The bicycle. To many Americans, it is a fun hunk of recreational metal. To others around the world, it is a vital and necessary means of transport. Slowly, as the industrial nations begin to feel the consequences of the 20th century marvel that is the automobile, more and more of us are ‘taking to the streets’ on our bikes. I sold my car before I left to travel the world and now that I am back, my two means of transport: bicycle and public transport.
Cities around the United States are finally becoming more bike friendly by making roads more people friendly and not just ‘made for cars.’ Even Google Maps recently added a ‘by bicycle’ option when plotting out directions. I use this often in Chicago. Google’s Midwest manager of global communications and public affairs said, “Maps have (for the most part) been made for cars. We wanted to make maps for people.”
Google takes into account hills, routes that are better for biking, and neighborhoods.
When I travel, I join up with a bike tour whenever possible. In my opinion, there is no better way to get an overview (and often an ‘otherview,’ seeing off-the-beaten-path sights) of a new city. Not only is it a more interactive way to get to know a city, if you take one the first few days of your arrival, it helps you get your bearings for the rest of your visit.
Bike tours I’ve taken during my travels over the last several years:
- Chicago — Chicago Cycling Club
- Cotopaxi, Ecuador
- Buenos Aires
- Vietnam — Intrepid Travel
- Munsterland, Germany
- Berlin — Fat Tire
- Berlin II — Berlin on Bike
- Paris — Fat Tire
Chicago has really beefed up its bicycling resume over the last decade. It doesn’t hurt that “da Mayor” is a cycling fan and has helped push the installation of hundred of more bike racks and the creation of dozens more biking lanes all over the city streets. And Chicago events like this weekend’s annual Bike the Drive, during which Lake Shore Drive, the city’s major artery along the lakefront, is closed to all automobile traffic all morning and thousands take to the street to enjoy one of Chicago’s most beautiful drives, really put cycling into the spotlight.
In many parts of Asia, the bicycle is still the formidable and much more affordable vehicle upon which citizens get themselves to and from work. In no other place to me was this more evident that Vietnam, where bikes outnumber cars about 3 to 1. Cities in Europe have longtime embraced the bike. In Amsterdam, my Dutch friends happily hopped on their bikes and joined the masses, carrying them everywhere. My friend, Vibeke, even straddled her ‘chariot’ to get her to a big fancy charity gala cloaked in a dress, heels, and all. In Sweden, bikes are the norm and my friend Paula glides through the streets with aplomb no matter what the weather.
But no other country, I’ve been to has got it down to a science like France. Lyon, France began a Vélo’v public bicycle rental program in May 2005. Vélib’, French for free bicycle or bicycle freedom, is now a mainstay of urban travel across France with tens of thousands of self-service bikes made available throughout the country. In other French cities like Paris, Toulouse, and several others, these city-wide bike renting systems are now in place allowing you to rent a bike for an hour or the day and return it to any number of stations scattered all around the city. So in essence you can ride a bike to work and leave it at another station and not worry about locking it up or having it stolen. All you need is a credit card and usually the first 30 minutes are free with a deposit or weekly fee. I used the bikes in Lyon and loved it. The system couldn’t be more perfect and organized. I had a free bike and before my 30 minutes were up, I would come across another bike station and could return the bike or even take out a new one for another 30 minutes to return that one somewhere else. Genius!
Even big US city mayors like Michael Bloomberg of New York City and our very own bicycle guy, Mayor Daley have visited the city of lights to check out this innovative program. If you can, take to the streets and think of your bike as more than a once-a-month recreational pastime. Ride it out to meet friends, ride it to the supermarket (like I did today and stuffed my backpack chock full of fruits and veggies), or ride it to work. You will get their faster than waiting in rush hour traffic, you will save money on gas, and you will feel good.
Some Chicago Bike links:
- City of Chicago Bicycling Program
- Active Transportation Alliance – Chicgoland’s voice for better biking, walking, & transit
- The Chainlink – Chicago Bicyclist Resource
- Chicago Cycling Club — FREE bike tours all over Chicago
- Bike the Drive – Sign up now…takes place May 31st!
- McDonald’s Cycle Center – One of the country’s largest bike parking facilities
- Wrigley Field Free Bike Valet – Free awesomeness!
- L.A.T.E. Ride – July 10th/11th
- Boulevard Lakefront Tour – August 29th
- Chicago Critical Mass – Bikes take over the streets the last Friday of every month
- Bobby’s Bike Hike – City bike tours
- Fork and the Road — Biking AND eating tours!