Environment | LongReads

Racer to Advocate: An Astronomy Professor’s Life on Two Wheels

James Lowenthal looks like a typical college professor. In his office at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, he is well dressed in tan corduroy pants and a gray sweater pulled over a plaid shirt. Dark, round glasses sit on the bridge of his nose. His hair is short and neat. At 48 years old, you might expect to see a few gray strands sprouting from his scalp or some faint wrinkles starting to take hold of his face. But Lowenthal, tall and trim, hardly looks his age. “My doctor says I’m disgustingly healthy,” he says proudly. His youthful appearance and health comes, at least in part, from a long-term relationship with a bicycle.

For Lowenthal, bike riding began as a solution to a practical problem. It was the spring of 1980 in New York City. Like many New Yorkers, he relied on public transit to get around. But at the time, a transit strike was looming. Transit employees were having trouble reaching an agreement over wage increases. And sure enough, on the first day of April, the city’s 33,000 transit workers walked out. Bus and subway service came to a halt. Lowenthal lived on the Upper West Side and he needed to find a new way to get to school about seven miles away on the Lower East Side. So he borrowed a friend’s bike and started riding it through midtown Manhattan.

At about the same time, he saw a movie that inspired him to try something else with a bike. Breaking Away is a 1979 film about a teenager obsessed with European bicycle racing. The plot is based around an annual bike race that takes place at Indiana University called the Little 500. The race is like a track and field event for bicycles. Teams of cyclists compete against each other in 200 laps of racing around the perimeter of a soccer stadium. After seeing the movie, Lowenthal got hooked on bike racing. He says that was the moment he “fell head over heels in love with biking.”

As an amateur racer in college, Lowenthal admits he got sucked into a prevailing bike racing culture that isn’t particularly friendly to outsiders. “Racers tend to disdain non-racers,” he says. If you don’t show up in the standard uniform – skintight, brightly colored clothing and “cool sunshades” – this group of bicyclists probably won’t accept you.

Even so, Lowenthal would drive hundreds of miles to bike races around the country in his 1989 Honda Civic. Despite a growing interest in environmentalism, he didn’t give much thought to what was streaming out of his car’s tailpipe on those trips. It also didn’t occur to him that if people started biking more and driving less, air pollution could be drastically reduced. But that was consistent with the unwritten racing credo: bikes were used for racing. That was it. “It’s not about saving the earth,” Lowenthal said.

Lowenthal’s relationship with bicycling began to change when he was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the early 1990s. Each year, the school hosts a weeklong event to encourage people to try biking to work. To do that, they set up a “bike buddy service” that matches up beginners with experienced bike commuters who show them the ropes. Bicyclists are treated to a free breakfast among other incentives.

One of his bike racing friends suggested he help out with the bike week. Lowenthal agreed and started going to the meetings. It was then he realized that he could use his bicycle as a vehicle for environmental and social change.

Lowenthal brought that idea with him when he moved to the east coast in the late 1990s. Shortly after settling into his new home in Northampton, he founded a local chapter of a statewide bicycle advocacy organization called MassBike.

MassBike aims to make the communities of western Massachusetts more bike-friendly. One of the ways they do that is by educating people about bike safety. Lowenthal says the way many people think about bike safety today – the notion that a helmet is all you need to be safe – is misguided. He says wearing a helmet “doesn’t matter if you’re riding the wrong way in traffic at night with no headlight.”

The other side of bike safety includes things like knowing how to ride safely alongside car traffic. And he knows a thing or two about riding in busy streets. He calls riding in the New York City as a teenager a “learning experience” that provided plenty of opportunities to develop his traffic skills.

Even for someone with Lowenthal’s experience, accidents happen. The worst came one night when his helmet was stolen. He decided to ride home without it and ended up in the hospital with a concussion. Since then he’s occasionally had minor accidents. He once broke his shoulder after tumbling over the handlebars. Another time he rode into an open car door on a street in Northampton. For the most part, Lowenthal says the safety risks are “generally overstated” and the personal and environmental benefits outweigh them.

By teaching people to become safer and more confident riders, Lowenthal is trying to build a culture in which bicycles are the primary mode of transportation, one bicyclist at a time. He says he wants his actions to have a “multiplying” effect. So far, his plan seems to be working.

“I know for a fact that there are a lot of people in this community who now have taken up biking or walking because they’ve seen me and my friends and colleagues doing it,” Lowenthal said.

Lowenthal says he has lived a life of privilege and he feels it’s his moral duty to use that position to improve the world. He cites the French phrase “noblesse oblige,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “privilege entails responsibility.” His responsibility, he says, is to advocate for transportation decisions that will have a positive impact on the environment.

But Lowenthal isn’t completely car-free yet. He was close about two months ago when he got rid of his 24-year-old Honda because it would have failed inspection. But his mother-in-law recently moved to Northampton from California and she needs a car to get to the doctor. So he and his wife got a Toyota Prius.

While he can replace his car with a bike for most local trips, his job makes it difficult to completely avoid fuel-burning transportation. As an astronomer, he is expected to travel all over the place to conferences and meetings. Observing trips burn a particularly large amount of jet fuel because the telescopes are located in places like Hawaii, Chili, and the Canary Islands. “Astronomers are part of the platinum level frequent flyer clubs all the time and they boast about that,” he said.

So when he is at home, he tries to cut back on “frivolous travel.” The bicycle allows him to do that. On a basic level, two wheels provide a more enjoyable ride than four. He describes the thrill of being able to ride to an appointment, do his shopping, look over the Connecticut River, “and see a fox or a coyote or a bald eagle or a beaver and smell the pine trees and the fresh flowers.” He wouldn’t have time to notice those things when he was zipping past other bikes in a race. Though his average cycling speed may be slowing down, his efforts to promote the benefits of riding – in all its forms – for people and the world they inhabit are just ramping up.

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