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Automotive Traveler Magazine: 2011 05 Heels On Wheels Page 1

Opinion: Heels on Wheels

Boston wants to provide subsidized bicycles for visitors and commuters in a move to get cars off the streets. One avid cyclist asks whether politics are trumping safety.

By Carmen Madrid

Boston can become a place where... businesswomen bike to work in power suits and high heels with peace of mind. These words are from the vision statement of the Boston Cyclists Union website. Here's the vision the words conjure up for me... Miss Almira Gulch in The Wizard of Oz peddling her way down a Kansas road in the tumult of a tornado in pursuit of Dorothy and her little dog Toto. She's the only woman I can recall ever riding a bicycle in high heels, by choice.

In an effort to make cycling safer and more appealing for everyone, the folks at the BCU appear to be a bit shortsighted in their view of how women ride bikes. And, of how anyone should ride bikes--safely. I don't care how many bike lanes you put in, I doubt any women will be peddling their two-wheelers down Congress Street in heels, peace of mind or not. Especially, if they've ever had to stop quickly to avoid colliding with a basketball suddenly rolling into the street. Any good rider knows that fancy footwork is what's required, not fancy footwear. And who even wants to imagine the scene if a stiletto gets stuck in a spoke.

Still, the pro-bike movement has plenty of grassroots support and local government backing in Beantown and beyond. As an avid cyclist myself, I appreciate anything that might enhance my ride or make it safer. I have long been a fan of this self-propelled mode of transport, but not because I hate cars. So, why the push by other cyclists to put bikes on the already dangerous streets of major American cities?

The most often stated goal is to get cars off the streets. Yet bike lanes only increase congestion. Motorists must avoid bike-only lanes and other bicycle-related markings on the roadways, and they are forced to slow or stop while cyclists carefully merge into these reserved paths. And it's not like cyclists are required to use the designated bike lanes. Like bus-only lanes where only buses can use them--but don't have to--bike lanes on regular streets follow the same rule.

The pro-bike crowd will only decrease congestion if they can convince a vast majority of the population to give up their cars and start biking. Enter Hubway. On 21 April 2011, Boston's Mayor Thomas Menino signed a $6-million deal to provide 600 bikes and 61 kiosks across the city as part of a low-cost bike-sharing program like the ones in Paris and Washington, D.C.

Subsidize something enough--so the bureaucrat mindset goes--and you can create a market for it. Yet no one can dictate cultural change. If the United States becomes as bike-oriented as European cities like Copenhagen (pictured nearby), it will not be due to programs like Hubway.

Boston has the worst drivers I've seen outside of Southern Italy. The folks who willingly take on two-wheeled commutes in this environment are a brave few! Tossing out-of-town visitors and pump-wearing, power-suited professionals into the mix seems to me a reckless proposition, to say the least.

In tandem with the subsidized bikes plan, the city is considering a bike lane on Massachusetts Avenue in the heart of Boston, stretching from Symphony to the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge. Sounds great in theory for any bike-inclined drivers who regularly take that route. But what will be eliminated to make room for the bike lane--parking or a lane of traffic? In either case, controversy and unhappy citizens are sure to result--a lesson already being learned in New York City.

When I was growing up in Southern California, bike paths were found at the beach, parks, and along waterways that led to the ocean. Oh sure, you might see the occasional narrow white-lined lane on a busy street inviting bicyclists to tackle rush-hour traffic, but few cyclists ventured that route in the early 1970s.

By 2000, I had joined the ranks of those who used a bicycle as their sole mode of transportation.

I lived 12 miles (as the crow flies) from my office in Santa Monica. And I'd ride a few extra miles out of my way to catch the Ballona Creek bike path, which offers wide lanes and automobile-free riding all the way to Marina Del Rey.

Returning home at night, the path wasn't so inviting. So I'd head straight up Wilshire Boulevard, which is almost entirely free of an individual bike lane. It was me and my wheels versus public buses and L.A. drivers. I may have been headed to work at Forbes, but I always wore appropriate biking attire. No, not the fancy spandex designer outfits you see the bike-club set wearing (though I do own eight-panel biking shorts--for comfort). I spent my money on a good helmet and comfortable shoes for my clip-less pedals. A bright halogen lit my way after dark, and my Trek had more blinking reflectors than a railroad crossing.

Rarely did I encounter mean drivers. I never felt threatened or unsafe. Some streets barely had room for two cars to pass each other, adding an element of danger for any bike rider, but I made it work for me. Most importantly, I obeyed the law. Red lights and stop signs mean the same for a cyclist as for you and your SUV or smart car. I use turn signals to tell whoever is behind me what I'm doing next, no matter if I'm on a bike or in a car. Courtesy goes a long way to keep harmony on any road or city street. Dedicated lanes don't turn careless cyclists into safe ones.

The safety element of such dreamy-eyed efforts is not the only aspect that concerns me. With bike-only lanes added to the mix of Department of Transportation responsibilities, how soon before the long arm of the taxman starts expecting us to pay registration, license, and "vehicle"-inspection fees for the privilege of riding our eco-friendly transport? Wouldn't it be cheaper and less of a hassle to just "share the road" we already have?

Some folks bike out of necessity, others just to spite. Whatever your reason, be safe, be courteous, and for gosh sakes, leave those high heels at home!

Carmen Madrid is an alum of the 2001 LA to SF AIDS Ride--575 miles and seven days of pure bliss (and a few blisters).