The East Coast Greenway bike trail will soon run the length of the Eastern Seaboard in the U.S. Switching from car seat to saddle is all the more exciting in a country that idolizes the car.
The morning rain has stopped and the asphalt gleams silvery black. The cars heading into Boston on Commercial Street are all backed up. Suited office workers, students in jeans and rain jackets, and a lone retiree in sportswear and helmet shoot past on bikes. When a UPS truck pulls into the parking lane, the cyclists continue unconcerned – they’ve got their own lane between the parked cars and the sidewalk, and a curb to stop cars from blocking their way. Boston has discovered bicycling.
In 2006, the U.S. publication Bicycling Magazine voted Boston one of the country’s worst cities for cyclists: no bike paths, but potholes and inconsiderate motorists. Ten years later, the East Coast city found itself among the top twenty, ahead of New Orleans and Pittsburgh. “We want to make at least the top ten,” says Gina Fiandaca, the city’s transportation commissioner – San Francisco and Seattle lead the pack. So Boston built more than 160 bike paths and created clear signage. Now cycles wait for the light in their own zone at busy intersections, and the rental bike system launched in 2011 provides roughly 2000 bikes between the downtown area and the suburbs, as well as at Harvard University. Over 14 000 cyclists already use it, and the goal is to quadruple that number in the next eleven years.
The city’s planned switch from cars to bikes was based on a citizens’ survey and trips the transportation commissioner made to Copenhagen and other model cycling cities in Europe. Fiandaca, 53, was impressed that people simply jumped on their bikes when they had an errand to run. Quite unlike Americans, “it would never even occur to them to get in their car to go to the store.” But downtown Boston is far easier to get around by bike than in a car, and you always find parking. “Until recently, cycling was seen in the U.S. more as a fitness activity than mobility,” says Fiandaca. Now it’s also about riding for fun, at least on the East Coast Greenway, the cycle route that runs through the city and along the verdant banks of the Charles River, before hitting Commercial Street and proceeding via Atlantic Avenue to Boston Harbor.
Cycling has been seen in the U.S. more as a fitness activity than mobility
By 2030, the Greenway is expected to cover some 4800 kilometers and link 15 East Coast states from Maine on the border to Canada to Florida on the Gulf of Mexico. Just like the Pacific Coast Bicycle Route across the country, the East Coast Greenway will connect towns, rural areas and big cities. In the north, it follows the rocky coastline, heads south through Boston and Manhattan, along rail trails in Connecticut and along the wooded Mount Vernon Trail to George Washington’s house in Virginia, through Charleston and Miami to the beaches of Key West. It’s not about speed, it’s about relaxed, traffic-free travel in nature, being out in the wind and the sun.
“For experiencing America, two wheels are much better than four,” says Dennis Markatos-Soriano, executive director of the East Coast Greenway Alliance in Durham, North Carolina. “At pedaling speed, we see, hear, and smell the flora and fauna,” adds the man in charge of ensuring that all sections are developed and signposted. Some 1500 kilometers are currently complete, and already more than ten million people use the paths for walking or cycling every year. Here on the East Coast, the American love affair with cars seems to be cooling off.
In Baltimore, Chris Bishop supplies the necessary cycling equipment. Since 2008, his one-man operation, Bishop Bikes, has been building steel frames and shipping them as far as Europe and Asia. He greets his clients with a broad smile and a relaxed handshake before leading them down the basement steps of his house into his shop. Half-finished frames strapped into machines line the wall alongside massive tool cabinets and a workbench. “The difference between a nice frame and a great frame is really hand work,” says Bishop, who rode many bikes into the ground as a bike messenger. He uses only hand-picked steel and brazes his frames rather then welding them.
“You cannot fast-track something like building a bike. It takes time.” A Bishop bike – an elegant model or a sports bike – requires roughly 80 hours of work and has a four-digit price tag. Bishop’s award-winning, lightweight, retro-style models are visibly influenced by classic French frame builders, Italian racing bike builders, and modern American manufacturers. Bishop comes up with his best ideas when he’s out riding in and around Baltimore, where the Greenway follows picturesque waterways and you pass small business and corner shops, where people still like to have a chat.
Some 1900 kilometers further south, the Greenway runs along the Atlantic coast of Florida. Palms line the waterfront in Palm Beach, luxury yachts bob on the water. In West Palm Beach across the bridge, nearly half the inhabitants are African-American or Latino. Owning a bike here can be the key to happiness and freedom, and it’s often Jack The Bike Man, as everyone calls Jack Hairston, 77, who provides this key. In his large shop and workshop, bikes of all sizes fill several levels of shelving. All of them are used but many are as good as new. Every year, just before Christmas, Jack opens his shop to hundreds of low-income families in the area and gives the children a bike and helmet as a gift. Hairston also regularly donates bikes to elementary schools, which reward kids who show particularly good behavior and work hard in school with a bike. He does what he can, employing alcoholics who have subsequently stopped drinking, and people with autism who wouldn’t otherwise be given a job. “If someone needs help, you help them,” he says, “that’s how I was raised.”
In fact, a broken bike once saved Jack Hairston’s life. While struggling with depression and using a crutch because he suffered from pain that no doctor could explain, the former addiction therapist often just sat on his front porch staring into space. “And then a little kid had the nerve to fall off of his bike in the public street in front of my house,” recalls Jack with a snigger that instantly makes him 60 years younger. Hairston hobbled over with his tools and in no time at all, had repaired the faulty brakes. The young Latino rode away. The next day, two of the kids’ friends asked Hairston for help. Soon, his yard was full of bikes, the pain had vanished. All he needs today are cushioned sneakers in which to get around. Neither burglaries nor hurricanes nor age have made him consider stopping what he does because he remembers too well what it felt like to ride his own first bike – and the feeling of freedom that came with it.
Let’s go riding!
This cotton cycling cap by Coinago is a reminder of the good old days.
2 Loud and lustrous
The Portland Bell Brass bicycle bell alerts people that you’re coming and adds a touch of class to any bike.
This super lightweight, retro 1970s cycling shirt by De Marchi is made of the finest merino wool.
The elegant, retrolook ONE Soho e-bike by Coboc features top-quality Brooks components.
For that individual look, pimp your bike stem with one of Cinelli’s pin-up girls.
The Selle Bassano 900 Old Style retro saddle in faux leather is comfortable, practical and a real eyecatcher.
Elite’s classically styled L’Eroica drinking bottle comes in satin aluminium with a cork stopper.