A review of Jeff Mapes’ book, Pedaling Revolution

National Bike Summit - Day two-34

Author Jeff Mapes (R) speaking
with the BTA’s Scott Bricker at the
2009 National Bike Summit.
(Photos © J. Maus)

Author and senior political reporter for The Oregonian, Jeff Mapes, will be at Powell’s Books tonight to talk about his new book, Pedaling Revolution.

Mapes is riding a wave of excellent reviews and buzz about his book. The influential Library Journal (which many schools and libraries base their purchasing decisions on) gave it a coveted “highly recommended” rating. Library Journal said the book is, “a deftly drawn portrait of contemporary bike culture and politics,” is that it is “readable and engaging”. But, far from being something only the staid Library Journal could love, the Willamette Week also liked it.

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The cover

I was impressed with Pedaling Revolution’s scope. Mapes has put together a broad survey of the local, national, and global burgeoning urban bike movement. From John Dowlin, an advocate from Philadelphia in the 1970s who told Mapes over coffee that he “really felt the bicycle could be for the world’s cities what the spinning wheel was for Ghandi,” to Portland’s own Reverend Phil Sano, whom Mapes likens to being one of a new guard urban bikers who are “painting a new image of urban hip that is slowly replacing that old picture in America of adult cyclists as either hapless losers or elite but niche athletes in garish spandex.”

Mapes sets the foundation for the book with a first chapter that explains the role of the bicycle in American society from well before the 19th century. What made this book special for me is that Mapes didn’t just pull from books and online research, he traveled the country (and the globe) to ride on the streets he writes about and to talk directly with the people who have played (and continue to play) pivotal roles in America’s bike movement.

Mapes moves from the trenches of Critical Mass/Police warfare in New York City, to the utopian bikeways of Davis, California, and the biking capital of the world, Amsterdam — all without missing a shift.

There’s an entire chapter on Portland titled, Portland Built it and They Came, that has been essential reading here at BikePortland headquarters. Both Elly and I have used it like a textbook to study up before presentations we’ve made recently.

And for the Type-A bike advocate who wants to win arguments by knowing the latest studies and statistics, Mapes concludes his book with exhaustively researched chapters on safety, health, and getting kids on bikes (the Library Journal called these three chapters “the most compelling sections” and Mapes also shared all his sources in the bibliography).

National Bike Summit

Mapes at the ’07 National Bike
Summit, while researching
his book.

Clearly in support of the idea that bikes have the potential to radically transform American cities (for the better), Mapes also includes perspectives from the other side of the windshield. Sometimes, almost too much (as if he’s trying to be overly objective).

Reading through the book, the only thing that nagged at me was Mapes’ insistence on using Vehicular Cycling (VC) stalwarts John Forrester and John Allen as counterpoints in the book’s discussions of advocacy and policy issues. I think some readers might get the sense that the battle for ideas between VC advocates and more mainstream advocates (that take inspiration from Europe, not cars) is greater than it actually is.

Forrester’s impact on the modern bike movement can’t be understated. But his ideas and advocacy style — and those of others (like John Allen) who follow him — are clearly losing a foothold to what Mapes refers to as the “modern bike advocacy movement” that is being forged in cities like Portland, Davis, New York City, and others where bike use is flourishing.

But that’s a tiny quibble. Overall, Mapes has written an important book that I’ll continue to read and gain insights from well into the future. His extensive research (he took a six-month sabbatical from The Oregonian to immerse himself in bike culture, bike advocacy and bike politics), solid reporting skills, and anecdotal-infused personal style have combined to stitch together a story that, so far, has been largely unknown to all but wonky advocates.

You can’t have a revolution (pedaling or not) without information, and this book just might become one of the sparks that fuels biking’s upcoming boom.

Meet Jeff Mapes tonight at Powell’s Books on Burnside. Details and purchasing information here. (Remember, when you buy the book from the BikePortland Bookstore, we make a little cut of the proceeds!)

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13 years ago

its tonight? hawt damn!

Curt Dewees
Curt Dewees
13 years ago

Yes, indeed, Jeff wrote a very good book. Neverthless, I don’t think he took a whole year off from his day job at the Oregonian to do it. (Seems to me it was more like six months.)

13 years ago

Broadway Books (1714 NE Broadway) is hosting Jeff Mapes on Tuesday, March 31st at 7:00 pm.

13 years ago

Meteorite are there any other events scheduled? I had plans for tonight and have a class on the 31st? I may have to skip my class but would rather be able to do both…


13 years ago

Where can we buy it? Great to see something like this from a local author.

Jessica Roberts
Jessica Roberts
13 years ago

I’ve been reading this book and really enjoying it. The writing is especially engaging and I’m enjoying seeing Jeff’s take on some of the events and people that I am already familiar with.

Elly Blue (Columnist)
13 years ago

You can buy the book locally at Powell’s — if you order it online using this link…


…part of the cost of the book will help support BikePortland. (You can choose to have the book shipped to you, or held for you to pick up at any Powell’s location.)

13 years ago

I’m about 2/3 through a library copy of the book, and can tell I’ll need to buy my own. Mr. Mapes book is well-written and thoroughly researched. But it’s difficult to read it without wanting to put it down and go for a ride! He makes a fantastic case for the transformative power cycling has to remake our cities. My only worry is that, for most readers, he’s preaching to the choir. How can we get this book in the hands of transportation wonks who aren’t cycling inclined?

13 years ago

If you’re in it, you should definitely send a copy to your mom for Mother’s Day. 🙂