There’s Something About the Bike: A Conversation with Bob Giordano
In the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, among many other climate-forward initiatives is a billion-dollar fund earmarked for remaking transportation infrastructure that divides communities, including things like multilane highways through cities. The Neighborhood Access and Equity Grant Program includes funding to increase community connectivity, especially in areas where large highway infrastructure has disproportionately disconnected people of color. To achieve this goal, the funding can be used to “build or improve complete streets, multiuse trails, regional greenways, or active transportation networks and spines”—good news for people who like to bike.
Many American spaces are designed around the automobile. Infrastructure for pedestrians, bicycles, and public transit is secondary to the car. This leads to the “five C’s,” according to Bob Giordano: car crashes, cancer, and climate change. To get a community bicycle advocate’s perspective on the benefits of bike- and pedestrian-friendly spaces in our cities, I reached out to Giordano, a longtime Missoula, Montana resident and an advocate for sustainable transportation and bikeable communities. He’s the director and founder of Free Cycles Community Bike Shop and the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation (MIST). We spoke on the phone to discuss what bicycles can do for communities and why Bob Giordano has dedicated his life to a more bikeable Missoula.
Stream or download our conversation here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rudy Molinek: What is your goal or vision or dream of Missoula as a bike-centered city? What’s been pushing you to do this for 27 years and what does it look like at the end? Or is there an end?
Bob Giordano: I don’t think there’s an end. I’m very interested in the process. And in my mind, I often use an analogy of picking out a mountaintop to go toward but there are many ways to get there. Maybe you don’t even end up at that same mountaintop. Something lands in your way, and you choose another one. The ending is not so much my goal or dream. It’s enjoying the process and the ride and helping people along the way. And if that continues to happen, I find that I stay pretty sane, healthy, and happy. But car crashes, cancer, and climate change are three issues that I want to solve.
Car crashes is a big one. We had a person on a bike killed last Monday. It’s shaken up this community. A 77-year-old gentleman on the sidewalk had a green walk signal. A truck took a right on red: looked left, saw a gap, shot the gap, and ran over this person, killing him on the spot. That kills a piece of me. This time tomorrow 4,000 people will have died in a car wreck somewhere on this planet. And this time in two days, 8,000. Three days, 12,000. On and on. In a year, that’s over a million people. It goes back to mindlessly using this tool we call the car. We don’t get enough education and information that, yes, it’s a tool, but it can be dangerous. You can lose your life in a split second. I’m really upset when I see a car commercial and they’re speeding, and they’re not looking at the road, and they’re texting, and they’re playing with their dashboard. That just sends us a continual message that you have nothing to worry about. We can get more people biking, or at least make that an option. If we can make our cities more multimodal-friendly for all ways to move around—not just the car—then I think we start to reverse that trend.
There’s a safety effect and there’s an environmental effect, and we’re seeing it with climate change. Transportation is a huge driver of climate change. It’s not the only one. We have businesses; we have electricity from factories. I also think that it’s not only the fuel for transportation, mainly gasoline and oil and indirectly coal, that contribute to climate change: cars also spread us out. They allow us to consume a lot of things, and cars themselves consume a lot of resources. That’s a huge contributor to climate change.
Cancer is a little more indirect. The pollution out of the tailpipe, and even the disposal of electric batteries and lithium, that’s related to cancer. Asphalt’s a bad one. The yellow paint put down on the double-yellow center line used to, and probably still does, have cancerous substances within it. All the plastic and vinyl. “Oh, that new car smell!” That’s detrimental to our health. Getting in a car seat, not getting exercise—how easy and seductive is it? I could be in Madison in two days. You could be in Missoula. It’s kind of magical. But again, I’ll just say that we seem not to think enough about the consequences and the responsibilities that go with the privilege of the car and driving. And so, cancer, climate change, and car crashes are the “five C’s.” I don’t like to focus on the negative, yet we have to acknowledge that those “five C’s” are in our society, and they’re affecting every single one of us on a daily basis.
I don’t want to see highways running through our fair city. And I don’t want to see houses torn down or the streets become less easy to cross by parents and their children or dog. Streets are political. It’s shared space—very political.
RM: I was wondering if you could reflect a bit on the role of government versus community organizations in shaping streets, as you talked about being a political space, and any hard-won lessons you’ve learned doing this for a long time in Missoula?
BG: What I feel is that we should not all just rely on the government to fix things. And we shouldn’t just need endless grassroots efforts to fix things. I see that government is pretty solid, especially here in Missoula, at making changes, but it’s so slow and bureaucratic. So, I’m always looking for levers to break down bureaucracy and get things changed a little bit quicker.
But it’s also like growing a garden. You don’t have to get too overwhelmed with trying to change everything tomorrow. I find it pretty effective to make little changes and insert yourself into the conversation at the right time. I did so much listening in the first 10, 15 years and really started to speak and found how much power there is in one person speaking. If you can get two or three more, sometimes 100—that’s unstoppable. So, I try to be transparent, very truthful, honest. I try to hardly ever yell. It’s always more of a whisper. It’s trying to keep things positive and action-oriented. Sometimes it’s working on policy, but policy’s no good if people don’t believe in it. The only way to get policy changes is to have people understand what you’re trying to do and agree with you. I’m always challenging myself to consider, for example, are roundabouts really that good? And I’ve determined that they’re a lot better than stoplights if they’re designed right and there’s only one lane and they fit within a community. A human-scale, one-lane roundabout generally prevents T-bones and major crashes and head-ons from happening. In a roundabout, people have to look at each other. So, I’ve learned a lot about design, and I share that when I can.
RM: We’ve talked about the effects of more biking on physical health and the landscape, and maybe we could broaden a bit to talk about the effects of biking on a societal level. I know you’ve talked about bikes being a tool for democratization of spaces.
BG: Well, I’ve thought about how you don’t have the town square where people gather. There are generally two types of meetings: planned and spontaneous. And we’re all pretty good about planned meetings—calling someone, emailing, setting it up, trying to be there on time, rescheduling, saying you’ll meet them again. I think there’s a role for that, but I love the spontaneous meeting. I always build in a little more time to get to work. Since I’m on my bike or walking, I’m going to see people along the way, and I’m probably going to share an idea with them and move along.
Those public pedestrian plazas, those places where they’re not corporate and haven’t been taken over by fast traffic, they don’t exist a whole lot in the United States but I see how important they are. And that’s what we strive to do with the community bicycle shop. We have a courtyard, we have our own little plaza, we have gardens, we have places just to sit, we have places we don’t know what to do with! We have random spots, and we’re always trying to make them hospitable or human—places where people want to be. And I think that’s part of the success of our community bike program. We see well over 20,000 people a year coming here. Not only do people build bikes together and learn, but they also meet other people. We work with a prerelease center, folks just getting out of prison, and we’ll see it all the time: “I’m gonna come back here and I want to volunteer every Saturday; I like the vibe.”
And the buildings we’re in, they’re sort of along the lines of permaculture, they’re all wood. They’re not too tall, there’s only one story. They’re kind of funky. We don’t have asphalt and concrete on our grounds. It’s all grass and soil and dirt and gravel and decomposed granite and earthy materials. One reason why we bought this place is that we can make changes and demonstrate the very things we want to see out in the community. I’m starting to really look at these two acres and this large building as a microcosm of a larger community. And I think if we can continue on this path—carbon-neutral, zero fossil fuel, local, healthy material—if we can demonstrate that, it will be a lot easier for other folks to say, “Well, maybe I can learn from that and do that.” I’m seeing things I’ve never seen before, as far as people wanting to make change and be more sustainable.
RM: Are there any lessons you’ve learned in Missoula in terms of having an ecosystem of different organizations and people that are all trying to make change?
BG: Some folks would consider us the main thrust of bicycling in Missoula. And I think they’re right in some ways, but there’s mountain bike groups, there’s road riding groups, there’s a women bikers’ group, there’s Adventure Cycling—there are a lot of groups and people doing things. I like to think of that as an ecosystem of mobility or of groups working together. I think it’s very valuable when things are decentralized. Not that there are no leaders. I think we all can be leaders at some point and followers at some point.
I like that in Missoula there are groups working on renewable energy, clean water, clean air, growing your own food. One of our tenants is Soil Cycle. They pick up food scraps by bike and turn it into soil that they provide back out to the community. And there are so many kids in this community, and they’re all learning from this ecosystem. Hopefully they take it to the next level, whatever that may be. But I think it’s really important, for the folks who can, to nurture those ecosystems. And a lot of times you don’t have to do anything but just step out of the way.
Part of this is the joy of the bike, and building a machine with somebody is a lot of fun. And that’s the hook. This community center wouldn’t be the same if we were doing toasters or appliances, or, I don’t know, even building green affordable housing. There’s something about the bike. It takes one to three hours to fix up the bikes we have here. And we have hundreds of them donated from the community. Then to see them pedal away, and we’ll see them again, because old bikes take a little bit of work to get them going. So, they’ll come back and we’ll tune up a wheel together or adjust the brakes or try to toe in the pads and not have that squeaking going on. But it’s really a fun hook. It’s really a good way to have a community center and a community bicycle repair shop married together. I really advocate for that, and I’ll help anyone start a community bike shop anywhere in the world. Whether it’s via Zoom or email, I can be contacted through freecycles.org and love to connect.
Feature image: A protected bike lane in Seattle, Washington. Protected bike lanes are an important part of sustainable transportation networks that reallocate road space to reduce car traffic and increase safety for cyclists. Photo by the Seattle Department of Transportation, 2014.
Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.
Bob Giordano is the founder of Free Cycles Community Bike Shop and the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation in Missoula, Montana. He’s worked on issues of bicycle access, safe streets, and sustainable transportation for 25 years. Contact.
Rudy Molinek is Ph.D. student in geology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. When not researching the ancient ice sheets that once swept across the upper Midwest, he’s also a writer and host of the podcast Under Our Feet, where he explores stories of the inextricable links between humans and the earth in Wisconsin. His writing has appeared in Wisconsin People & Ideas and Agate magazines. Website. Twitter. Contact.