CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A new Gallup poll ranked Charleston worst city for well-being of residents. While I would never rank my own city last, there are surely things we can do to make Charleston better. Think bikes.
Bikes could revolutionize Charleston, if we let them. I urge City Council to approve our first public bike lanes and build more bike racks. This sport is low-impact on our bodies, wallets and earth, can be practiced at any age and is easy to learn.
Wouldn't it be nice if we started doing something about our statistics and not just bowing to them? With government and community support, inspiring things could happen. What if we joined South Charleston and downtown Charleston with a bike route (it is a flat stretch) bordered by trees to distract us from the pollution? What if all our elementary and high schools had bike racks? What if we required that all new road projects have shoulders wide enough for feet, not just ants? What if we built neighborhoods with a preference for people instead of SUVs.
Currently, I live in Palestine. Locals call me "majnoona" -- crazy in Arabic -- for biking. However, without my bicycle, I might actually go crazy! When I bike, I am part of the whirlwind of the world, not merely a spectator behind glass. I bike to save money, for fitness and fun.
My interest in riding began in 2010, when West Virginia Rotary Clubs sponsored my travels to the Netherlands as an ambassadorial scholar. I spent nearly two hours a day there riding to and from university, for sport and leisure.
Knowing how to bike did not prevent me from crashing my first day in Holland. I was so surprised by hundreds of bikes gliding around me that I missed a curb, became sky-born and landed beneath a café table seated with people. After that, biking became easier.
The Dutch do not wear sports clothes to bike, but their work attire. They are professional bike multitaskers. It is common to see someone biking while talking on their phone. Also, their bikes are outfitted with side bags and front baskets to hold groceries. More people ride to work or take a train than drive. While Holland has high taxes, this money is directed toward things like more bike racks than flowers, bike lanes wide as roads and electric bike signs.
Bikes reflect the attitudes of the Dutch: they are pragmatic and fit, and pride themselves on not being flashy with money. You can rarely tell status or class if you are riding a cycle. Everyone looks equal on bikes. However, the benefits of riding go beyond financial savings (no gas, no insurance, no garage needed.) Healthy eating, combined with biking, makes people fit. I never saw a fat person in Holland.
Other European cities are shaking up the bike world, too. In Copenhagen, Denmark, you can rent bikes for free -- you get your deposit back when you return the bike. Barcelona, Spain, recently built a green ring in the city's core covered in 100 bike stations where riders can borrow and return at different locations. And the United States is catching up. Nearby Roanoke, Va., for example, is building a series of interconnected bike routes linking the city to the surrounding Blue Ridge Parkway.
In Nablus, Palestine, a lack of bike lanes makes biking uncommon. If I avert my gaze for a moment, I will be derailed by a shared taxi, donkey or fruit cart. And yet, I ride.