Not unlike Bernie Sanders, I have a vision of replicating aspects of Scandinavia in North America. In my case, it won't be done through a bid for the White House, but through the business I started two and a half years ago, Bikabout.com. For me, the breakthrough came via a Dutch and Belgian vacation four years ago with my husband and then 2 year old daughter where I saw how a 1st-class transportation model, specifically their biking culture, changes lives.
Among all the memorable experiences on that trip, it was coming across this bike ferry that made me a child again...
We've all presumably seen or read the first Lord of the Rings and remember the part where Frodo is running from a Ringwraith and escapes it by jumping onto the Bucklebury Ferry? That crazy moment is the first thing I thought of when we came across the bike ferry, but first let me explain the day leading up to it.
We were on day 12 of our 13 day vacation and were on the return trip from an unplanned visit to Utrecht. Hurricane Irene's winds had made their way across the pond and at one point I was biking my daughter with the Bobike Mini + windshield into 35 mph winds and doing 2 mph tops before realizing that we went 2 miles in the wrong direction. And what took us an hour to go 2 miles, took us 20 minutes in the opposite direction. That was the closest feeling to sailing on a bike I've ever had.
After some lunch and beers to reset our soul, we headed out on the final leg to Amsterdam. During the whole trip we used the LF routes - which I call the Dutch interstate bikeway system - and rounding the bend, my eyebrow raised when I saw the next arrow pointing left across a channel of water...before I saw the ferry dock and crank. The easiest way to describe this to Americans is imagine a floating dock with chains connecting it to either end of a river. You turn a crank, the dock comes to your side of the river, you roll your bike on and by turning a crank on the floating dock, you're transported to the other side of the river. It was what childhood schemes are made of and tickled my fancy in the purest way. I was suddenly an 8 year old again, and on a grand adventure.
It would take me 3 more years of bike centric vacations in San Francisco, Sonoma, Portland, Vancouver and Montreal to realize that the experience of two-wheeled sightseeing would be a viable business in North America and potentially change culture, too.
How Do We Get North America Like ^
Biking infrastructure and culture don't happen overnight. If we look to my Dutch vacation as a measure of success, 3 key ingredients got them to where they are today: 1) vocal grass roots support, 2) political will and 3) time. In the 1970s, grassroots took the shape of moms protesting in the Kinder Moord (child murder) campaign, demanding safe streets for children to bike and walk. At the same time, traffic congestion and the worldwide oil crisis put political pressure on the Dutch government. In response, the Prime Minister went on live television to say that people needed to decrease their energy consumption and government would craft transportation policies that would enable lifestyle changes: car-free Sunday streets and permanently car-free city centers. Protests endured until the mid-70s when The Hague installed a network of cycle paths that increased biking 30-60% and other cities followed the "build it and they will come" strategy. 40 years later, you can see how this strategy played out for their people. Their streets are vibrant.
North America's Report Card
So how does North America measure up to the Dutch model of success with 30% of people biking?
Grass Roots Support ---- Vision Zero ✔
+ Traffic Congestion ---- U.S Ranked Worst in World in 2015 ✔
+ Sunday Streets ---- 41 Cities in North America ✔
+ Bike Networks ---- Cities have Plans, Implementation Underway
+ Car-free City Centers ---- 11 Major North American Shopping Districts
+ Oil Crisis ----- 2015 Lowest Gas Price in 6 Years ⬇
The good news is that we're on the right track and time is on our side, BUT, if we want to see rapid adoption, nothing changes behavior faster than when a carrot is coupled with a stick.....
Stick & Carrot
Barring an act of God for Congress to pass a national, incremental gas tax or basement tax dedicated to fund alternative transportation, we can only hope that states and cities like Washington and Seattle continue to serve as models that change behavior from a political perspective.
I founded Bikabout.com as a carrot to entice biking through travel. I wanted to bottle the high I got from the surprise bike ferry and give it away to those needing a little inspiration and addiction to bike. Hence, our mission is:
Inspire 2-wheeled tourism in great biking cities with gateway drugs for the bike curious AND donate 25% of revenue to transportation advocacy
Two and half years in, we have 19 travel guides; oodles of free, self-guided tours curated by locals; 26 business members and have produced our first 25% Back Report including donations to 13 bicycle advocacy non-profits.
Next year I hope to add zeros to our donations and inspire other bike businesses to shift their traditional marketing budgets to include advocacy donations.
Until then, I encourage you to wander by bike, discover your bike curious friends' gateway drugs, and take them on bike rides and maybe together, we'll get North America there in 10 years!
About Megan Ramey
It was while hiking 5 nights solo on Appalachian Mountain Club's (AMC) hut-to-hut trails that Megan Ramey got the idea for Bikabout. She had just left an inspiring position as a sustainability consultant and needed time in the woods to ask the question: what next? On the final day's ascent through pine tree covered Mt. Tom, it dawned on her that if an organization could normalize sightseeing by bike like AMC had normalized hiking, they could appeal to the masses, drive bike traffic to local business, reinvest in advocacy for better biking, reward bike friendly cities with tourism dollars and ultimately change peoples' lives with the freedom of two wheels. She liked the name, Bikabout, as a play on walkabout and its imagery of getting lost, self-discovery, new experiences and casualness.
Megan now has the best job in the world continuously learning from communities, traveling, appreciating good design, tasting, drinking, exploring natural and man-made landscapes, listening to KEXP (best radio station ever), falling in love with North American cities and meeting the everyday change makers. Learn more at Bikabout.com.