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What I learned from my beach cruiser

John is executive director of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign.

I LEARNED a valuable lesson last month: If you try to incite a bidding war in a silent auction, you may go home with a beach cruiser you don’t really need.

That’s how I wound up with a cruiser donated to the Savannah Bicycle Campaign’s Pedal Medal Award Celebration auction by Tim’s Bike and Beach Gear on Tybee Island.

I incorrectly predicted I’d be outbid.

Over Memorial Day Weekend I decided, since I own it, I might as well ride it.

I set off on a meandering tour of the parks of Ardsley Park and stopped at each and every one. If you’re keeping score, that’s Theus, Solomons, Hull, McCauley, Guckenheimer, Kavanaugh, Entelman, Vetsburg, Adams, Lattimore, Tiedeman, and the Atlantic Avenue Mall.

I also included Baldwin and Daffin parks on my ride. I had a blast and kept riding even after a light rain started to fall.

I’ve owned dozens of bicycles since I’ve lived in Savannah, but oddly, never a beach cruiser. Now I know what I’ve been missing. Its single gear, fat tires, squishy saddle, and handlebar wingspan wider than some of the doorways in my 89-year-old house, mean I cannot go anywhere quickly on this bike — not than I’m a fast rider.

I’m on the slow side of the spectrum, even on the nimblest bicycle. Still, traveling at a much more leisurely pace allowed me to closely observe and experience my neighborhood. This bike is built for wandering and coasting, for lingering in the shade and enjoying the sunshine.

Riding the cruiser reminds me of the advantages of Savannah’s topographical situation. The flat terrain makes our community a place where people of all ages and abilities can make bicycling a healthy part of their daily lives.

That’s not true in the hillier parts of Georgia. In Athens, a single speed beach cruiser is about as useful for getting around as cross-country skis in Savannah.

My beach cruiser excursions have also reminded me that for many people, casual rides begin only after driving to a safe place and then unloading the bike from the car. Unlike me, they just can’t hop on their bikes and go.

When I’m out on my cruiser, I see other people riding them too, but not for fun or relaxation. These bikes are not pleasure crafts, but dependable transportation for folks trying to get to work or to school or to the grocery store.

Unfortunately for them, these destinations are often located on streets most people would never dare to travel by bike. If they are injured or killed trying on the way, they will be blamed for riding on unsafe streets, even if they had no choice.

“They were begging to be hit,” readers and viewers will write in the comments sections of the news stories, which will note what the people on bikes were wearing, but few other details.

Contrast that with the response to the latest tragic crash on I-16. Our daily newspaper dubbed it, “The Devil’s Highway” in a recent editorial and advocated safety improvements.

At least one elected official is calling on the Georgia Department of Transportation to widen I-16 as a means of reducing crashes and relieving congestion, despite the fact that additional lane capacity will almost certainly make both situations worse, and at great expense.

Missing from the discussion is the suggestion that drivers should avoid I-16 altogether, a lecture often delivered to people who must walk and ride bikes on streets designed to maximize motor vehicle speed. They are scolded for failing to select safer routes, even when such routes do not exist.

Would rebranding our dangerous thoroughfares as “Satan’s Streets” generate more sympathy for the people who must use them?

While cruising around on the friendlier streets of my neighborhood, I was reminded of “Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places,” a sort of guidebook for reengaging with the world around us. Its author, John R. Stilgoe, advises readers to explore their surroundings on foot or by bike.

“The whole concentration of wild and artificial things, the natural ecosystem as modified by people over the centuries, the built environment layered over layers, the eerie mix of sounds and smells and glimpses neither natural nor crafted—all of it is free for the taking, for the taking in,” he writes.“Outside lies utterly ordinary space open to any casual explorer willing to find the extraordinary. Outside lies unprogrammed awareness that at times becomes directed serendipity. Outside lies magic.”

I wish more people would engage in this kind of magical thinking, instead of believing the dangerous myth that we can widen our way out of congestion and crashes.