Experience: Franny Ritchie

Missing Cambridge: American cities are built for cars not cargo bikes

Franny Ritchie
Image as described adjacent

I did something last summer that I would not recommend: I completed an international move with three small children. My husband started work immediately, while I had a later start date to allow us to settle in. After the first week – with no local friends or knowledge of our community – two magical things happened. First, my son started school. Second, we assembled our cargo bike and my toddler daughters and I were able to explore our neighbourhood.

I moved to Cambridge with my husband and we left as a family of five. We returned to the US – my home country. But we came home to a set of circumstances dramatically different from those we left, and not just because of the skip fire that is American politics. We bought a big American house in a suburb (right), we bought an 8-passenger minivan, and we settled into a life that is both just like the one we left, and radically different.

Our new neighbourhood, in a suburb immediately west of Chicago, is an early-20th-century community full of single-family homes on small lots. Roads are wide, but quiet – most traffic is funnelled into a few arterial roads that are easily avoided. And like Cambridge, the whole area is flat as a pancake. Furthermore, car parking in shopping areas is a major source of contention in the village, but I have yet to have trouble finding a place to put my bicycle (I do sometimes have a hard time finding a dropped kerb for the cargo bike, but that’s a slightly different challenge).

In the first few months of riding around town every day, I had fewer bad experiences with drivers than in Cambridge: many are conciliatory to a fault. They will occasionally slam on the brakes to let you cross or linger at stop signs for an awkward amount of time, until you finally shrug and cross the junction.

As a cargo bike owner, I have gained a certain amount of notoriety. On one afternoon, two different women in their sixties stopped and asked to take pictures for their adult children. The first time I encountered another cargo bike on the road, he gave me a big wave as if to say ‘HELLO FELLOW TRAVELLER!!!!’
But when I joke about it with my neighbours, they say ‘oh no, it’s a very Oak Park sort of thing, they’re everywhere’.

Image as described adjacent

Cycling is extremely manageable in my new community, and for that reason
I see people of all ages out on their bikes. The village has all the components of a cycle-friendly community: easy access for bikes, a lot of cycle parking, dense housing stock and a perceived shortage of car parking. But as a dedicated cyclist,
I constantly realise the extent to which American cities are built to cater for the car. I went to the village hall with my children, and was unable to get in the front door: there was nothing that could accommodate a pushchair. When I asked employees, they said: ‘Oh! The accessible entrance is in the back, by the parking.’ There was no accommodation for a wheelchair-bound person who took the bus, or for parents with small children. I am the only person who seems to think that is strange.

Furthermore, I have become involved in cycling advocacy in my new community. I recently went to a village trustees’ meeting to speak in favour of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. I had a chat with other cycling advocates afterward. When the conversation broke up, they both walked to their cars to drive home.

I am settling into my new life here, even as I remain determined to keep the minivan in the garage as much as possible (because yes, our house came with a two-car garage). We chose this place because we did not want to be car-dependent. But the thing that has struck me is the extent to which cycling just doesn’t seem to occur to many people. Cycling is extremely viable as a default mode of transport, at least until it starts snowing, but it isn’t a part of people’s mentality. My husband and I joke that our mobility choices are quickly turning us into local eccentrics, and that’s the thing that makes me miss Cambridge the most.

This article was first published on 27 February in the Cambridge Independent, which features a monthly column by a member of the Camcycle team.