle.

Then again, it was a freak occurrence, and cycling provides too much joy to live in fear. For the rest of us, increased funding for bike-friendly roads, bike paths and new approaches to urban design that aim to encourage cycling and all the other worthy measures included in H. Con. Res. 305 will doubtless increase our safety and comfort (and likely boost bicycle sales as well). So again, three cheers for Earl Blumenauer.

And if you'd like to amuse yourself by taking an interactive online quiz to determine how "green" your cycling habits are, (courtesy of the Sierra Club, via Treehugger), go right ahead. I scored 85 out of 100, which I will interpret as meaning there is room for improvement.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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