Mountain Biking, Teens and Suburban Cultural Shifts

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Yesterday, Sir Francis Drake High School, from suburban San Francisco, took the California State Mountain Biking Championship. The teenage girls and boys (my son is one of them) beat dozens of competing schools from around the state in a series of four dirt races.

What do suburban teen mountain bikers have to do with urban sustainability? If we are to successfully transform our metro areas into being more sustainable and healthier, it will require sweeping cultural changes in suburbia as well as in central city neighborhoods. 

The majority of North Americans live in the suburban belts surrounding big cities. Altering the design, mindset and practices of suburbia–where people need to drive or be driven to get places–means that the focus on “green cities” needs to be expanded to “sustainable urbanism.”

Think of all that oil that has gushed into the Gulf. It’s primarily used to power the cars and trucks serving suburbia, not inner cities. Youth–particularly teenagers–should be at the center of planning for an alternative future that provides a way to burn calories, not carbon.

Drake High School is set in Marin County, which is across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Thanks to the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, Marin County is one of the foremost North American suburban locations promoting cycling as an alternative to automobile use for commuters, students and citizens. The county bicycle coalition helped Marin get selected as one of four communities nationwide as part of a federal Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program.

The Marin Bicycle Coalition implements a successful Safe Routes to School Program, with more than 50 schools and preschools participating countywide. After being started in 2000, the Marin program became the model for a national program that has spread from the West Coast to the East Coast. 

Central Marin County was the birthplace of mountain bike racing and, arguably, of the modern mountain bike itself. One of the originators of the mountain bike and a participant in the world’s first organized mountain bike races in the 1970s was Joe Breeze, whose son Tommy is a sophomore on the Drake team. Back in the Day, Joe battled it out with Gary Fisher on the trails of Marin County. Now Joe helps keep the Drake Team bicycles in racing shape, after successfully launching and selling a Marin-based mountain bike and commuter cycling company, Breezer Bicycles.

The mountain bike has become an important feature of not just recreational biking, but also  cycling for transportation. This type of bicycle, which has a heavier frame and thicker tires, is used for urban transportation worldwide, particularly where roads are rough. In San Francisco, mountain bikes provide upright bike riders greater visibility and afford more traction in crossing slippery cable car tracks and potholes. In Hanoi, people use them to haul construction material or carry goods to and from the city markets.

Kids and teenagers like riding mountain bikes and can tolerate being seen riding them, so they can still be thought of as being “cool,” at least until teenagers start driving. Now, however, the popularity of mountain biking at Drake has reached the point where cycling may even have more cachet.  

Drake High School is located centrally in San Anselmo, and many of its students walk or ride bikes–invariably mountain bikes or cruisers–from around town or from neighboring Fairfax to get to campus. There are numerous bike-pedestrian lanes and bike-safe routes that have been implemented in the area. Perhaps that’s why I see far more students commuting by bike or walking to Drake than I see doing the same to other Marin high schools.

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Drake students even go on field trips to neighboring towns by bicycle. Such activities reinforce the bicycle as a bonafide means of transportation for students, their parents, and for every driver that sees dozens of students riding together.

This past school year, mountain biking became Drake’s most successful sport in terms of enrollment, with 49 students in the program during the 2009-2010 season. Winning another state championship won’t hurt the club sport’s future popularity: the names of all team members will be displayed in the school’s gymnasium alongside its state championship rosters in basketball, baseball and other more traditional high school sports.

The mountain bike team’s coaches demonstrate for student riders trail and road safety, as well as etiquette, in addition to supervising a regimen of brutal conditioning. According to assistant coach Neil Doucet, riders climbed 130,000 total feet during the twice-a-week November to May team rides this year–more than four Mt. Everests in verticality. Still, no matter how exhausted, every rider provides right of way to other trial users, enthusiastically greeting them with a cheerful “Howdy.”

Bicycles of all types are becoming a major cultural force in the cities and suburbs of the United States. Economists are even tallying the resulting economic impact in communities where cycling is becoming a significant form of transportation. In Portland, Oregon, the leading US city for cycling, for instance, almost $90 million in cycling-related sales and services were generated in 2008, according to an Alta Planning study cited in Joan Fitzgerald’s Emerald Cities.

In places such as San Anselmo and Fairfax, where Drake students live, the popularity of bicycles also translates to jobs. With a combined population of about 20,000 the two towns have a bicycle co-op and five full-service bicycle shops, including Sunshine Bicycle Center, the official sponsor of the Drake Mountain Bike Team. 

Because Central Marin is such a strong magnet for mountain biking and road cycling, there is also a significant impact from “bicycle tourism” in local restaurants and cafes. The Gestalthaus, for instance, is a Fairfax cafe that features sausages, suds and indoor bike racks (see photo below) for its visiting riders.
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In terms of its greenhouse gas emissions, Marin County’s largest con
tributor by far is personal transportation
. The adoption of cycling culture and the growth of cycling advocacy is a leading wave that could help other car-dependent suburbs significantly reduce their contribution to global climate change, and reduce their addiction to oil.

My wife and I moved to the suburbs from the city just over ten years ago, with the proviso that we would be able to cycle to work and other destinations most of the time. We have been able to fulfill that wish. With the success of the Drake Pirates cycling club, meanwhile, our goal of seeing bicycles gain even more prominence in the lives of our children (who have been biking or walking to school since Kindergarten) has also come true.

With time I hope to see a nation transformed so that all that want to ride for fun, sport (Go Pirates!) or mobility, are able to do so without fear, limitation or social stigma, wherever they live.

Warren Karlenzig is president
of Common Current, an
internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is
author
of
How Green
is Your
City? The SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post
Carbon
Institute
.

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