San Jose Excerpt from “How America Can Bike and Grow Rich”

This is from Chapter One of  “How America Can Bike and Grow Rich”, my e-book that you can buy HERE.

Wanting to talk also about bike taxis for easing congestion by carrying tourists and even old people around and hoping they would also give me an opening to talk about bike trailers for carrying stuff, the attention started to shift from me to the front door of city hall. People in suits began to appear.

And one of them, a familiar face started walking toward our group, “Hi Martin,” he called.

“Hey Hans, looks like we got a good crowd this year,” I observed as I looked around the massive city hall complex. It took up a full city block. City Hall itself stood 18 stories tall as a gleaming structure that was at the center of a downtown that had undergone a complete facelift. As with all our previous Mayors’ Ride visits, on our way in, we were reminded how thoroughly San Jose had reinvented itself in the last decade.

For block after block, there were new street lamps, benches and other new street furniture. Power poles and power lines were absent. The streets had been narrowed to make way for the wider and far more walkable sidewalks. All the storefronts along the way had been modernized. The infrastructure needed to support the city’s extensive light rail network, could be seen everywhere. New parks and wide promenades seemed to tell of a municipality fueled by a bold vision.

Just outside the doors to one of City Hall’s several entrance ways, folding tables had been set up with NBG literature, copies of our books, bagels and several tubs of bottled water and juice. Despite all the attention my group and I were getting, I knew the real focus would soon be on the inhabitants of the building that anchored this complex. We were all waiting for the Mayor to greet us with the first of this year’s 20 other NBG Day proclamations.

Hans represented the San Jose Department of Transportation. He was its director and he and I had talked a lot over the last few years about the logistics of our annual celebration. We shook hands. “Come on Martin, the Mayor’s almost ready for you guys,” he said as he signaled to the media that we had to relocate while we waited for the Mayor.

As we started to walk the short way to where our event would take place, he continued, “So you’re ‘‘gonna do the whole thing this year on that thing, huh. That’s impressive – I’m always amazed when I see you demonstrate for the press. I ‘‘gotta  admit you do make it look easy but how you get so high up there and then float around just looks so cool”.

Hans looked the part of the cyclist he was. Fit and sandy haired, he was a bit taller than myself.  He and I were headed to an area in the wide-open plaza that filled almost half of the massive City Hall complex where a podium with the official seal for the city of San Jose and a microphone had been set up. Behind it, a small stage was covered with wires, amplifiers, and a handful of musicians and their instruments. The small band was playing a blues tune that became more and more audible as we approached.

 “I say we get this show on the road,” Hans said as we strolled over to where all the attention would soon be focused.

Just as we got to the speaking area, Mayor Reed appeared. A man with strong features and a receding hairline, Chuck was respected widely and I felt honored that he always made time for our annual event. But how could he not?  He shared the enthusiasm of his fellow city and staff leaders to turn San Jose into the world leader in sustainable transportation. Armed with a general plan within which the bicycle filled a big part of the equation, he is blessed with some of the best weather on the planet and a healthy smorgasbord of mostly flat roads that make up the valley floor his population center occupies.

Nor could it hurt that some of the world’s best back road cycling could be found in the two mountain ranges that border both sides of his city. On one side is the beautiful Coast Range that separates his constituents from Santa Cruz and the Pacific Ocean. While on the other are the gentle, bike friendly switchbacks of 4,300 foot-tall Mt Hamilton. It is this hill work that modern day cyclists on their geared two wheelers enjoy today, while long ago, at the turn of the last century, its many many miles of level terrain established San Jose as a Mecca for San Francisco Bay Area cyclists. And it is this preponderance of even turf today that has helped to make its monthly San Jose Bike Party, a ride that attracts thousands, the biggest in the world as it grooms a whole new generation of far less car dependent bike riders.

Led by the bicycle in its plan to get people out of their cars, the new San Jose that has emerged in the last decade and a half, long has felt the pull of its rich two-wheel heritage. In the late 1800’s, even when there were only 4,000 people living there, there were still 27 bike clubs, an equal number of bike shops and its bike racing was the most popular spectator sport in the entire state. In fact, its velodrome, Hellyer Park, after it was built in 1963, to honor its original 1892 two wheel raceway, stood for two decades as the only bike racing track west of the Mississippi until one was built near Los Angeles for the 1984 Olympic games.

As testimony to the honor the city holds for its bicycle roots, on one of our recent Mayors’ Ride visits to City Hall, John Brazil, their Bike Coordinator, took several of us on a tour of the many exhibits they have of bikes at work and play in turn of the 20th century San Jose. From olden day mail carriers to the bikes that moved fruit around in the many orchards that used to fill these lands, each display was made up of a bike that had been fully restored along with its history tastefully displayed on a handsome plaque. At the ground level floor of the cavernous city business building, it seemed like every time we turned a corner, a new two-wheeled presentation appeared. “Well hello Martin, good to see you again this year,” called the Mayor. He reached out his hand as he approached.

“Hello Mayor Reed!” I said confidently as we shook hands.

“Great to see you again this year, Martin, looks like you brought a lot of your friends,” he smiled as he looked off to the crowd of maybe a few hundred media people and well wishers. “My staff tells me this year is different, that you are riding all the way to Washington, DC. And with a book you’ve written no less!”

“That’s right, I even have a signed copy for you,” I said when Don Burrus, the Mayor’s scheduler interrupted. “Martin, we’re going to have to cut it a little closer than what we talked about on the phone, the Mayor has to get over to the New Almaden Quicksilver mines for a museum rededication”.

In the 19h Century, it was quicksilver that had helped shape the early San Jose. In fact, in the same way farm roads once connected to many of the world’s town cores like the spokes on a wheel, Almaden Road, much of it now an expressway, travels from the long abandoned mines the Mayor would be visiting to the city’s downtown. It was the once highly prized metal these mines used to produce that San Jose once shipped out to an anxiously waiting world.

Back then, quicksilver’s uses were many. During the 1849 Gold Rush, when hydraulic mining became popular, for example, it was quicksilver that helped to extract gold from the ore filled rocks. While during the First World War, it was the produce of San Jose’s mines that gave our military an advantage. This was so because the triggering mechanisms of the day needed quicksilver, or mercury, as it is also called, to make gunpowder explode.

A cheery, upbeat man, Don had always worked to make sure we stood out on the Mayor’s business calendar. And today, it was obvious that he was taking the lead. “Celia,” he called, “can you get the proclamation over here and let’s all get going”. To a woman named Liz who had earlier reminded me that that she wanted to ride the Busycle again, she rode it around the plaza with us last year, he asked, “Can you let the band know they’re ‘‘gonna have to wrap it up for a bit. Tell them now is when we need them to take their break.”

As our new field general choreographed the scene, I told the Mayor that one of the cameras that was trained on us was for the documentary that would result from this year’s ride. I was talking about the one being held by Don Loomis. Don had biked across the US for us in 2004.  Having taken copious notes on that ride, it has been Don’s route that we have been working to fine tune ever since.

Then almost as if taking his cue from a script. Don Burrus walked up to the microphone and started talking, “On behalf of the City of San Jose and Mayor Reed’s office, we’d like to welcome all of you who have come here today for San Jose NBG Day. Today the Mayor will be presenting a proclamation to the National Bicycle Greenway organization to honor them for their mission to connect all the cities across America with safe bikeable roads and paths. So without further delay I give you a respected friend of San Jose cyclists, Mayor Chuck Reed!”

We began to clap.

“Thank you,” the Mayor began as he nodded first to Don, Hans and the rest of his staff before he looked out to the crowd and the small pool of reporters before him. I stood behind him off to his right with my fellow riders. Once on the road, because I moved so slow, they would ride ahead of me and in the towns and cities along the way, since mine would be the first crossing of America on a backwards facing HiWheel, they would use my coming arrival to drum up interest in our ride.

In between population centers, we would all be doing our own rides. While at the end of the day we would join one another again at a predetermined sleeping spot.  The plan was for our driver to already have a spot all set up for the bus, my Sunfood shake ready to drink and a meal made so I could eat and do a few yoga stretches before I collapsed into my small bed.

“Before I read the proclamation, I want to first acknowledge the group of cyclists here at my right,” the Mayor began, “On behalf of the National Bicycle Greenway these brave men and women will be taking the message we send them off with here today to the towns and cities between here and Washington DC. Can I get the four of you to take a step forward so the crowd can see who you are?”

As Virginia, Skot, Don and Bill moved next to the Mayor, a drum roll could be heard as many of the people who had come began to clap. Someone from the crowd began to chant, “NBG, NBG” as a few others joined in before Mayor Reed smiled and reading from a small piece of paper said on the loudspeaker that drowned everyone else out, “Thank you Virginia Krieg, Skot Paschal, Bill Campbell, Don Loomis, and Martin Krieg.”

He waited a few moments for calm to return.

“So we have come here today to honor the possibilities that the National Bicycle Greenway can mean for Americans and for our great city,” the Mayor began. Holding the San Jose proclamation before himself, he read,

 WHEREAS, San Jose’s bicycle heritage dating back to the 19th Century has been rich and multi-faceted; and

WHEREAS, the city of San Jose foresees a safe bicycle connection that connects our city with Washington, DC; and

WHEREAS, in its general plan, the city of San Jose recognizes the bicycle as an important part of its goal to become this nation’s leader in sustainable transportation; and

 WHEREAS, San Jose’s weather and plethora of bike paths and flat traffic calmed streets, as well as its abundant smorgasbord of back road biking, long have combined to make it a place where cyclists place their wheels.


After he read the last sentence, he turned to me as he said, “And this year we have NBG Founding Director, Martin Krieg, present to tell us what other cities they will be visiting here in the Bay Area and in the rest of the State. But before I do that I want to give him and his fellow riders a gift they can deliver to DC Mayor Vincent Gray from the citizens of San Jose.”

Handing me a plaque set on a hard plastic base, obviously to make it light, he continued, “Martin, can you read this to our guests today?”

Smiling, I replied, “Wow, this is really awesome, and yes, I’ll be happy to.”

I set it on the lectern and read the words:

“To the elected officials of Washington, DC and the public they serve:

As your city and ours join hands with other great bike cities to make it safe for cyclists to move about, we acknowledge Washington, DC for the example it has set to make the bicycle an important part of its transportation infrastructure. This as we look forward to joining you on the National Bicycle Greenway ”

Holding it up for the crowd to see, I continued, “and then it has Mayor Reed’s signature, and then it has the colorful seal for the city of San Jose on it and today’s date.

This is so beautiful, thank you Mayor Reed and we will all be so proud to deliver it.”

The Mayor smiled as he motioned for me to continue, “In the interest of time, I will be brief but I do want to say that we will be riding to Palo Alto today, from there to San Francisco tomorrow and on Wednesday afternoon we’ll be in Oakland before we head off to Berkeley, Napa and then do Sacramento to Folsom along the amazing America River Parkway. Once we leave California, we will visit 13 other cities on our ride to Washington, DC. And by default, the 2015 Mayors’ Ride will be the rough equivalent of what America’s first coast to coast cyclist, Thomas Stevens did all the way back in 1884, when he rode one of these things from Oakland to Boston”.

The news people pressed closer as I looked at the Eagle HiWheel I held before me. “And I want to thank the gracious leaders of the city of San Jose for always welcoming us and this year in particular as by my pedaling history on this the machine that called for America’s first roads we ask for a return to some of that same simplicity our forefathers enjoyed as we bike and grow richer in body, mind and spirit. And it is for this reason, that I want you, Mayor Chuck Reed, to have one of the first print copies of my book, “How America can Bike and Grow Rich. The NBG Manifesto.”

I turned away from the crowd as I walked a few feet to where the Mayor was standing with three or four members of his staff. They all wore suits. I handed him my book along with an NBG baseball cap.

“Thank you very much Martin.  I know some people on my staff have read your story in “Awake Again” and told me how it was inspiring, so this ought to be good.” As he then put on the hat and posed with my book and me for a few photos, a voice boomed out over the loudspeakers.

Hans had taken over at the microphone, “On behalf of the Mayor, I want to thank all off you for coming out today. We’d love to stick around and listen to some of the great music you have here today, eat some of this great food and listen to some of the great speakers we have heard will be here but we have to be on the other side of town for another event that we are already late for. And I hate to say it but we are going in a car.”

As Hans started walking toward us, someone from the crowd shouted, “Bet you’d get there faster on a bike!”

Chuckling Hans said, “You know that guy’s probably right. I just don’t know how well the rest of our group would hold up…”

Hearing that I thought about how on a bike, and even sometimes on my slow HiWheeler from back in the 19th century, if the traffic was bad enough, I still could beat the average car driver two or three miles across town. And then that didn’t include my then having to deal with parking. Often I rolled right up to the entrance. But I knew what Hans meant. The group he was moving about with were average Americans, unlike the people in some of the cities of Europe. In Copenhagen or Amsterdam, for example, the young and the old, in all kinds of dress ride their bikes not just for recreation but for transportation. They use them to shop, to go to restaurants or pick up dry cleaning. Their bikes get them to work and back, to movies, to visit a friend. Taking that thought to its extreme I mused about pre-2000 China, where before the automobile arrived, in its cities, bicycles merrily scurried about filling almost every piece of open space.

But like most Americans, the Mayor’s group lacked bicycle conditioning because in most of the USA, it was just not safe for an inexperienced cyclist to try to get to most destinations. And there were few safe places for them to even rebuild those skills that had likely grown rusty with disuse. I knew, like I was telling the reporter earlier, that was why we don’t see more old people on bikes. I also knew that was why people in the US grow larger, less healthy and more angry at one another as they wait in traffic trying to keep themselves safe.

Is that any way to live? Walk a few steps and sit in a car. Walk a few steps and sit in an office. Walk a few steps and sit in a car again. Walk a few steps and sit in front of food.  A few more steps to a seat in front of the TV. A few more steps to the bathroom and then bed. And wake up the next day and REPEAT. Over and over again. Throw the nightmare of traffic in there and it’s no wonder Americans are stressed to the max. It’s no mystery why complicated diseases are common and being overweight is the norm.

“So Martin, we’re outta here. THX for a great program and Good Luck on your ride,” Hans said as he reached out to shake my hand.

“Yes good luck on your ride,” the Mayor said. Raising my book to eye level he said, “I’ll be hoping for the best for you as I’m reading this!”

As I watched them walk away, Don Loomis walked up to me,

“Well are you ready to go?” he asked. “We’re all over there,” he said as he pointed to the twenty or so cyclists waiting for me. Standing with their recumbents, HIWheels, three speeds and mountain bikes, they were all near the traffic calmed street with the three bicycle police who would take us to the quiet Baylands pathways that ringed much of the San Francisco Bay.

As wetlands preservation areas, the lands we soon would be reveling in had escaped development because solid foundations could not be erected in their marshy soils. While large sections of them had been lost to dredging or in-fill, even salt farms, in what remained, as the rest of the Bay Area developed around them, many of the same native plant species that greeted the first 18th Century Spanish explorers, still grow there today. As the tides ebb and flow to cover and expose them, the tall salt grasses also serve as habitat for the wide variety of migrating fowl that make them their home.

Because it sits at the southern end of the Bay, San Jose serves as caretaker for a large swath of these open space lands. In its stewardship role, it has made them accessible with an impressive network of paved pathways that run like dikes above the watery nature below. As we made our way north, it was out there that we would hardly know highly active cities with all their busy roads stood not far away from us.

It was this kind of riding we would enjoy almost half of the way to Palo Alto, another one of the best biking cities in the nation, and the next Mayors’ Ride city we would visit.


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