Bicycling has many measurable benefits. It saves money on gas and other transportation costs, it is good for the rider’s health, and it benefits the environment. However, there is another aspect to bike riding that is often overlooked and cannot be measured with ease; riding a bicycle changes how the cyclist experiences his or her surroundings. In an urban area, biking can help define the relationship between cyclist and city.
McKayla Dunfey ’13 is exploring this connection through her Senior Fellowship, titled “The Bicycle’s Influence: Changing Perceptions of Place and Space in Urban Environments.” At Hamilton those seniors who are selected as Fellows undertake intensive, year-long projects that substitute for their coursework.
In many European cities, such as Paris, Barcelona and Amsterdam, cycling is highly integrated into city life. Thousands of bikers speed down dedicated bicycle lanes every day. In some areas, convenient bike rentals are offered from specialized racks on city streets. By contrast, many American cities are far less bike-friendly, and in some areas riders may be intimidated by unsafe conditions or lack of a positive biking culture. Dunfey’s previous experience with biking and her Fellowship project allow her to witness this disparity firsthand. She is visiting six cities across the country that have varied biking communities and policies in order to get a feel for the effect that biking has on each area.
Dunfey has been biking since she was a child, and she became involved in road biking when she was 13. At that point, she began to ride the bicycle that her great-grandfather had built, complete with lantern holders on the handlebars. At Hamilton, her hobby became even more integral to her lifestyle, and she restarted the Cycling Team on the Hill. The club races at the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference. She also spent her sophomore year doing an independent study on bicycling in Europe, where Dunfey spent time in many cities across the E.U., studying bike culture while experiencing it personally on her own bicycle. Her long background in biking and her recent experiences sparked her interest in continuing to study the topic independently.
Dunfey’s approach consists of citywide case studies. She has already visited New York City, the first on a list consisting of Minneapolis; Portland, Ore.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Denver, Colo.; and Boston. Dunfey was impressed with New York’s infrastructure for bikers, though she explains that other cities she is planning to visit do not have such a strong bike-friendly reputation. She hopes that her studies will be varied enough to get a full picture of what biking is like across the country, and she is visiting a geographically diverse range of cities to advance this goal.
In each city, Dunfey meets with city officials, biking organization representatives, as well as cyclists to talk about how each city caters to its bikers, and how the bikers in turn see their city. Generally, the main concerns for bike culture are safety, with features such as special bike lanes with barriers against car traffic ranking high on the list of desirable features. However, cities can also encourage biking on a less tangible level, by encouraging education on biking safety and awareness. Dunfey explains that in recent years, biking has become more popular, and she is interested in investigating how this surge in bikers changes the dynamics of city streets.
In the future, Dunfey hopes that biking will be accessible to a wider range of people, no matter where they live: “I hope that it becomes a lot easier and a lot safer for people to ride bikes and that it will become something that’s possible for more people.” She is considering a career in transportation planning, which would require a graduate degree in city planning. Her current Fellowship can advance her knowledge in this field and offer her practical experience in working with a variety of cities.
At Hamilton, Dunfey states that the opportunity to get off campus and explore the larger surrounding community by bike has opened her eyes to the beauty of Hamilton’s environment. She explains that the smooth, hilly roads and lack of traffic create perfect conditions for bikers. “The Bicycle’s Influence” will expand this perspective to include the experiences of dozens of people across the country, united by their love for this healthy, environmentally-responsible and above all, enjoyable mode of transportation.