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Making a place for everyone
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ULSTER COUNTY, NY — The historical marker at the intersection of Bruynswick and Hoagerburgh roads informs passers–by that Gertruyd Bruyn’s 1682 purchase of the land “from the Indians contains the earliest use of the name Sawankonck (Shawangunk).”

Not that anyone slows down to read the blue and yellow iron marker. Traffic at this rural crossroads about 90 minutes north of New York City is surprisingly heavy. And astoundingly fast.

There are still working farms in the area, but most folks who live here in the shadow of the Shawangunk Ridge don’t use the roads to bring crops to market. Instead, they use them to bring home groceries from the Hannaford Supermarket in Pine Bush, eight miles away. Or to commute to jobs in Newburgh, Middletown or Poughkeepsie.

In this way, people who live on Bruynswick Road have much in common with people who live in Brunswick, Georgia and innumerable places in between: Everyone here is completely dependent on cars for every single trip they make, every single day of their lives. If you wait near the historical marker long enough, you may eventually see a serious road cyclist ride by. Hills, blind curves and narrow or nonexistent shoulders likely discourage more causal riders and pedestrians.

The situation is different in the nearby college town of New Paltz. The 2010 census counted 6,818 people living here, although this number clearly didn’t include the 7,885 students who matriculate at the State University of New York campus.

Still, the community is served by three bicycle shops. Three. Even if we consider the census population and student population as mutually exclusive — which they most certainly are not — in order for Savannah to match New Paltz’s bike shop–to–resident ratio, we’d need somewhere around 28 bicycle shops.

Farther south in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, bicycle use has positively exploded in the last five years, as it has in much of New York City. The evidence of this recent bike boom is inescapable, from bicycles in motion to bicycles at rest locked all over the place. My sister–in–law moved there in 2006 and remembers “mostly restaurant delivery guys riding bikes.

“Now it’s everyone,” she says.

The word “everyone” is key. Riding a bike in Park Slope has, in a short time, gone from something for men with bags of takeout food dangling from their handlebars to something for parents with children tucked into bakfiets (Dutch cargo bikes) and everyone in between.

Savannah, more than most cities in the United States, has the potential to be a place where cycling is for everyone. Thanks to Gen. James Oglethorpe and later city planners, who replicated his grid pattern outside of the Historic District, Savannah has great bicycling bones. In other parts of the city, it will take imagination and determination to make car–centric streets comfortable and safe, but this is by no means impossible.

Yet the key to making a place accommodating to cyclists has as much to do with social engineering as traffic engineering. In his book One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility, Zack Furness describes the forces that have suppressed bicycle use and advanced the perception of bicycling as “undesirable, dangerous and/or childish,” with the end result being that it seems “natural for most adults to never consider the idea of riding a bicycle in the first place.”

To make Savannah a place where cycling truly is for everyone, the script must be flipped. We must not only consider using bicycles in the first place, but also consider using bicycles for most anything and particularly in ways that challenge popular notions about what people can and cannot do on bikes.

That means arriving by bicycle at all sorts of places and in all sorts of situations — grocery stores, social occasions, Sand Gnats games, church — anywhere where bicycles might not be expected. It means being ready when someone asks in disbelief, “Wait, you rode a bicycle here?”

“Yes I did,” you should answer with a smile as you smooth out your helmet hair. “And you can, too. Bicycles are for everyone.”