What could be more American than a block-long motorcade of black cars and motorcycles, carting a single politician around like an egg-bloated queen ant? Maybe George W's fighter jet, or Dirk Kempthorne's cement-blockade-scaling H2? Or maybe, in the outermost reaches of Bizarro Land bureaucracy, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter riding a little red bike alone to work for three decades. That's right, the mayor is Idaho's premier bipartisan bicycling bigwig, and this pedaltician chatted with me on the verge of Bike Week about the Greenbelt, helmet hair and the eternal battle to convince onlookers that cyclists aren't just drivers with their licenses suspended.
NC: First and foremost: what are your top goals for helping Boise to grow as a bike-friendly town?
DB: Of course one of our real gems is the Greenbelt, and we're always looking to expand that. We just dedicated a new stretch behind Joe's Crab Shack, which has been a tough piece to assemble. The hope is to extend it past Garden City and ultimately to Eagle, which has been a long-standing city program. Beyond that, by riding I hope to create opportunities to increase awareness beyond just the "Bike Week" or other single events. If people see the mayor riding his bike, they might think about it just a little bit more.
Just in case somebody hasn't seen you around town, how serious of a bike commuter are you?
I'm fairly serious—I'd say at least a third of the time. I rode to work two out of five days this week and home from the city council meeting on Tuesday night, which was a pretty typical week. It's really part of a whole pattern: first, I didn't take the car allowance that is budgeted for the mayor. Then, my wife and I only have one car, and trying to squeeze the most out of it puts pressure on me to walk or ride. But we just live in the East End, so it's a pretty easy commute into downtown.
How long has this been your routine?
I've usually lived within riding distance of work and would ride or walk wherever I went. But it first seemed really practical when I was in the legislature. It was just a lot easier to ride, and to go right up the stairs to the statehouse than to find a place to park either on the street or in a parking garage. The Weekly actually did a story about it then.
Just to be clear: are we talking about biking in your suit and tie?
Yeah. I don't generally get it together to [stash spare clothes] in the office for the week, so I'm usually riding in a suit.
So you wear the biking shorts under your regular clothes ...
Nope, just a suit and tie. I don't have any biking accessories—just a helmet.
As for your automobile-driving colleagues, do they admire what you do or laugh at it?
A little of both. There have been some who, when I ride up, say, "What, did your car break down?" or "Aren't we paying you enough?" But I've had a lot of good comments, too. On the whole people see it as a positive thing, but bikers still have to battle the mindset of, "Well, why aren't you driving?" A funny thing, once a gal saw me riding past St. Luke's and told my wife, "Your husband ... he's riding his bike. Did you know that?" like she should be concerned about it. That's part of what you're up against, and we need to not only to legitimize riding a bike, but also make it cool.
Tell me a little about your ride.
It's a 1969 red Schwinn Typhoon that I got when I was 10. I've purchased other bikes—two 10-speeds and a mountain bike—but they were all stolen. The Schwinn is hanging in there.
Any cool features or accessories of which you are particularly proud?
Not really. I'd like to get whitewall tires, but for now it's just my shiny metal fenders. And the helmet.
So how much of a nuisance is "helmet hair"?
Honestly, that has been a bit of a challenge. I just try to sneak a comb here and there.
What about a secret deodorant stash?
No, that's the next evolutionary step. A good thing about being mayor is that I have a little bathroom right off of my office and we have shower facilities at City Hall. That's [a concession] that other employers can try, too. I'm really pleased at hearing about the number of people who ride the bus or a bike to work. We have a competition in the city to award a prize quarterly for alternative transportation, and the last winners rode 90 percent of the year, winter too. They had the option of "a lunch with the mayor" as a prize, and actually took it.
I'd think they would rather have "a bike ride with the mayor," but lunch will have to do. So when you're riding to City Hall or the Statehouse, do you ever get the occasional bit of road rage against careless automobilers, or perhaps coast through a stop sign?
I'm not too bad about that. The good thing is that now, and even sometimes when I was a legislator, people will honk and wave. It's a pretty good "get to know the community" kind of activity. One thing I'm quite pleased about is a bike path that is planned to go through the BoDo development. They'll have a lot better circulation through that area, and they're going to open up some streets, which is good for all of us—walkers, bike riders and vehicles. The planning trend for a while was to block streets, and I think that on a whole is turning around, at least in that particular development. We want to keep that up, and increase safety and connectivity from there to every section of the city.