Two Wheels Good

trek950.jpgIn Cambridge, MA, where I used to live, bike ridership is at record numbers, and growing. Up 70 percent in the last 5 years. Bike businesses in the area are booming.
Thank you, $4/gallon gas.
We in the sustainability movement often talk about sustainability’s “3 Legged Stool”–the social, economic and environmental goals that go hand in hand, are inextricably linked. If you have one but not the others, the thing eventually topples over.
Cambridge’s bike story is similar to Portland, Oregon’s, whose robust bicycle culture and the economy it supports give us another sustainability metaphor, this one with two-wheels. What started as a group of Portland cyclists committed to the environment and public health has morphed into something more interesting and powerful: a small but stout industry, with the jobs, tax dollars and storefronts to prove it, supporting and inspired by the city’s cyclists. It’s a great example of sustainability-in-motion, of social, economic and ecological values each supporting the other and revolving, like the wheels of my old Trek 950 mountain bike (equipped with beefy street tires for my former Cambridge, MA commute), in a positive, virtuous, dare I say it, cycle.

It’s also a signature case study of what it means to have a “living economy,” where local entrepreneurs are key drivers in cultivating a shared set of civic and environmental values that serve as companions to their business models, where the distinction between a community’s economic health and its social and ecological fitness is hard to draw. Helping to lead this charge is the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, or BALLE, a network of networks representing over 50 local chapters and more than 15,000 entrepreneurs pursuing the kind of sustainability model Portland’s bike economy-culture exemplifies. (Note: I’m a BALLE trustee and currently serve as its Interim Executive Director in a part-time capacity).
Speaking of living economies, one of my former students is helping to do for Oakland’s artists what folks in Portland are doing for the cyclists. Erin Neel got the idea for Oakland Unwrapped while pursuing a Master of City Planning degree at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. When I ran into her at a BALLE conference in the spring of 2006, a few years after she graduated, Oakland Unwrapped was well on its way to becoming a full-fledged non-profit business. Today, it’s part of the nucleus of the East Bay’s thriving independently-owned economy, demonstrating that, just like the cyclists in Portland, Oakland’s artists, with a little help from entrepreneurs like Erin, can help remake not only an economy but an entire community in their own, and others’, colorfully sustainable image.
Two Wheels Good, by the bye, is the title of an album by the 80s British rock group Prefab Sprout, who recently released a new acoustic version of the album, reviewed here on NPR. Have a listen.
And while I’m still on this two-wheel kick, check out one of my favorite breweries, New Belgium, out of Fort Collins, CO, makers of the awesome ale, Fat Tire. Not only do these guys make some of the best beer anywhere, but they’ve got a great business philosophy, uniting a playful, spirited entrepreneurism with a deep commitment to sustainability.
Now that’s what I call reinventing the wheel. . .

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