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Not white and not wealthy: Taking biking beyond the usual suspects

Posted by on March 21st, 2012 at 10:17 am

This morning the National Bike Summit welcomed a new face to the usual litany of bike-supportive lawmakers that come here to fire up the crowd: House Representative Donna Edwards (D-MD).

Rep Donna Edwards at opening plenary-1-2

Her presence was notable not just because she was a black woman on a stage with five white men; but she used the stage to emphasize an emerging theme in the national bike movement: equity and access for low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. After the opening plenary, one of the breakout sessions detailed the process and the progress of ‘Local Spokes,’ a promising coalition of advocacy groups working to broaden access to bicycling in New York City’s Lower East Side and Chinatown.

Setting the stage for that session, Rep. Edwards issued a challenge to the crowd:

“Next year when I come, I want you reaching out into communities like mine, where there are majorities of communities of color where we ride our bicycles too and we want clear air and water and all modes of transportation so we can go to and from work. We have work to do as advocates so we can make sure we have the most robust movement for all us, for all communities.”

Rep Donna Edwards at opening plenary-2-2

That message is already in action for the Local Spokes Coalition. Just as we’ve seen the issue of equity take hold locally in Portland around our discussions of the N. Williams Avenue project, investments in East Portland, and in the work of the Community Cycling Center, bringing a broader range of ethnic groups and lower-income communities into the bicycling fold has emerged as a key theme here at the National Bike Summit and Local Spokes is a perfect example of how the equity anxiety that exists among planners and advocates is being translated into real, on-the-ground, grassroots action.

Local Spokes is a grant-funded coalition of nine different advocacy organizations. Representatives of four of those orgs were on a panel today titled, Building Successful Programs in Diverse Neighborhoods. The panelists included: Caroline Samponaro, Director of Bicycle Advocacy for Transportation Alternatives; Pasqualina Azzarello, Executive Director of Recycle-a-Bicycle; Douglas Le from Asian Americans for Equality; and Karyn Williams, Executive Director of Velo City.


Caroline Samponaro

Pasqualina Azzarello

Karyn Williams

Much of New York City’s extensive bikeway development in the past few years (a 2011 bike map shown during the presentation touted ’50 New Miles of Bikeways’) has taken place in the Lower East Side — a densely populated immigrant community where the average household income is $35,000 per year and a place with the highest proportion of public housing in all of New York City.

Caroline Samponaro explained that the Lower East Side/Chinatown area is, “the center of the city’s transportation network” and that it will be the “epicenter” of the beginning phase of New York City’s forthcoming bike share program. “The big picture,” she said, “Is to ensure that the community has an informed voice in decision-making.”

“The idea was to really listen, in a passive way, and be willing to hear thing we didn’t necessarily want to hear. Our interest was to have more bike infrastructure, but we were interested to hear what their priories were.”
— Karyn Williams, Velo City

What spurred Local Spokes, Pasqualina Azzarello said, was the “vast gap” she and other advocates noticed between the new transportation projects the City was implementing and the communities they were building them in.

To overcome that gap, the coalition came together, figured out a shared vision, and then set out to work. They created a survey (which was delivered in Spanish, English, and Chinese), they launched a youth ambassador program, and began a process of community brainstorming sessions with the goal to develop a concept plan for bicycling.

Instead of the standard operating procedure of a City planner coming into a community with a pre-determined agenda or project, the Local Spokes coalition decided to ask, listen, empower residents, and then work collaborative on solutions.

One of the toughest lessons for the advocates was to not only ask residents what they want for the future of bicycling — or whether they wanted bicycling at all — but to be ready to hear the answer. Azzarello, whose group has a similar approach to Portland’s Community Cycling Center, said they were prepared to “hear things that made us sad and that weren’t in line with what we believed in.”

As an architect, Karyn Williams of Velo City said that when she hears about an urban problem her first instinct is, “What can we build? What can we design?” But through her work on the Local Motion project, she now realizes that, “The solution isn’t always building more bike lanes.” Williams also had reservations about what they might here when they asked residents about bicycling:

“The idea was to really listen, in a passive way, and be willing to hear thing we didn’t necessarily want to hear. Our interest was to have more bike infrastructure, but we were interested to hear what their priories were.”

While the process takes longer and might be more unsettling than the usual way projects are developed, Azzarello says the foundation they’ve laid has paid off big time. “What we found after going through this process was more rich and more meaningful and more useful than any agenda we could have gone into this process with,” she said, “It has been remarkable to know what this process can look like.”

During the Q & A that followed, a man in the crowd shared frustrations about this approach. “What’s frustrating to me as a planner,” he said, “is that, what if a neighborhood says they don’t want transit, when the master plan calls for transit. We need to set some basic values, it’s not all about letting 1,000 flowers bloom. Basic values matter.”

Planet Bike is the official sponsor of our Bike Summit coverage.

In response, Azzarello said that she was glad to hear this feedback and that success lies in “How we choose to implement our tools, there is a lot more leeway than we allow ourselves to recognize… It’s a back and forth, and allowing that to inform your vision makes for a much richer vision.”

To get a better sense of how their vision is taking off, watch the great video below about the youth ambassador program:

Local Motion hopes to unveil their concept plan in May during Bike to Work Month. Their work can definitely inform some neighborhoods in Portland and I was glad to see that Bicycle Transportation Alliance board member Stephen Gomez and Community Cycling Center Executive Director Alison Graves were not just in the audience, but they both asked questions and talked with the panelists afterwards.

— This is ongoing coverage of the 2012 National Bike Summit, which is being brought to you by Planet Bike.

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

  • NF March 21, 2012 at 10:40 am

    Thanks for the article Jonathan.. very timely with regards to Portland’s recent projects.

    “there is a lot more leeway than we allow ourselves to recognize.” This is the key that we all need to understand. There are many paths to get to the same place when implementing a bike plan. Some processes might earn you distrust you need to recover from (Holgate) others might earn you respect for your perseverance (hopefully, Williams).

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  • Andrew K March 21, 2012 at 11:45 am

    I’m very happy to see groups out there focusing on minorities and lower income neighborhoods. A month or so back I was reading a book written by Van Jones who discussed this very issue. I know he can be a very polarizing figure, and I don’t always agree with him, but he was spot on in a chapter where he discussed that “green” movements would be a lot more successful if they made it a point to engage people of color or lower-income populations.

    All too often being sustainable is perceived as something only a rich person can really do successfully. Is that perception true? Of course not… However, when the emphasis is always on things like Electric Cars or buying expensive LEED certified homes, etc. it’s no wonder the less affluent just shrug their shoulders and say, “well, there is nothing *I* can do!” and in turn feel excluded from the movement.

    I think bikes are a good way to bridge that divide. It is incredibly sustainable (arguably the MOST sustainable mode of transport) and not very expensive to get into. On the streets all bicycles are equal.

    I recently read a report which made the claim that the average American spends $8,000 a year (!) on their car (car payment, insurance, gas, parking, maintenance). I’m not sure how true that figure is but start throwing that number around more often and I’m sure you will get people to pay attention.

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    • middle of the road guy March 22, 2012 at 9:28 am

      If I can afford it, so what? 8k may be a pittance to someone who makes over 100k a year (which is not me, by the way).

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      • PorterStout March 22, 2012 at 12:40 pm


        “The median income divides households in the US evenly in the middle with half of all household earning more than the median income and half of all households earning less than the median household income. According to the US Census Bureau, the median is ‘considerably lower than the average, and provides a more accurate representation.'”

        “In 2010, the median household income by state ranged from $35,693 in Mississippi to $66,334 in Maryland.”

        So we might not be talking about you or your friends, who can afford it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth talking about. That’s what.

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      • 9watts March 22, 2012 at 12:51 pm

        “If I can afford it, so what?”
        MOTRG, what a great approach to take to a subject.
        I guess some folks have taken the notion that they are a consumer first and secondarily a citizen a bit too far. You do realize that we are all in this together? That your actions, my actions, everyone’s actions have repercussions on everyone else? ‘Devil take the hindmost’ has a certain pedigree in the American psyche, but some would argue that we have (or need to) grow up, grow out of our adolescence; that we can’t afford to act like cowboys anymore now that the world has filled up.

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  • Melinda Musser March 21, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    Great re-cap, Jonathan. We here at the Community Cycling Center are huge fans of Pasqualina Azzarello and the work of Local Spokes. Their study was much like our Understanding Barriers to Bicycling project, with many similarities. We continue to learn from each other how to build healthier communities.

    Keep up the great reporting on the Summit!

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  • Steve B March 21, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    This is super important work Local Spokes is doing, looking forward to more of this energy in Oregon!

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  • Paul Tay March 21, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    Andrew K
    I recently read a report which made the claim that the average American spends $8,000 a year (!) on their car (car payment, insurance, gas, parking, maintenance). I’m not sure how true that figure is but start throwing that number around more often and I’m sure you will get people to pay attention.

    It’s actually alot worse.

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    • A.K. March 21, 2012 at 4:20 pm

      Yeah, just a quick “back of the napkin” math on my car (which is finally paid of next month), would be around $6,500 per year for everything, including gas estimated at $3.95/gal. And I drive a freakin’ Scion (hardly an expensive car), that has had 0 problems in five years, so I haven’t had any large surprise expenses.

      It makes me sick to think about how much you spend just to own a car. And to think the most thought people typically give such a purchase is the monthly loan payment.

      Very sorry I used to be “into cars”, but glad I found I no longer care about them after purchasing my first one, and have no burning desire to upgrade to the next flashy moneypit. (Now I’m into bikes, which can be moneypits in their own way!! 😉 )

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      • middle of the road guy March 22, 2012 at 9:29 am

        You also need to consider the benefits of ownership instead of solely focusing on cost.

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        • 9watts March 22, 2012 at 10:13 am

          “You also need to consider the benefits of ownership instead of solely focusing on cost.”
          MOTRG – How would you propose classifying the compulsion to own a car that derives from our society’s automobile dominance? As many argue, they don’t want a car but “have to have” one because our auto-centric land use policies and infrastructure priorities make it very difficult for many of them to get where they need to go without a car? Are those ‘benefits of ownership’ too?

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          • are March 22, 2012 at 10:18 am

            i’ve got a couple of minutes. could you list some of the benefits of ownership and we can discuss them? i got rid of my last car several years ago and have not looked back. yes, there are some things i cannot as readily do, but in most cases they would have been wasteful. but no doubt there is something i am overlooking.

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            • Mike March 22, 2012 at 12:14 pm

              What benefits I may reap from owning an automobile are of no concern to you. “…and we can discuss them?” What’s to discuss? Are we (owners) to justify our decissions?
              Are you going to try and convince owners that owners are wrong for feeling the way they do?
              Are they going to convince you that perhaps there are benefits (at least in their case) to owning a car?
              I think it is great that you don’t own a vehicle. Good for you.
              That being said, do not try to tell me that I do not “need” one.

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              • 9watts March 22, 2012 at 12:22 pm

                Someone hit a raw nerve?
                No need to get so defensive.
                You ask ‘what’s to discuss?” Is that a rhetorical question? This is a blog. That is what we (you) are doing.
                Not all of our decisions, not yours, not mine, are once and for all, inviolable, perfect information kinds of events. I have learned enormously from others on this site; found my preconceptions questioned, and discovered entirely new ways of looking at an issue I thought I understood.

                are wasn’t telling you not to own a car, but perhaps he/she knows something you don’t? Something that could be interesting or thought provoking, eh?

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              • are March 23, 2012 at 9:03 pm

                possibly because my question was nested among comments with a more confrontational tone, you seem to have misunderstood me. in response to someone you said “you need to consider the benefits of ownership.” standing alone, i found the phrase “benefits of ownership” rather abstract, so i asked if you might enumerate some of them. it is possible your list would be persuasive, or someone might suggest alternative means of accomplishing similar benefits, which i guess maybe you are saying you do not care to hear. but if something about the way i phrased this seemed critical or sanctimonious or whatever, i apologize. that was not intended.

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        • spare_wheel March 26, 2012 at 7:47 am

          please do help us consider these benefits by listing a few of them. or are you just interested in sniping without substance?

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      • wsbob March 23, 2012 at 1:12 am

        “…It makes me sick to think about how much you spend just to own a car. …” A.K.

        You offered your car ownership and use as an example. Presumably you are driving it to get yourself around, so the car to you represents means of travel, rather than just ownership. After next month when as you said, the car will be fully paid off, your yearly expense for owning and using the car will be dropping off significantly. You said the car is 5 years old. With care, depending on you situation, the car could be good for another 10-15 years. All costs spread over a 15 year period of ownership might be worth looking at.

        My costs for ownership of a 15 year old pickup I’ve had for 13 years certainly isn’t even close to $6500/yr . Maybe $1500, $600 of that for insurance. I don’t drive much…under 5000 miles/yr, but for my income, I do need to use a motor vehicle. Beyond the basic need, it’s very helpful to have my own motor vehicle on hand when unexpected situations arise. I believe the example my car ownership and use represents may be fairly typical of many people’s car ownership.

        Median family income figures cited tend to bother me because they seem to be too easily used to gloss over the reality of how many people are only able to bring in far less than the $35000 low end of the median family income range cited in this bikeportland story.

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        • A.K. March 23, 2012 at 9:18 am

          Yes, and your points are very valid. Since I’m no longer “into” cars as something I desire to have the latest and best of, I plan on keeping my car until it falls apart, basically. So yes, after next month the cost of ownership does fall greatly – over half of my yearly cost is the payments. I also have somewhat high insurance, being a young, unmarried male driver, but that will drop in time as well.

          And even though I dislike knowing I’ve been shelling out over $6k a year for it the past five years, it does provide me a lot of utility. When I first bought the car, I lived in NE, and my job was WAAY out in Beaverton. This was before I was into cycling, but even then – it would have taken forever to bike or ride transit out there, so it provided me a way to earn a living.

          I am fortunate enough to earn over the median family income listed in this article, so a car wasn’t exactly putting me into the poor house. I now work on the other side of town, where I can actually bike to when the weather is nice (10 miles away), so I do that sometimes during the spring/summer/fall.

          However, I see cars now more for their utility and less for their supposed “status” symbol that I bought into when I was younger. So once my car finally kicks the bucket, I’ll be shopping around for a used Honda or Toyota rather than purchasing new again.

          Everyone has their own reasons for wanting/needing a car, and my personal experiences are just my own – but I hate seeing cars sold as some sort of lifestyle enhancer, when really the only reason we need them is our cities have been built in such a way in the last ~70 years that are almost impossible to traverse without a car for many people.

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          • wsbob March 24, 2012 at 1:37 am

            I think the, if you will…demographic…represented by people that live rather close to where they work and shop…within potential walking or biking distance…but that still feel the need to own and drive a car to deal with the fundamental travel realities of where they happen to live may be substantial.

            Evidence of this is apparent in the layout of residential areas, commercial and business areas and streets they’re equipped with in Central Beaverton, where I live. From the standpoint of travel time alone, Central Beaverton is a very walkable town. As an example, for many residents of neighborhoods surrounding the Beaverton Central Library, distance on foot from one of the city’s major shopping and dining centers ranges from ten minutes to twenty minutes.

            Fierce motor vehicle traffic and narrow sidewalks along routes to and from the neighborhoods and shopping center make those routes not favorable to walking or biking. So people drive. Big, wide, well lit sidewalks like Portland’s Willamette Greeway esplanade, the eastside esplanade or even that of the North and South Park Blocks could do a lot to support the inclination people have to walk or bike between home and store when the weather is good, or even not so good.

            If there’s anyone in Beaverton even talking somewhat seriously about such a concept, I’d be interested in knowing who that is.

            When a car is needed, it’s nice to have one readily available, but being able to walk or bike instead of driving or waiting for the bus can be very liberating where conditions support that means of travel.

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  • Nola Wilken March 21, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    Thank you for this post. Let’s be sure to embrace all riders and all communities!

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  • Phil Lindsay March 22, 2012 at 7:12 am

    I’ve always maintained that my neighbors who ride are invisible to those City Hall in Boston. The Hubway bike share doesn’t entirely cover any minority neighborhood. The infrastructure improvements are minor compared to other neighborhoods. We get a Roll It Forward Campaign that donates rehabbed bikes, but what does that say? I’m glad to see this is an issue nationwide. Check out the flickr site if you want photos of ALL KINDS of folks riding in Boston’s neighborhood of Dorchester which contains 20% of our area and population but gets the short end of just about any city service. Biking is just one more area where we’re short changed.

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  • Mickey March 22, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    On the issue of vehicle cost, those of us that work in the building trades are usually generating a lot of income from the added work capacity that trucks supply, for me personally, my vehicle makes a lot of money. There is no way in an average workday that I could I could transport tools, supplies, and workers as safely, economically, and efficiently as I can in my truck. When I have a light day I love riding my bike to the job site, but more often than not, this is not possible, I may or may not be average. I hang out with a lot of contractors (most are cyclists as well) and I can confidently say that all of them would agree that their vehicles make them money, so for my peer group that $8000 per year figure is nonsense, and the sentiment seems condescending and driven much more by ideology than practicality.

    The bottom line is that our technological, late capitalist, consumer society requires an enormous amount of maintenance just to sustain its illusions (safety, progress, civility, etc…), and all of this work requires huge amounts of energy, it would take an insane amount of time and a lot more human power to do a seismic retrofit and replace a fire sprinkler system in an old building if all of transportation was provided by bikes. As it stands now there is no “realistic” alternative to petroleum culture and the massive infrastructure that exists to support it. It is going to take something much more radical than transportation alternatives to turn this ship around, most of the sustainable technologies that are presented are just ways of extending the half life of consumer culture rather than trying to create a human society that is actually sustainable.

    Also, lower income people almost always have smaller carbon footprints than the affluent, although their volume and enthusiasm for environmentalism is much less. Wealth is usually the best reflection of carbon footprint (more wealth, larger footprint), regardless of ideological affection for environmentalism, surplus wealth seems to end up in the economy doing damage to the environment regardless of intention (wealthy people spend a lot more time in airplanes than the poor, for example). If people really wanted to do something for the environment they could scale down, maintain their old stuff, or just practice birth control, particularly for people in the “developed” world reproduction has an exponentially greater negative impact on the environment than transportation or light bulb choices.

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    • 9watts March 22, 2012 at 1:34 pm

      lots of great points, Mickey, but I think you should talk to the recently profiled (here on bikeportland) Builder by Bike about the impossibility of being a contractor without a truck. I’ve done it too. It involves some adjustments, but saying it is impossible isn’t accurate or very imaginative.

      Also just because your peers’ vehicles make them money doesn’t mean the $8,000/yr figure is nonsense. It just means that you are able to *also* earn back some or all of the money the vehicle costs through it’s use. Let’s say you’re correct, and your vehicle which may or may not cost $8,000/yr earns you $10,000 back (however you calculate that).

      Now spin the dial the other way. How much time, labor, materials, etc. does earning that money represent, of which 80% is needed to pay off the truck and its operating expenses (fuel, insurance, brake pads, taxes, registration, etc.)? Builder by Bike is onto something if you ask me.

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    • spare_wheel March 26, 2012 at 7:55 am

      nice strawman but no one is saying that all transportation should be replaced by cycling.

      e-vehicles are an option. the bulk of milk deliveries in the UK were conducted by e-vehicle ( and beijing replaced 3000 garbage trucks with e-trucks.

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      • 9watts March 26, 2012 at 8:05 am

        I think it would be interesting to make some educated guesses about how much of our transportation, how much of our cargo, could be transported by bike. Much of our current freight is itself a function of the longstanding availability of cheap fossil fuels and the infrastructure this spawned, so overnight shipment of Ipads from halfway around the world are probably not always going to be with us.

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  • 9watts March 22, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    “It is going to take something much more radical than transportation alternatives to turn this ship around, most of the sustainable technologies that are presented are just ways of extending the half life of consumer culture rather than trying to create a human society that is actually sustainable.”

    True enough, but part of what is required has to do with the human spirit, with creative folks who discover that another approach is possible, doing things without fossil fuels can work, is rewarding, etc.
    Insisting that nothing can change unless everything changes is not inspiring and won’t get us where we need to go. I can heat my house, mow a meadow, go on vacation, eat well, raise a child, remodel a house, all without–or with very small quantities of–fossil fuels–right now. So can you, if you put your mind to it. That isn’t condescending, I don’t think. It is meant to suggest alternatives where none currently may appear or be obvious. Easy? no. Quick? no. But that is no reason to give up before we try.

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  • MarkB March 22, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    I played a bit with the numbers, as well, using one poster’s $6500/yr expense…. just under $18 a day! With money like that, my extended family & I could eat a lot better than we do!

    Apparently my car-use numbers, when I last owned a car, were pretty lowball. . . .less than a QUARTER of that tally!

    Now I REALLY feel fortunate to be car-free!

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  • Michelle P March 23, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    The average Portland-Vancouver area household spent $13,375 on transportation in 2009.

    If you want more information about how much households spend on transportation, check out the Housing and Transportation Affordability Index. It looks at the cost living in a place as a combination of housing and transportation.

    Quick fact sheet here ( and an app you can use to compare different places here (

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  • q`Tzal March 25, 2012 at 7:22 am

    Land use planning and zoning need to allow fine grained mixed use zoning so that an average person’s residence is no more than 1 mile from at least 1 grocery store; convenience stores don’t count. This “home to food” distance should reasonably be around 1/4 to 1/2 miles.
    Employment could reasonably be expected to be double that distance with minimal hardship.
    All this assumes that a local mass transit system is not used. In America most are too time consuming and too infrequent to effective; also – try to bring $200 worth of groceries on mass transit and see what happens.

    I feel like everyone needs to read CarFree Cities if only to see that IT IS possible to live without cars. Then at least there would be less panic, rhetoric and irrational lawmaking when market forces solve the petroleum issue. Not none, just less; you can’t fix stupid.

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  • wsbob March 25, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    Here in Central Beaverton, there are neighborhoods with many people living in them, close enough to stores that, with a good bike trailer, people could very likely haul home $200 worth of groceries. I’m thinking a shopping cart full of groceries, let’s say 100 lbs, on a 10-15 minute trip, at least in fair weather. The terrain out here is relatively flat, making it perfect for hauling heavy loads.

    Planning out here in Beaverton though, is meek in terms of its efforts in striving to establish routes for biking and walking that are sufficiently appealing to invite people to bike or walk rather than drive. It’s one of those ‘Maybe some day…’ kind of things. Five…ten…maybe twenty years from now.

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