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Q and A with Martin Zimmerman

by Mark Peres

April 7,2008

Martin Zimmerman is Executive Director of CABA (Charlotte Area Bicycle Alliance). He is a retired architect, city planner and former Director of Facilities Planning for UNC Charlotte. As the first campus architect/planner for UNC Charlotte, Martin successfully obtained a grant from NCDOT for bike facilities. He attempted (but with mixed success) to incorporate bicycling into the Campus Master Plan process. Earlier, as an architectural and planning consultant, he assisted in planning the Metropolitan Branch Trail, a commuter link from downtown Washington D.C. to the Maryland suburbs. He has also served on the Executive Board for a rail-trail under construction from Vermont to Connecticut through the Berkshire mountains. He received a Bachelors degree in Architecture and a Masters degree in City Planning from the University of Michigan.

Why is riding a bicycle important to you?

Different people have different motives for riding a bike. I am not part of the spandex crowd. I don’t belong to a weekend warrior club. I’ve only been on one charity ride, the Polar Ride held each January in the Davidson area. I’ve never done the Europe thing either, where they take bikes on and off barges and meander thru quaint villages. My passion is everyday functional biking. I ride a slightly rusty hybrid, but I otherwise keep it tuned up – the right amount of air in the tires, the right lubricants, and I always wear a helmet. I live 5 minutes from the Town Center shopping niche in University City where I can go to the Teeter, Jackson Java coffee house, Amalfi’s Italian restaurant ( a favorite local hangout), and the Lifestyle Fitness center. The BikeLine bike shop owned by my good friend, Shane Hockensmith takes care of all my repair needs. I consolidate my business meetings either at the Java or in Uptown. I put my bike on the CATS bus when traveling Uptown and ride for a buck thirty. I save about $4000 a year by not owning a car.

Your organization was known as B.I.K.E.S. of Charlotte Mecklenburg. Why did it change its name?

We changed our name last year for a couple of reasons. First we found people could not make the association between the phrase B.I.K.E.S. of Charlotte Mecklenburg and what we actually did. Then they would ask me what the acronym B.I.K.E.S. meant, and when I told them it meant “Bicyclists Initiating Kinder Environments and Safety,” that snookered them. Too cumbersome to get your hands around. CABA is short and sweet. It’s corporate. After all Charlotte is as corporate a town as exists anywhere. And most of all it stands for a comprehensive mission which is to be the voice for the entire bicycle community, hence the phrase Charlotte Area Bicycle ALLIANCE.

What is CABA concerned about?
Our mission is comprehensive. We like to think it is much broader than other advocacy organizations, and I might add there are such organizations in 48 states and they are growing rapidly to meet the demand. In addition to constant lobbying for more bicycle facilities – lanes, signage, racks, connectivity to the greenways – objectives common to most advocacy groups, we are very concerned with the unique role that bicycling offers to pressing issues of the 21st century such as global warming, oil addiction, sprawl, obesity, and air pollution.

Take sprawl as an example. It should be obvious that bicycling dovetails beautifully with the scale of the Jane Jacobs city – vibrant with street life, civic spaces and high density living, but without overcrowding or congestion. Nothing beats a Saturday morning spin to a Reids or the Uptown Green farmers’ market for fresh flowers, warm bread and area-grown vegetables.

But suburban sprawl is another matter altogether. Bicycling in the suburbs offers a medium that gets families off their couches and out of their cars to experience and energize the sights and sounds of their cul-de-sacs. It’s a way to subtlely transform low density living into something more like the Jane Jacobs model.

Why does it make sense to dedicate space on roads for a few bicyclists?

Most people are not aware that there was a nationwide move in the 1970’s to build what are called “cyclepaths” parallel to roads. This was even tried in Europe for a while in spite of the tradition to ride bikes on streets. But they proved unfeasible both logistically and financially. Dedicating space on roads in the form of bike lanes seems like the answer since it offers a zone of safety for the many cyclists who are hesitant to compete with motorized vehicles in our auto crazed society. But in the past decade many other tools have been added besides bike lanes. Traffic calming is one of the best. East Boulevard in the Dilworth area is a prime example. Traffic calming means reducing the number of driving lanes while at the same time adding bike lanes. It makes biking safer. Not incidentally, it also allows pedestrians to cross the street safely, since calming often creates traffic islands too.

If all our roads had bike lanes, would the culture of the city really be any different?

It all depends. There is an adage that “if you build it, they will come.” But that is only part of the equation. Culture change means a fundamental shift in how bicycling is accepted by the society. There are only a few communities in the U.S. where bicycling is seen as mainstream, rather than fringe. Davis, California, Boulder, Colorado, and Madison Wisconsin, for example. These are places where people from all backgrounds and family circumstances ride bikes every day. Can you imagine moms hitching carriers to bikes and doing their shopping with two or three kids in toe? Can you imaging the chief executives of Wachovia and BofA riding bikes to work in suit and tie?

What are some of the activities CABA is involved with?

We have several on hand currently. The annual Cycle Charlotte Festival is held the last Saturday of Bike Week and is designed for everyone to take their bikes out of their garages, dust them off and tour the neighborhoods of Charlotte. It is hosted at Dowd YMCA. We have four CABA members on the advisory committee to the city wide bicycle master plan. This plan has noble aspirations for Charlotte to be a premier bicycling city with over 450 miles of bikeways by the year 2030. We will have a bike valet service at the Wachovia golf tournament later in April and have expectations of offering it at Panther games this fall. We are beginning to offer certified courses for anyone who wants to master the tricks of riding safely on Charlotte streets. We are looking at ways to team up with clubs, such as the Tarheels Trailblazers. They have built over 75 miles of trails and see the need to connect some of these to the expanding greenway system and in turn, to neighborhoods throughout the community. We support the Thread Trail initiative.

What’s the best way for people to connect with CABA?

That’s easy. People can tap into our website, especially the Weekly News and Views page or better yet, the ‘How to Join’ page! That’s www.charlottebikes.org.

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