I took to trudging across the Transit Road bridge recently and picked up six nails. SIX. This is one of the major quirks I developed after I turned into a cyclist: Every time I’m out just walking, I stop and pick up every nail and screw I see discarded along the side of a road. I certainly wouldn’t want anything sharp puncturing my tire, especially if I’m far from either my house or a bicycle shop where I can get a quick fix.
I don’t think I’m making some far-out, absurd request by wanting a road shoulder free of debris so I can ride my bicycle without worrying about anything. Finding nails and screws on the side of a bridge is a very special kind of weird, though, because it isn’t like anyone has their houses or garages set up along the shoulder of the bridge. Most of these dangerous video game spikey points aren’t old and worn out bits which fell off the back of an old pickup truck, either – they’re new and ready to make their first stabbin’. This begs the question of how these pieces of debris manage to find their way out onto a bridge which is suspended a hundred feet in the air and which takes five minutes to walk across on foot. This bridge is dangerous enough as it is; the shoulder is maybe 18 inches, and that’s a generous estimate. There’s no sidewalk, which I guess is natural of a spot designed to keep people away from civilization at every possible cost. The section of road the bridge is placed on is essentially a freeway, and the only other way to cross the creek at this section of it is to walk over a mile along a twisting road to a whole other bridge which also lacks a shoulder, but is elevated much lower and is much shorter.
When I pick up the screws and nails, I just throw them out. What I would like to do is throw them out in the middle of the street in the hopes that they start popping tires in endless succession. Maybe they could cause a pileup.
Okay, I’m just ranting right now, but that doesn’t change the fact that debris-filled road shoulders present one of those great frying-pan-or-fire dilemmas for cyclists: Do we risk getting run over in the main road, or risk the debris on the shoulder? The dilemma itself doesn’t exactly stand on its own, but is instead a symptom of a larger problem: The city’s problem with bicycling. This is something Buffalo like to pretend doesn’t exist, and the city’s boosters love to hold up the shiny Bronze-level award given to it by the League of American Bicyclists to say “look at how great we are to bicyclists!” The Bronze-level award, though, is basically a door prize. Here’s the uncomfortable truth regarding the bicycle-friendliness awards handed out by the League of American Bicyclists: That Bronze-level award is the lowest of five tiers of bicycle-friendly awards. To be fair, I’m assuming the requirements to meet the League’s top-level statuses are pretty demanding. The Diamond-level award, which is the top level, was handed to precisely zero cities. Platinum-level is the second-highest, and it was given out to only four cities: Boulder, Colorado; Davis, California; Fort Collins, Colorado; and Portland, Oregon. My thoughts on that selection go like this: First, you knew Portland was going to be there. Second, of those four cities, the places people would actually visit are Portland and maybe Boulder.
The further you get down the awards list, the more the League loves handing them out. The Silver-level tier has a whopping 75 cities on it. There are at least a couple hundred sitting on top of the Bronze-level seats. It’s clear the League is giving out its Bronze-level awards to any city that isn’t actively outlawing bicycling. The Bronze-level list also includes suburbs: Batavia and Naperville, relatively close suburbs of Chicago, both have Bronze-level awards. North Little Rock is pretty much exactly what and where is written on its tin, and is similarly honored even though the real Little Rock didn’t make the cut.
This begs the question: What creates a bicycle-friendly community? Although the League of American Bicyclists claims it decides for “providing safe accommodation and facilities for bicyclists and encouraging residents to bike for transportation and recreation,” it seems to be flying solely by infrastructure, which is a mistake. A few miles of bicycle paths doesn’t make a city bicycle-friendly, and let’s be honest: A few miles of bicycle paths don’t necessarily mean the city added bicycle paths, either. They mean the city painted a few arbitrary lines on a road which is sometimes a little too narrow, which can endanger the cyclists. One website recently called out a popular bicycle publication because the publication placed New York City at the top of its list of best cycling cities, even though the argument for the city’s bicycle scene consisted almost solely of bicycle paths.
A quick Google search pops up a single result for bicycle tours in Buffalo: Buffalo Pedal Tours. Buffalo Pedal Tours offers bicycle tours at a price that’s a steal… For Buffalo Pedal Tours. The privilege of having a professional guide show you the pedal-view of Buffalo is close to $150 per hour. In the meantime, Chicago has Free Tours by Foot, which is a misleading name that offers bicycle tours and still has a name-your-price option. Their website brags about tours which cost about $40 per person. Bobby’s Bike Hike’s most expensive tour is $60. Looking for bicycle rentals in Buffalo brings up five results, all of which are primarily dealers or mechanics. Chicago has nine or ten places where you can rent. Although most of them are also shops and mechanics, there are at least three that deal exclusively with rentals.
Let’s talk about the one factor no one wants to mention: Peoples’ attitudes toward bicycling. Attitude is the angry elephant. It’s the difference between an onlooker asking a few curious questions or assaulting you, and whether or not your assailant gets away with it. Buffalo’s attitude toward cycling is to basically liken it to a form of witchcraft. Even if those little nuts and bolts I mentioned in the opening were removed, cars in Buffalo are still mistaken for weapons when a cyclist is spotted on the side of the road. Those while lines which are supposed to designate the bicycle lanes are more or less suggestions, and if a motorist is approaching while particularly close to the side of the road, the chances of them moving or give or take, even if they have all the space in the world on the other side. Some of these people have the gall to honk or even scream at you on the way by. I ride my bicycle to visit my bank which, despite being several miles down the road, is only a half hour away on the pedal. The distance gets treated like some insurmountable obstacle course involving several canyons and volcanoes, even by people who know I once worked as a bicycle messenger and have therefore lost all concept of the term “cycling distance.”
You would think Buffalo would have a little more understanding of how useful bicycles are. They’re cheap, you don’t have to buy gas for them, they’re accessible to places you can’t get cars into, and the suburban infrastructure is basically laid out in a lot of places so the people have to cross the furthest possible distances to get to civilization. Then again, we’re up against gas and automobile companies which view anything less than living in your car as a blowout loss.
Buffalo isn’t anything close to an ideal bicycling city. For it to improve, we need to see a mass influx of better cycling services, more bicycle rental and tour places, trails that aren’t painted on, and a friendlier infrastructure. But for that to happen, the people also need to start looking at bicycling as something greater than a game they learned as kids.