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Do cyclists need bike maps?

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When I was on Durham’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission, the most frequently asked questions from the public (besides, “can you put a bike lane in front of my house?”) concerned bike maps. “Why don’t you have better bike maps?” “Is there a map that shows safe places to ride?” “Is there a bike map for Durham, you know, one that shows the bike trails and the bike shops?”

I have to confess that I have mixed feelings about bike maps per se. When someone asks “where are the bike trails in Durham,” I want to point to the nearest road and say, “right there.” North Carolina law makes it clear that neither cities nor counties can do anything to restrict cyclists from riding on roads ( with the exception of Interstates and freeways, like 147). All roads, whether neighborhood cul-de-sacs or state highways, are bike-ways.

Folks ask for maps of bike trails, though, for many reasons.

Some want quiet, bucolic surroundings in which they may lose themselves in thought. Some want smooth surfaces with low traffic-volume to teach children the art of balancing on two wheels. Some adults want space to gain their own confidence with shifting, braking, and pedaling before adding signaling turns to the mix. After talking with hundreds of people about cycling in Durham, I think most just want to ride in a space where bicycling is clearly sanctioned. For the same reason we go to parks to play, to rivers to canoe, or to mountains to hike, we go to greenways to ride. It’s what you do there.

My frustration with the question about bike maps is layered. It has something to do with the implied syllogism that bike maps show bike trails, that bike trails are where one rides a bike, so therefore bike maps show where one rides a bike. And since bike maps (at least ones I have seen in the past) usually highlight greenways or roadie routes though the countryside, the latent syllogism reinforces the perception that cycling is just for recreation.

Containing bicycles to linear parks, such as the American Tobacco Trail, or pastoral secondary roads on weekends is a kind of social relegation that is also reinforced every time someone sighs despondently about how dangerous the roads are. Yes, roads are dangerous places where collisions (some of which are accidents) kill and maim every day. It’s my belief, however, that drivers have an inflated sense of both their safety and cyclists’ danger. Habitually commanding with just your touch two-thousand pounds of steel and glass caging will do that, I suppose.

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The perception that roads are unsafe has something to do with the fact that roads are one of the few places left in our daily lives where we do not choose, we do not even know, with whom we interact.

Riding a bike on a greenway is no doubt one of the best ways to spend a Saturday afternoon. It is also my favorite way to grocery shop, to commute to work, or to explore a new city while on vacation. Given the number of people who showed up to last week’s Bike to Work events, I’m not alone in thinking that roads exist to serve more modes of transportation than just the automotive variety.

Any bike map that’s worth its salt needs to reflect the various ways that people ride bikes. I continue to invite you, then, to help map Durham (or the other areas of the Triangle, if you’re not lucky enough to live in the Bull City) through the eyes of a cyclist. Like Gary Kueber says in a recent cover story for the Independent Weekly, Jack Edinger and I originally conceived of a project to design a Durham bike map as something that’s community driven, something that “allow[s] for freer exchange and collaboration.” These maps are currently based on Google Maps so that they can be collaborative, so that any number of people can design, edit, and create them. And while I’m still not entirely convinced that bike maps are necessary, it has been fun to see what others add to the maps. And, in some small way, colluding with other Durham cyclists is a way of challenging the recreation-dominant model of cycling that the broader driving public swallows uncritically.

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Trained in analytic philosophy, Phillip Barron is a writer and award-winning digital media artist living in Davis, CA. His work has appeared in The Herald Sun, Radical Philosophy Review, Urban Velo, art galleries in Durham, North Carolina and (more...)

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