Is Charlotte a “World Class” bike culture?

Recently, I have been thinking about what it would take for Charlotte to achieve a world class distinction for cycling culture. Cities like Copenhagen pop to mind as what people “think,” when they hear phrases like “World Class,” “International,” and “cycling” all mixed together. In the US, typically places like Portland, OR, and Madison, WI come to mind. It was on a recent trip to Ragbrai in Iowa that I started to think about what these things actually mean. Two important questions come to mind. First, would people move here because cycling is such an important part of life. And, second, do we have infrastructure that enables people from a wide variety of social and economic backgrounds, experience, and usage to support such a bike culture.

When I first started putting ideas together for Velotribe.org and this blog, I wanted to promote the marketplace of ideas to think about tough questions. I learned throughout my tenure as a researcher, director, and teacher that getting highly motivated creative people together to identify and solve novel problems is a difficult endeavor to start up, but the advancements are great in the long run. Sometimes these issues are very complex, and ideologically push individuals to divide themselves into “camps” with opposing philosophies. Velotribe and this blog are meant to tease out these differences, so that solving the issues that many of us are passionate about will be possible. This has lead me to the idea that “modular” group, micro-cultures lead to exponential results. Therefore, rather than trying to get “everyone” on the same page, we should encourage people to do what they are passionate about, and then connect those projects as they seem relevant to each other ad hoc.

There are many passionate people in Charlotte working on building this city into a better biking culture. In fact there are at least two dozen  individuals and groups that I can count right now off the top of my head. Each has their own distinctive voice in the community. The power for growth in cycling culture here really is in the “organic” growth of connecting people. I have seen several methods used to do this over the last several years, but long term growth depends upon organic methods, supported sometimes by corporate interests.  We should encourage the connectivity of the marketplace of ideas, where people that come together encourage more creative and prosperous citizens.

 

I can remember arriving back into Charlotte in 2013 from Europe (where I worked), and I started to ride in what would become a social group called the Crank Mafia. There were only five/six of us then, but we started to ride between neighborhoods for almost everything. Many stops included businesses, restaurants, and pubs that I almost certainly wouldn’t have discovered or frequented over a span of time without the catalyst of the bike and group riding. We were meeting with others from different neighborhoods encouraging them to ride with us. It ballooned to hundreds of people in a very short amount of time. I spent as much or more time in NoDa, Plaza Midwood, and uptown than I did in my own neighborhood. In many ways, riding a bike reminded me of the book “The Gift,” by Marcel Mauss. In his anthropological work, Mauss noticed that exchange was a very important building block of connecting people together in groups. One might take away that people are either at confrontation with one another, or they exchange and become connected. Bike riding social was connecting the small Crank Mafia group to other people in other parts of town.

We began to plan events and meet-ups with an entirely different spectrum of people, all because of bikes and cycling. It was so organic and explosive that as I have watched various corporate groups try to do the same thing, they didn’t have the same results, and they were not lasting. Almost feeling Malcolm Gladwell-ian, I pondered why this was so. What is it about organic culture that is so powerful and lasting. The answer must begin with people and connectivity. Or at least that is what I currently think.

One of those people, I first met was a small in stature, but iconic nonetheless, woman named Pam Murray. She was the de facto leader, community organizer for the Plaza Midwood Tuesday Night Ride aka PMTNR. One of the riders in our small group, told us about Pam and the PMTNR, so one Tuesday we rode over to Plaza Midwood and met up at the Common Market for what would become a life altering experience. That night we rode with a large group of maybe 50-60 riders around town on regular roads, through neighborhoods, stopping for a social around the halfway point. Over the years, I have now ridden it many times, and it has grown to hundreds of riders at times, each with their own signature personality and style. I knew almost instantly that Pam was different from the majority of people I had encountered in Charlotte, and in cycling (I had been riding since my youth as a native in Charlotte). Pam had a passion for “everyday” cycling like artists and musicians have about their art and music. Over the last few years, I have come to know Pam as a cycling activist and advocate for “everyday” cycling. She doesn’t just talk the talk, she lives it. I can’t even imagine Plaza Midwood without Pam’s energy and tireless work to get people riding, and having fun. Plaza Midwood is by many standards a small micro-Copenhagen/Portland, but it has its own unique feel there among the other creative folks.

Anthropology is really a discipline about discovering things by learning about the people of the culture in their own voice, so that one might tease out larger rules, laws, morals, codes, connections. So, it seems fitting to ask people about why they cycle, or don’t. How bikes impact their everyday lives etc. For this new blog I decided to put some questions about cycling in Charlotte to Pam. What might we learn from her experiences. How can we take that passion and energy, and use it to bolster Charlotte’s cycling culture.

This was my interview:

 

Velography:  Please tell us when you started riding, and how you came to take up cycling over other activities.
PM: “I started riding as an adult when I taught my kids how to ride a bike.  I thought it was a fun activity we could all do together.  Like most people, I felt a need to become more active as my job was a desk job that was pretty sedentary.  I started yoga about the same time then started biking to yoga, to work….”
V:  The Plaza Midwood Tuesday Night Ride (PMTNR) has become a staple (and some might say archetype) for social riding in Charlotte. How did it come about? How has it changed over the years?
PM: “After Critical Mass, we wanted to ride more so we decided to meet Tuesdays.  Like most people, I didn’t have the time to ride during the day so I rode at night after work.  Over the years we have tried to adapt and do what works.  When we started it was me and one or 2 people.  I started inviting people and they came and brought friends.  As the size of the group has grown, we have planned the route and publish before the ride, we have planned regrouping stops every 2 miles so we can keep everyone together.  We use Glympse to let the group know where we are.  We’ve tried marking turns – no one wanted to do that or they didn’t know street names.  We’ve tried having a sweep.  We’ve tried walkie talkies – we couldn’t hear them.  We use whistles to let the leader know when we’re altogther at the regrouping stop.  We have a mid ride leader to lead from the middle when the light breaks up the group.”
V:  If you were asked for a mission statement for your philosophy of creating an amazing bike culture, what would it be?
PM: “Have lots of people riding all the time…everywhere.  It takes all kinds of riders to work together.  We all like to ride.  We need to do less talking about riding and do more riding.”
V: You have several projects you are working on currently? What are they, and how are they progressing?
PM: “Rides – Advent Tues ride 10 am in the summer, 2pm when it’s cooler, PMTNR at 8 pm, Sunday Slow Ride at 7:30 in the summer, 2 pm when it’s cooler
Bike Benefits – we’ll continue to grow and expand the program.  Charlotte has about 200 participating businesses and is the largest program in the country.
Cycling Savvy – Successful cycling workshop through communication and cooperation.
National Bike Challenge runs from May through September.  I joined in 2014.  This year our team, Charlotte Spokes People is ranked #15 nationally.  We really are riding.  We have several people who have logged over 1000 miles Since May (less than 4 months).
Sub 24 Overnight bike camp trip Sept 24th – We’ll load up our bikes, ride out to Copperhead Island at McDowell Nature Preserve, camp and ride back the next day. ” 
V: There is currently a lot of talk in Charlotte about building “world class” bike infrastructure. What are your thoughts on building this infrastructure? 
PM: “CDOT has done a great job building “world class” bike infrastructure.  People just don’t know about it.  If everyone knew about all the great things CDOT has done, they would think we have it made.  I use it everyday so I know.  Here are some examples:
adjusting signals to detect bikes
Bikes May Use Full Lane signs such as on Hawthorne in front of Preby, on Camden near Price’s
Photo detection signals which sense all roadway users including motorcycles, mopeds, bikes, motor vehicles.  A new one is at Romany at Kenilworth.
Connectors such as Belrose, Cotswold Elementary, etc.
Signed bike routes
Pedestrian count down clocks – useful for cyclists.  We take these for granted but some cities do not have them.
Well maintained roads – ask any northerner and they’ll remark on the smooth pavement
Reverse angle parking such as in Plaza Midwood busines district – great to increase visibility of cyclists to motorists
Sharrows – using more of them such as on Pecan near Bay, Commonwealth near Thomas”
V:  Additionally, there is a working plan to create a protected bike lane uptown in Charlotte. Do you think this will help Charlotte get more people to ride uptown and around Charlotte?
PM: “Probably not.  Let’s be realistic.  The distance will likely be less than 2 miles.  Cyclists will still need to get there and know how to enter/egress.  Due to the signal timing of the light Uptown, traffic is generally not fast moving.  The more dangerous threat to cyclists Uptown is parked vehicles which are hazardous to cyclists riding in the door zone.  Due to the number of commercial driverways, bus stops and on street parking, the so called protected bike lane won’t be that great to ride in.  Have you ever seen the 4th St. bike lane completely clear?  Protected bike lanes are not protected in the intersections which is the location of most moving crashes.  Of course there will be riders but not without incident.  Tangentially, riders who choose not to ride there will be subject to increased harassment and pressure to ride there even though bike lane use in NC is not mandatory.  That type of education should accompany the implementation but sadly is generally not included in the budget.”
V: There seems to be a difference in the way cyclists want to make this city a better bike culture. Some say less cars and lower speed limits. Others say building bike lanes and special bike roadways. And even others say education and outreach. In what ways can we make Charlotte an even better bike culture, in your mind?
PM: “If everyone rides, we will have a common experience and through education we can demand higher quality infrastructure.  Safety should be paramount to ridership.  Infrastructure should be built using best practices instead of minimum safety standards.  My life depends on it.”
V:  You have been a giant advocate for bike culture in this town. How is Charlotte as a biking town? What do we need to make it better? Are there any issues that need to be “fixed,” before we can make it better?
PM: “Charlotte is a great biking town but doesn’t know it.  Charlotte needs to embrace the leafy streets, the connected older grid, the beauty of the mild climate that makes 365 days of riding possible.  Look at what is.  We need to accept what we have and appreciate it.  We need to accept each other for various types of riding that we all do.  We need to drive our bikes as vehicles and demand the respect we deserve.  We need to “fix” focusing on the differences rather than the similarities.  We all like to ride bikes and we all want to arrive alive.”
V:  Any last comments?
PM: “Let’s all go for a bike ride.  Together.”
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