The past week or two have been good ones for bicycling in Wichita. Thanks to the efforts of many people over many months, several long-developed and much-improved bike paths, trails, lanes, and shared boulevards have officially opened of late: Redbud, Prairie Sunset, Chisholm Creek Park, and here on the west side of the city, Woodchuck. (That’s me at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, in the green shorts second from the left; being a member of Wichita’s Bicycle-Pedestrian Advisory Board has its privileges, I guess.)
It’s great to see so much of this slow-yet-steady development coming to fruition, and it’s even better knowing the multiple other bicycling projects–re-purposing an old railroad bridge to get through the I-235/US-54 interchange, which otherwise blocks almost all north-south bicycle and pedestrian traffic on the west side of the city, is the big one, but there are many others–are slowly moving forward as well. We’re not fooling ourselves, of course; Wichita–like so many other Midwestern, Southern, and Great Plains cities–is profoundly automobile-centric, with fewer than .3% of Wichita residents using their bikes in their work commutes regularly. Attempting to find political support and funding and public spaces which can provide actual, practical logistical possibilities for such bicycle-friendly developments in light of those constraints is a humbling prospect. And so we just think in terms of whatever small, patchwork improvements in local practises are realistic (for example, the target goal which the Bike-Ped Advisory Board has made for our encouragement of bike commuting over the coming years is still less than 1%). In the meantime, we do our best. The turnout for these recent ribbon-cuttings has been impressive, and it’s great to see large number of colorfully decked-out, serious cyclists heading out on these paths, calling attention to every step the city takes forward.
I should note that I always have a pretty good view of those packs of cyclists as they head down these paths–because I’m basically never on any of them myself.
Why not? Part of the reason–the main part, really–is, again, simply logistical. The bare-bones network of bike trails, lanes, and boulevards that Wichita has been able to slowly knit together over the years doesn’t provide me with anything like a direct route to where I usually need to go–whether to work or running errands around the part of the city where we live. But another part of the reason is simply a function of how I understand myself as a cyclist. While I still idly dream of someday getting my physical act together–as so many of my friends have–and actually doing some real riding (a century ride, perhaps, or even Bike Across Kansas), the fact is I own no bicycling gear (save my helmet, which itself is an old one that I’ve duct-taped together), and have never toured. I’m an urban commuter cyclist, and always have been–which means I always ride on the road.
Is that dangerous? Well, sure, but so is driving. That’s a facetious answer, I know, but I don’t know any better one to give. Yes, I’ve had a few close calls with an unthinking or angry or aggressive motorist over the years (more than a few, to tell the truth), and there are plenty of times and situations where I choose to get off the main road and onto a side street or sidewalk. But by and large, I simply expect everyone to recognize that bicycles can legally share the road with cars, and by and large they do. (Though my Idaho stop still regularly pisses some drivers off.) True, by taking to the public streets rather than adjusting my route to take advantage of the bike paths I and so many others have pushed for over the years, I suppose I’m making it one person easier for cynics and cranks to complain that they never see anyone making use of these paths, so how can the city council possibly justify putting a single additional financial drop in the (otherwise resoundingly empty) city’s bicycle bucket? But by being out on the streets, I see my presence as contributing to a different kind of impression.
In an important 1990 book, Justice and the Politics of Difference, the political theorist Iris Marion Young discussed urbanism in a chapter titled "City Life and Difference." There is much in that chapter which I would take issue with (among other things, her dismissal of the ideal which some communitarians, localists, and socialists hold to of "decentralized, economically self-sufficient, face-to-face communities" as an attempt to avoid the hard realities of politics is too easy), but overall it’s a vital exploration of how much "difference" broadly conceived is essential to the how we understand both the functionings of and the age-old appeals of urban life. That difference has a variety of characteristics, Young argued: it isn’t necessarily exclusionary, it involve variable shared spaces, it has an erotic appeal, and it–and this is most important, I think–occurs in public view, thus inviting commentary and exchange. In a paper I heard presented last fall, a few scholars made use of Young’s arguments as part of a consideration of whether encouraging bicycling also, on some level, encouraged democracy. I think they were on to something–but allow me to add my own urban bike commuter spin on Young’s observations.
If you live in a place which, for any number of mutually re-enforcing reasons, has a culture shaped at least in part by concerns with health, the environmental, and sustainability, then the presence of MAMILs ("Middle-Aged Men In Lycra") all over parks and bikeways, getting their exercise and traveling wherever they need to go, is to be expected. But absent that culture, when you’re building whatever sort of bike-friendly resources you can a little at a time, such individuals greatly stand out–and to the extent that they pour themselves into maximizing the use of distinct bike paths and trails, they still stand out, but perhaps also stand out as something distant and separate. But the cyclist who is dressed pretty much just like you, whose bike is right beside your car at the intersection: that’s a difference which is not separate, but is readily and immediately present. The "publicity" of such cycling arguably invites a sort of democratic reflection and richness which may not be available in other ways. That’s not to say that there isn’t good reason to harness the democratic support of a dedicated cycling elite to push forward changes in public spaces that add to the overall ambience of life in the city. (A city without any bike paths whatsoever is far less likely to recognize the benefits which encouraging cycling can bring than one with bike paths whose use is greatly limited–which is basically true of pretty much every public amenity imaginable.) It’s just that, as I make practical decisions about my regular biking routines, I’ve had more than enough experiences to convince me that, in a small way, getting out on Central or Maple Avenue is shaping Wichita’s democratic culture a little as well.
Of course, the most recent experience I had with that shaping–just a couple of weeks ago–was someone shouting curses from their car window at me. But surely, that at least means someone was paying attention to their lived environment rather than their phone, right? As us lost-cause supporters know full well, you have to think about short-term goals and long-term change simultaneous, and in the long run, someone who gets annoyed that he has to deal with some guy on a bicycle cutting him off as we negotiate road construction together is a guy who at least is conscious that bicycling is choice some people make. In a city like Wichita, that’s honestly half the battle right there.