Some Thoughts on Sensible Transportation (Part I).

By Hank Ryan, Board Member and Immediate past Executive Director of Small Business California

On a sunny May afternoon in 1993 I sat in a classroom in Uppsala, Sweden and witnessed something during my summer law classes that made no sense, at least to an American.

Huffy bikeOur class was graced by a presentation by one of Sweden’s leading international lawyers who was then helping Boris Yeltsin develop the Russian constitution. Top attorneys and judges often enjoy traveling and teaching a class or two at summer law schools so that was nothing so unusual. What shocked me was how he traveled the 30 miles from Stockholm to Uppsala to teach the class. He entered the building leaving his bicycle in the hallway having used the train and bike to cover the journey.

At that moment I decided to stay in Sweden at least until I could better understand the kind of culture that supports high powered professionals riding bikes to work. Actually, the first realization that things were different in Europe came as I left the train stations as I arrived in both Amsterdam and Uppsala; both were surrounded by thousands of bikes.

Two years later I was still in Sweden having opened a small publishing shop in the center of the city. I remember one crisp morning as I sat on my bike at a railroad crossing waiting for the train to pass. All around me were others on bikes. Some wore suits. Others dressed in work clothes. Here with me seemed to be the full spectrum of Swedish society and I felt a pleasant sense of commonality as I waited for the crossing gate to rise. I spent three years in that city of 180,000 and with so many of its citizens traveling on two wheels, it often felt more like a small town back in the U.S.

When the opportunity to return to California emerged just as another dark Swedish winter approached, I decided to bail. My wife and I re-located to Alameda where the local Bureau of Electricity was just launching a big push for electric transportation. Back in the land of cars, I thought I saw a two wheeled opportunity based on the then nascent availability of electric bikes.

Every day, the commute from Alameda to San Francisco over the Bay Bridge created what seemed to amount to a still life oil portrait of vehicles stalled or barely moving across that span. Ferries were a pleasant way to cross the bay but getting to and from the ferries limited that approach. So I asked the manager of the Blue & Gold Fleet ferry if electric bike riders might be able to plug in while on the journey since we determined together there was ample extra juice available onboard.

Blue & Gold said yes but commuters did not. My European-based optimism failed against the reality of very few electric bikes entering the stream of transportation. This all occurred almost a decade before California passed the groundbreaking 2006 AB 32 emissions reduction legislation.

For me, the best solution has been to locate in a place where shops and restaurants are close enough so my one speed Huffy bicycle delivers both good exercise and emissions free transportation for almost everything I need to do. While I do not expect to run into many high powered international attorneys riding bicycles to work in Capitola, California, this personal lifestyle solution makes sense to me.

I must admit that even as we collectively tackle how to address ways to minimize climate change, the roughly 40% emissions contribution that transportation is responsible for will likely not soon result in ferries carrying two wheeled electric bikes or scooters, even if that could help get the Bay Bridge moving again. Progress is being made; just not enough yet to get most of us out of our shiny metal boxes.

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