Forty Years of Bicycling

By Ken Hughes, AICP - March 2013

bikingForty years ago I bought a used ten-speed bicycle, and I never looked back.
It was my junior year in college, in St. Paul on an urban studies seminar. The whole Twin Cities was our classroom, so to best get around and see the cities I combined bus trips and bicycling. Given the Minnesota venue, snow was a constant presence, so I learned how to navigate the bike through snow drifts. When the seminar ended and the snow melted, I biked for three days along the Mississippi River on a 300 mile sojourn to my hometown of Dubuque, Iowa.
The bike was a constant companion during my final year at Notre Dame and graduate school in Blacksburg at Virginia Tech. And it went with me along with a pillow and a trombone when I moved to Washington DC in time for Jimmy Carter's inauguration. One year of car ownership was enough, as I discovered how fun and easy it was to navigate DC streets by rail or bike. In fact, many bicyclists felt the Metrorail should accommodate bikes, so we lobbied the Metro authority and got service after 7pm on weekdays and on all weekend.

In the mid-1980s I became President of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, or WABA, to help promote better bicycling conditions. In those days before the internet we took print outs of police accident data and plotted out the most dangerous dozen intersections for bicyclists, then we pushed city hall to make improvements. We also lobbied to create a bicycling advisory board to gain more of a say in city hall, working to make streets safer for cyclists of all stripes. Our annual Bike to Work Day was always a blast; I still hear from people who credit the event for getting them out and commuting by bike. Nowadays anyone in DC can take advantage of the nation's best bike sharing program, with bikes available at hundreds of bike docking stations for use on safer streets, some with dedicated bike lanes.
Anti-war activists came to the association with an idea: why not pack up unused bikes sitting around in basements and send them to Nicaragua? We said sure, so we used the WABA nonprofit status to create Bikes Not Bombs. Soon folks readily donated old bikes and got a tax writeoff, and dozens of chapters formed across the nation to pack bikes and arrange to ship them to Nicaragua. I was inspired to create a similar group focused on Haiti, and others 'adopted' other nations. To this day groups like Bikes for the World are packing up and shipping bikes, some 500,000 in total, giving educators, health care workers, farmers and many others a chance to lighten their loads and increase their productivity.
Soon we thought about a bigger idea than WABA could accommodate. We came up with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. This brought Bikes Not Bombs, Mobility Haiti and Bicycle Africa together as the direct outreach wing. We then turned our attention to changing the policies of institutions responsible for funding transportation projects in developing parts of the world. With both grassroots and foundation support, ITDP got the support of sympathetic individuals working at the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and similar organizations. While I moved on from ITDP when I moved to New Mexico in 1989, I'm so proud of ITDP's efforts that led to the recent announcement that the World Bank and other lending institutions have committed to spending $175 billion over the next ten years on sustainable transportation projects such as bus rapid transit and dedicated bike lanes, as a prime method for addressing climate change.
Santa Fe is ideal bike commuting compared to Washington DC. However, it is not perfect. I co-chaired the city's bicycle advisory committee to look at how to improve cycling conditions. In 1993 we produced a plan, and these many years later the city is now laced with dozens of miles of bike trails. I even get to choose riding on portions of three trails to get to work. While on Santa Fe's planning commission between 2006 and 2012, we would insist that proposed developments do their best to accommodate bus riders, cyclists and pedestrians, in the view that little accommodations can encourage greater levels of ridership.
Biking to work on a recent winter day with temperatures just above 0 and a wind chill well below that, I thanked my stars for allowing me to take the inspiration received forty years ago in St. Paul to try the cycling route. I look forward to many more years on the saddle of the real freedom machine. ###


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