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THIS is Why: How a Multimodal Lifestyle Makes You Immune to Rising Gas Prices

Written by Arian Horbovetz and originally published on The Urban Phoenix blog

I didn’t start biking to work because gas was too expensive. I did it because I had this evolving sense of the world based around the central premise that the mode of transport I had spent my whole life worshiping was the very thing that was in conflict with everything I loved.

When I was 18, my friends and I made a stupid little club called “The Anti-Carpoolers Of America.” I made and printed badges on my computer, featuring a minivan with a slash through it, which we all taped to our dashboards. I purchased a brand new 2000 Honda Civic EX and after the Fast And The Furious series came out, I began modding out my ride with things like a cat-back exhaust, a cold-air intake, performance rims and tires and a bevy of visual additives that announced to the world that I was an immature kid who had no idea how to spend his money. I was born in Chicago and I loved public transit, but I hadn’t yet put together the whole “cars destroyed public transit” narrative that I know and tout today.

My buddy bought a Subaru Impreza WRX, maxing out his financial capacity just to have a car that made him the unquestioned alpha in our group of friends. A base model Impreza, a Dodge Neon with a cold air intake and a “grape fruit shooter” muffler, a lightly-modded out Nissan Maxima, my Honda Civic… they all became financed expressions of ego that propelled all of us forward as we tried to express ourselves in a “keeping up with the Jones’s” automotive mentality. I prided myself on the fact that I drove 100,000 miles in four years. To put that in perspective, I have driven approximately 100,000 miles in the last fifteen years. It’s March 8th of 2022, and I have driven a total of 600 miles this year. And that’s only because the snow has kept me from using other forms of transportation as much as I would like.

Mobility independence
One of my first bike rides to work in 2014

But now, there is more incentive than ever for me to flex my human and electric powered micro-mobility options. As someone who owns 4 bikes, 1 ebike, a Onewheel, an electric skateboard, 2 kick scooters, 2 electric scooters, and more skateboards than I would like to admit, I have been an advocate of micro-mobility for nearly a decade. When promoting alternative transportation to the general population (and not just urbanists), I have typically tried to appeal to the intangible “feeling” of independence, as well as the daily exercise. To this point, gas has remained cheap enough that it was impractical to include fuel cost savings in my advocacy argument.

Obviously, this has changed quickly and drastically. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused gas prices to skyrocket toward record highs in the US and even higher in Europe. There has never been a time more ripe for a louder dialogue around human powered transportation, electric micro-mobility and public transit. While much of the country is blaming government for the regulation of fossil fuel drilling and delivery, people like myself continue to advocate for an alternative to our dependence on a single form of energy that is also tremendously damaging to our planet. True energy and mobility security does not come from greater access to a finite supply of oil, but rather a diversification of power sources, including human power.

Steven Senne/AP

In short, THIS is what all of us crazy cyclists, scooter riders, and electric micro-mobility junkies have been saying for a long time. At some point, a day like this was going to come, where the price of gas would literally make people hesitate before using their car for this or that. People have made choices — like buying a large vehicle or a house that’s 30 miles from their job — on the assumption that driving a car was always going to be affordable, despite the truth that at some point, fossil fuels would become scarce, prices would rise or circumstances would change. One of the central tenets of urbanism is simply that embracing density means we are not at the mercy of any of these variables.

As I’ve stated in the past, my wife and I live in an apartment that is just a few miles from each of our workplaces. I went years without a functional car, just recently splurging for a used compact car. Still, most days you’ll see me using a bike, a scooter or any number of other micro-mobility options for my commute and for running errands. Living a couple miles from Downtown Rochester also means we are closer to stores, shops and entertainment options. Literally, everything we need is within a few minute’s drive, a walk, a bike ride, etc.

This was a conscious decision and one we made because, among other reasons, we did not want to deal with the temporal or economic costs of living far away from our jobs and resources.

Pumping gas

So gas prices went up. I am almost completely unaffected. Nor are my friends that share my desire for mobility independence. Even my wife, who drives every day, is impacted far less than most because of our close proximity to everything, including her job. Because really, we don’t necessarily need to be anti-car to limit the impact of variables like gas prices on our weekly budgets. Simply living a “denser” lifestyle ensures that we have everything we need with fewer miles in between.

I’m not a market economist, and I am certainly no international relations expert… who knows where this terrible conflict happening in Ukraine will end, and what will happen as a result. Back home, the fact that our worst fear lies in rising gas prices just shows how detached we are with what is happening elsewhere on our planet. And even more trivial is the notion that we continue to rely on a single form of energy for a huge percentage of our day-to-day mobility.

Living closer to cities, using public transit and micro-mobility means that market fluctuations have less of an impact on our wallets. It means that we can choose how to move about, rather than relying on the car alone. While the automobile has always been a symbol of American freedom, a simple market shift based on events elsewhere in the world means that freedom can quickly turn into a financial hurdle that many are struggling to afford. THIS is why we urbanists advocate for a life less dependent on cars, and thus, on fossil fuels.

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ROC Cycling: Knowing Our Weaknesses, Building On Our Strengths

by Jesse Peers, Cycling Coordinator at Reconnect Rochester

When I saw the trailer for Why We Cycle years ago, I instantly knew how special this film was. Finally someone had made a gorgeous film about the myriad of reasons why people all over the world choose to traverse their communities by bike. I’m glad we were able to screen the documentary for a Rochester Street Films event in September 2020 and use it as a springboard to discuss local values and goals.

If you haven’t seen the film or weren’t able to take part in our panel discussion, watch them here.

Rent (or buy) the film

Watch our panel discussion

As our moderator, Mona Seghatoleslami, wrapped up the great discussion that evening, she said, rightly so, that “this is just the beginning of a lot of things.” Let’s examine several takeaways from the film itself, the chat amongst viewers, and our panel discussion, and where we go from here.

Culture at Large

Some participants felt our screening of this Dutch film was too lofty and dreamy. In terms of culture-at-large, we agree. Comparing the Netherlands and ROC is apples to oranges. Dutch culture is indeed vastly different! The Netherlands prides itself on having an egalitarian society, in which they strive for everyone to be shown respect. If you haven’t noticed, the U.S. has much room to improve in this regard to say the least. But that doesn’t mean we have to overturn societal values before we can become a more equitable community in terms of mobility, though that won’t keep us from trying. Other cities of all sizes surpassing Rochester in the national bike rankings proves this.

Being Vigilant and Showing Up

Our panelists made clear that to attain better bike infrastructure, it takes being involved in the process, showing up at meetings (even virtual ones these days) and organizing ourselves. As the old adage goes, “if you don’t do politics, politics will do you.” If the bike community was under the impression that after the adoption of the 2034 Plan, which encourages implementation of “complete streets” designs that accommodate ALL modes of travel, that this would happen overnight with no need for continued advocacy, we were mistaken (see State Street).

One of the words that was spoken over and over during our panel discussion, particularly from Brighton’s Robin Wilt, was “demand.” Just as the Dutch rose up in the 1970s to demand safer road conditions and greater accountability, the active mobility community is going to have to demand safer streets that are designed for all modes of travel, not just cars. We have to keep our leaders accountable to the 2034 Plan, remind them of their values and goals, and when opportunities arise, vote for leaders who stand behind this progressive, multimodal vision.

The Rochester Cycling Alliance (RCA) does our best to get the word out about public input sessions and other advocacy opportunities. Please make sure you’re on our mailing list and take those opportunities to provide input.

Rochester’s not a bad biking city!

There were varying opinions held by viewers about Rochester’s bikeability — some negative, some positive. Let’s look at the bright side first and identify some of Rochester’s advantages participants took note of in the chat: We are blessed to have the Genesee Riverway Trail, Erie Canal Trail, and an abundance of water and stellar public parks in our community. People pay a lot of money to come from all over the world to Cycle the Erie and we have free access nearby! Overall Rochester is pretty flat, which makes getting somewhere by bike less arduous. And the average city resident has a 4.1-mile commute to work, a journey that can be done by bike at a casual pace in less than 25 minutes.

As several people pointed out in the chat, Rochester has an impressive bike culture for a city of our size. There’s a wide variety of groups with different riding styles, and open-invite group rides take place most evenings during the riding season.

Rochester was awarded a bronze level status as a Bike-Friendly City by the League of American Bicyclists in 2012, 2016 and 2020. That’s not bad! A bronze status means we’re on the right track. Yes, there is a lot to be improved if we want to reach silver or gold, but we are a decent biking city already. In fact, I firmly believe Rochester could become the best biking city in the Great Lakes. It’s more within reach for us than other cities due to the advantages noted above. I know many people who are already of the opinion that Rochester is one of the #BikeLife’s greatest secrets. There are affordable neighborhoods within a 15-minute ride of downtown where car-free living is absolutely attainable. If biking on busy, main thoroughfares isn’t your thing (we don’t blame you!), often there are parallel side streets through residential neighborhoods that will get you to your destination in a timely, less stressful way. If you want to get more comfortable on your bike, consider signing up for one of our on-bike classes sometime.

Our Biggest Weakness: Not Zooming Out

Yes, Rochester is making progress in expanding our bike infrastructure. But there was a consensus on participants in the chat that the current process doesn’t work. As it is now, bike infrastructure is installed “where possible” along small, segment-by-segment stretches. Each self-contained project is overseen by a different design firm and it’s apparent there is no overall network vision guiding this process along predetermined priority routes. Because of this, we get a piecemeal, patchwork result where you can bike on one street for several miles and encounter bike lanes, sharrows or nothing at all.

Even the gorgeous cycletrack along Union Street got knocked pretty hard during our chat: It sure is pretty, but what’s it supposed to do? It doesn’t go anywhere and, as bidirectional cycletracks on one side of the street often do, it creates awkward transitions for those on bike.

“There’s a consensus emerging in the bike world that it’s more about quality of bike infrastructure than quantity (how many miles of bike lanes doesn’t matter as much as how safe & stress-free those miles are).” ~Brent Toderian

Furthermore, though the City is chipping away at its Bike Master Plan, albeit in small, often disconnected pieces, the suburbs for the most part have yet to get on board. Cyclists might be somewhat comfortable on some city streets with bike infrastructure and lower speed limits, but once they cross the city line into surrounding towns, that infrastructure disappears too much of the time.

Instead of a city full of bike lanes which are uncomfortable for most residents, we need to focus on less mileage but higher quality (protected!) bike lanes along strategic routes. Rochester and Monroe County could also use a more top-down “let it be!” approach when it comes to a usable bike network.

“The fast implementation of projects proved to be far more effective than the traditional model of attempting to achieve near unanimity on projects even when you already have consensus that the status quo doesn’t work. Efforts to reach an idealized consensus have resulted in years of indecision, inaction, and paralysis-by-analysis.” ~Streetfight (Sadik-Khan and Solomonow)

Getting local leaders out of their cars

This next topic brought up by participants is probably unrealistic, but holy moly would it move the needle like nothing else! (And it was discussed on September 12th): Getting elected officials, engineers and planners out of their cars. I suspect that many people in our governments and design firms who design and approve bike infrastructure, may never use that bike infrastructure themselves. If officials had to bike solo in rush hour through every segment of infrastructure they approved, we’d likely see very different bike infrastructure.

“In my perfect world, anyone working on bicycle infrastructure or planning should be handed a bicycle and told to ride it in their city for a month…That would certainly force the issue in the minds of the inexperienced or skeptical. We have been thinking car-first for decades, and that worked out pretty well for motorists and the engineers who cater to them. Now it’s time to switch it up.” ~Copenhagenize (Colville-Andersen)

More than a quarter of Rochesterians don’t drive everywhere, either by need or by choice. How incredible would it be for elected officials to show solidarity with their constituents and get around town a quarter of the time without their cars?

“When I look around the world at the growing list of cities that are once again taking the bicycle seriously, I can identify one primary factor: political leadership. Advocates and activists continue to do their part, pushing from the bottom upward. At the end of the day, though, it seems that policymakers exercising top-down leadership are the catalysts for real change…Politicians may notice…a personal brand boost when they take matters to the next level.” ~Copenhagenize (Colville-Andersen)

Representing All

Finally, panelist Mitch Gruber urged Rochester’s active mobility and bike community to do a better job of outreach to neighborhoods that don’t look like us – of listening to people who use their bikes in different ways than we do. This is something Reconnect Rochester is committed to working on. Our recent signing of the Greater Rochester Black Agenda Group’s statement that Racism is a Public Health Crisis was only a start.

Going into 2021, join us in being vocal about the benefits of biking to elected officials, stay tuned for advocacy opportunities, and join us for one of our workshops and cyclist gatherings in 2021.

Want to join the RCA email list to stay abreast of these opportunities? Drop me a note at jesse@reconnectrochester.org and request to be added!