Book Review: “Pedal Power” by J. Harry Wray

Based on a recommendation from one of our readers (thanks, Mindy!), I just completed reading Pedal Power: The Quiet Rise of the Bicycle in American Public Life by J. Harry Wray (Boulder, Colo: Paradigm Publishers, 2008).

Pedal Power

I posted a passage that really resonated with me in a previous article…great food for thought.

This book is a socio-political overview of the many advocacy groups, politicians and assorted bike-friendly clubs throughout the United States who are making real differences in terms of supporting the creation and maintenance of bicycle infrastructure, championing cyclists’ rights to the roads and fostering a growing bicycle culture here. The author is a professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago and is known for taking his students on bicycle rides throughout the city to instill in them a sense of “how politics, economics and the environment combine to affect culture and be affected by it” (Pedal Power: “About the Author”).

Wray begins by discussing the perceptional differences between motorists and bicycle users…how bicyclists tend to be more aware of their surroundings and thus more likely to notice changes and problems (and addressing them when discovered). Using a bicycle as transportation in any city fosters a sense of community — and encourages the use of undiscovered and underappreciated public spaces that are completely foreign to motorists who spend most of their traveling time in their air-conditioned “private bubbles”, insulated from the world around them. Much of that will come as no shock to those of you who are regular commuters; we tend to “see” our surroundings differently because we are out in it every day, sometimes off the beaten path and in places most motorists will never travel.

Wray talks about the needed cultural shift in our society in order to make bicycling seen as a more sensible transportation choice in American cities. With our growing interest in leaving consumer-based, wasteful lifestyles behind, many Americans are starting to wake up to a more “European Dream, with its emphasis on inclusivity, diversity, quality of life, sustainability, deep play, universal human rights and the rights of nature, and peace” (p. 78). The bicycle, suggests Wray,

“…is caught up in this culture storm. In some ways the dominant culture seeks to domesticate the bike by turning it into one more variant of commodity fetishism, but most of those in the bike movement see it differently. A decision to ride a bike is a very individualistic decision in our culture. But the bike deepens one’s sense of connection to others. It is also a statement about limits and sustainability. As it assimilates the bike, the culture also accomodates to it. Cultural change is necessary in order for the bike to be widely adopted as a transportation alternative. At the same time, however, increased use of the bike stimulates cultural change.”

The author then spends some time talking about the Mecca of bicycle-friendly cities: Amsterdam. He discusses how cycling became such a dominant transportation choice there (and it wasn’t always the case there…it is a fairly recent phenomenon in the grand scheme of things). He talks about what changes were made and how they were supported there to make bicycling such an incredible force.

Then, he spends a few chapters covering some of the well-known bicycle advocacy groups, both on the national level (League of American Bicyclists and the Thunderhead Alliance) and regional or city-based groups (Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, Bike Portland, and others). He also introduces the reader to a variety of national, state and local-level politicians who are making real changes in how bicycles are treated during transportation planning and implementation — all the heavy hitters such as Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, Anne Paulsen of Massachusetts, and Mayor Jerry Abramson of Louisville, Kentucky (yes, Louisville…they’ve got it going on down there!), among others.

This is an incredibly enjoyable and powerful book; it is never dry or overwhelmingly academic as I first feared…and is one that I feel should be required reading for newly-elected politicians entering office. In order for bicycling to thrive as a real transportation alternative in American cities, we need more bike-riding politicians on our sides — working from the inside to help create more bike-friendly communities. The book also suggests that the many smaller advocacy groups could possibly be better served by joining forces with each other and massing their muscle to get things done. I heartily recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about how the bicycle is slowly changing the way Americans live their lives.

This book may or may not be available at your local public library — I had to borrow it through inter-library loan (thanks, Nova Southeastern University Libraries!), but had just enough pull with our book selectors at my library to order a copy for our collection. Power to the people!


  1. Scott July 20, 2008 9:42 pm 

    I just requested this book through interlibrary loan. Based on subject matter alone I figured that the UC Davis Shields library would have it but I had to take advantage of Cal’s library instead.

  2. john the bicyclist July 21, 2008 10:14 am 

    One problem with bike culture “getting it on” involves money. Sadly, in America, if there’s not much money to be made, few take notice. There’s little profit margin compared with automobiles and trucks, bikes are cheap to fix and riders are generally healthier and happier (so forget about all those high blood pressure meds, diet pills and antidepressant sales). How can we make big business take notice? Then the culture will take off.

  3. Chris Lopez July 21, 2008 12:26 pm 

    Thanks for highlighting this book. I work at a library in Birminham, Michigan, and I’m going to request we order it for our collection.

    Michigan, especially the Metro Detroit area, where B’ham is located, can be tough place to sell the notion of bicyles as alternate forms of transportation, for obvious reasons. But I have noticed more people riding bikes in general. I know that there is at least one other person who works here at the library who regularly rides their bike to work. I am able to ride at least two days a week and and working to increase that amount.

    Also, I’ve noted in some local event publications a rise in things like bike parades and alternate transportational mode parades.

  4. Marine Stoker February 27, 2010 5:20 pm 

    Great article, thank you. I am very interested in finding a diet that lowers my sugar intake. I currently have a sweet-tooth, and am finding it difficult to find meal plans, what to eat for snacks, etc. While diabetes is not something that runs in my family, I am still concerned and would like to be smart and take a proactive approach to my health.

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