“The Visit”: What We Learned from our Friends from Far Away (III)

Posted: 17 March 2010 in Riding
Tags: , , ,

Biking “hardware” and biking “software”…

I have been riding a bike since the time I was about 5 years old (the old “banana seat” fixed gear is still fresh in my mind), but during the visit I learned more in three days about the hardware and software of biking than I had learned in nearly five decades of riding.

"Sharrows" indicate bike routes and help motorists know they are sharing the road with cyclists

It might seem strange to borrow (overused) concepts from computing to describe some of the distinctions I saw but bear with me–I think these do help tease out some important differences in what makes a community “bike friendly”, bikeable or whatever we want to call a place in which 20% or more of all trips would occur on bicycles.

The hardware of biking is at once pretty straightforward and fairly “complex”.  The hardware is everything that makes biking safe (or not) in a community: the bike lanes, bike paths, turning boxes, bike-specific red lights, bike-specific stop signs and, of course, the bike itself as well as things like lights, helmets, and all manner of bike gear.  When I first thought about the visitors’ trip here I thought mostly about this.  To me, these things (especially the lanes and paths) were what made my city “bike friendly”.  After all, when I arrived in town in the late 90s, it was these things that immediately made me realize that my (transportation) life was going to change–and that, pretty radically.

Home of the Davis Bike Collective where volunteers help people fix their bikes

But then I started reflecting on it and realized that while these things were helpful (and perhaps even critical) they were only part of the story.  At that point I started searching in my mind for other things that made biking not only possible but a central part of not just my transportation life–but a key part of my life… period. So, in preparing for the visit, I realized we needed to spend as much time talking about the software as about the hardware.

The software of biking is almost entirely “behavior” related and is related not just to making biking safe for everyone, but is also about what UC Davis researcher Susan Handy refers to as the “culture of biking”–basically, the things we do on bikes.

Volunteer at Bike 4th helping people fix their bike

Of course part of the software concerns things that the Davis Police Department is concerned about–making sure cyclists stop at red lights and stop signs, that they ride on the right side of the road, use hand signals and actually employ some of the “hardware”–lights at night especially.

This bike route indicator helps families ride together around town on a safe route

But beyond that, the software of biking also includes things that help people keep their hardware safe. When the visitors were with us we visited “Bike 4th” a place run by the Davis Bike Collective that enables people to work on their bikes with tools, advice and support from volunteers.  This place is NOT a bike shop as the founders and current volunteers reminded us, but a safe and supportive place where people can build the ability to maintain their bikes–at low cost–so they will ride them for a long time.

Bike parking at local jr high school

Another critical part of the software concerns all the stuff we try to do to encourage kids (and parents) to bike to school.

Much more could be said here but the point is that it takes LOTS of community support to make bike to school activities, events and resources sustainable.

And then, we have a collection of things we do on bikes that do not fit any particular category but create a climate in which people are on bikes.  We harvest fruit for the foodbank on bikes, we go to soccer matches on bikes, we run small businesses on bikes, we bike together as families using designated safe routes, we ride for fun and we commute.

In CA, commuters can take their bikes unboxed on all Amtrak trains and feeder buses

Delivering citrus we picked to a food bank

I wanted our visitors to experience these things and in showing them I learned how critical they are to making cycling a part of my life.  I am part of a community that bikes.  I am part of a town where “helmet hair” is the norm, where arriving by bike never raises an eyebrow and where going shopping only requires the addition of a small trailer to a bike.

I need to think more about the relationship between the “hardware” and the “software” but the point is that both are necessary and the development of a culture–like the development of the infrastructure requires a long-term commitment and visionary leadership. (Thanks to Thanh Dang for the pictures!)

  1. cool Blog! Good reading!

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