Appeared in Brownsville Herald and Valley Morning Star on December 8, 2013
By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett
“Cyclists” are often identified as fit people in brightly colored, tight-fitting jerseys whizzing by on bikes costing thousands of dollars. While there is the legitimate sport of cycling, road racing, and “Tour de France” style competition, bicycles are mostly used by millions around the world as a means of transportation. Limiting cycling to people who practice it as an intense sport is like saying only marathoners or competitive sprinters should use their legs to move them about. Many people also view bicycles as equipment for recreation, for their kids to pedal to and fro on the driveway or down the block. The truth is bicycles should be about recreation and transportation.
There are some very compelling reasons we should focus on promoting bicycles for transportation, like the fact that they can save time, improve health, and save money. Increasing the number of people who use bicycles for transport decreases our dependence on fossil fuels and reduces the environmental impact of these machines called cars to which we have become so addicted. Bicycles as transport also decrease traffic and congestion. I recently saw a powerful graphic of a city street with cars. Then the photo changed to the same city street with the same number of people who were in cars, now on bicycles instead. The space that opened up was shocking. Cars, in addition to costing a lot and polluting, take up an enormous amount of space on the roads. As the Valley continues to experience some of the fastest population growth in the country, space will become an issue, as will traffic and congestion. If you’ve ever lived in a big city, you know how traffic decreases your quality of life and can really drive you crazy!
When I was a student (many, many years ago) at the University of California, I didn’t own a car. I worked and lived off-campus but was able to move about entirely on a bicycle. I wasn’t alone as thousands of bikes shared the roads and paths of the city where I lived. But the design and culture of the community allowed for that. It saved money, time sitting in traffic, kept me fit, and helped reduce emissions in the already polluted Southern California air. I miss traveling everywhere by bike and enjoy the chances I do have to cycle to the store or a friend’s house, but I admit it isn’t an easy choice to make here.
BikeTexas Program Manager, Fernando Martinez, recently arrived in Brownsville in a new position as Consultant and Mobility Coordinator for the City of Brownsville to work on the development and implementation of a Multi-faceted Activation Program, Promoting Multi-modal Transportation. Originally from Mexico City, Martinez came to Brownsville from Austin where he coordinated a program to support the state Safe Routes to School program to promote kids safely riding their bikes to school. “I loved Brownsville from the moment I arrived. The people are so friendly and there is so much potential. There is a lot of momentum among the people and I love that we are laying the groundwork for the future of cycling here!” Martinez had collaborated with folks in Seville, Spain, which he says has many things in common with Brownsville and was not at all a cycling friendly place just a few years ago. “They have done amazing things in Seville and I know if they can do it we can here too!” Much of the success in Seville was due to the construction of 120km of cycling trails and track between 2007 and 2010; virtually none existed before. Another major factor is Sevivi, a public bike hire scheme modeled on Paris’s Velib which provides some 2,500 bikes to the public at 250 locations.
There is a grassroots groundswell of support for cycling happening in the Valley. Cycling clubs and bicycle shops are appearing everywhere. CycloBia, the Bike Barn, funding for trails, and BikeTexas, all signal a change of tide around bicycling. The Brownsville City Council recently approved a bold plan to create a network of trails, bike lanes and alternative routes that everyone could ride to the daily destinations or to connect with public transportation.
One of the goals with this plan is to Promote Multi-modal Transportation, also to connect low income communities and eventually rural areas and “Colonias”, providing alternative transportation to the people that cannot afford a car. This is the key to increasing bicycle transportation in the Valley. Recreational parks, trails, and cycling clubs are wonderful, but we need to create truly protected bike lanes and networks that safely accommodate public transportation and bicycles to encourage regular folks to choose cycling for daily movement as opposed to always defaulting to their cars. This may sound radical to folks from here, but we know in cities across the country and world this has been happening for years with great success.
The benefit of making this commitment, which requires investment of dollars and political will to pass policies that protect cyclists and pedestrians and fund complete streets and trails, is that it is shown to improve the economic vitality, not to mention health, of a city’s residents. In fact the top ten “cycling cities” in the U.S. are interestingly some of the most prosperous in the nation. In fact increasing the number of cyclists, both recreational and more importantly those cycling for transportation, increases the prosperity of a community. The city of Brownsville recognizes this and has taken the first step to change the culture and design to encourage use of bicycles. Hopefully other Valley communities will follow suit, because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!).