On tour: Lack of infrastructure can’t stop cyclists in Mobile, Alabama

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Mobilians on Bikes on a group ride. (Photos by Ben Brenner)

There’s a chicken and egg question I keep coming back to — which comes first, the bike infrastructure or the bike riders? There doesn’t seem to be any single answer except the frustrating non-simple one that you need both at once and that they tend to build on each other. This dynamic is played out — or not — differently everywhere. In several stops on tour, we saw places that offers bicyclists little official accommodation but a lot of grassroots encouragement. Mobile, Alabama, was one of them.

In Mobile, a gorgeous, 300 year old small city with a ton of charm, we stayed with Dan & Amy Murphy for two nights. They entertained us with homemade beer, stories of their travels and the other travelers they’d hosted through Couchsurfing, and unstoppable, contagious good cheer.

The Murphys are brand new to bicycling — they started in November, 2011. “I was looking for a way to exercise that I did not detest,” Amy explained. They’d seen other people biking around town and they looked like they were having a lot of fun, so they made a trial investment in two cheap department store bikes.

It paid off — they both fell in love with bicycling right away, and both began riding regularly to their jobs downtown. “It makes me feel like a nine year old kid!” said Amy.

But, the Murphys told us, Mobile is not a very safe or comfortable place to ride. It’s a bit sprawling, summers can be brutal, wheel-eating potholes abound, and people in cars do not necessarily see people on bicycles or yield to them. The city’s only bike infrastructure consists of a few, not always clear, signs that mark the route that both Murphys use to commute.

We got to see all this firsthand as we followed Dan one day as he rode downtown towards his office, skittishly hugging the shoulder during the blocks where we needed to leave neighborhood streets, but smiling the whole way nonetheless. (Photos from that ride.)

After Dan dropped us off, we heard the dissenting view from a local restaurant proprietor, Richard, who had been enlisted to give us a longer tour of the city. “Aww, bicycling is easy here,” he said.

Riding with him, I saw his point — the city is flat, the weather is perfect for most of the year, the culture is laid back, and, at least close to downtown, the street grid is fairly intact, making it possible to mostly stay off the major streets. After our ride through Houston, Mobile was like a breath of fresh air in comparison.

Mobilians on Bikes filling the street!

I saw the Murphys’ point, too, though. The same roads that seemed relatively mellow to an outsider transformed, in the eyes of a new cyclist, into fast, alarming highways. Mobile’s charming streets are not graced with much by way of bicycle infrastructure, and there are few signals to anyone using any mode that bicycling might be a welcome, normal, or desirable activity on roads that are otherwise well-suited to the activity. All space thus became shared space, but that didn’t mean that speeds become shared speeds.

Whatever its charms, until you actually get on a bike, Mobile has every appearance of being a terrifying place to ride. No wonder cycling hasn’t yet caught on there.

The social side of cycling in Mobile, though, is ahead of the curve. The Murphys are part of Mobilians on Bikes, a riding group of the “bike fun” variety begun by our event’s host Niklas Hallberg (who, perhaps not incidentally, was the second person we met on tour who chooses to get around his not very bike friendly town on a bright orange Yuba Mundo). The group, which has a decidedly non-sporty bent, organizes themed two wheeled ambles around town for anyone interested. Amy provided the photos on this post, which were taken during two well-attended MoB events in one weekend last month: the second annual Tour de Coops for urban chicken enthusiasts, and a homebrew themed ride with multiple stops for education, creation, and tasting.

A respectable crowd on the Tour de Coops.

Mobile struck me as a bike-ready city — the rare sort of place that is already blessed with many “natural” if unmarked bicycle facilities and where there are few physical or political obstacles to cycling. A handful of minor infrastructure investments — well-placed parking, lanes on some of the busiest streets, signs on more routes, signals or marked crossings at a few major intersections — could transform the place nearly overnight into a bicycling utopia.

When this day comes, a savvy politician will likely get the credit. But in the end, it will be largely thanks to enthusiastic folks like the Murphys and the others we met in Mobile and their irrepressible, infectious love of bicycling. You read it here first.

It’s now been three weeks since we left Mobile, Alabama and I’m a bit behind on blogging about tour. Not incidentally, the Murphys’ house was also the last place we had some down time during which I was not asleep and there was internet access. In the next couple of weeks I’ll be catching up on posts about a few more of our other stops on tour. Stay tuned!