The bike as a lens
Culturally we believe that the car is a symbol of personal freedom. But the truth is that car ownership can be oppressive on several levels. Personal mobility represents freedom to the individual, but it’s the form it takes that tells the story of freedom.
Susan B. Anthony said:
Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.
While the bicycle was a positive component of the women’s rights movement, the car could have played the same role given the right circumstances. However, cars didn’t require a liberating fashion change to be useable.
Today there’s a similar story. The major difference is that the bike, at least these days, is far more liberating in an economic sense than a car, and in several personal ways.
For men and women alike, the ease of identifying mechanical problems on a bike readily builds confidence and skills. Aptitude grows quickly as the fingers twine within the workings of a bike. Soon you’re deftly adjusting, tightening, truing all of the bike’s components. Once the bike is working smoothly the mechanic/rider can swing a leg over the top tube and pedal away.
Not so much the car.
The burden of car ownership
On the other hand, for those who don’t have much so-called disposable income, cars can become oppressive. For those with tight cash, it can seem like a ticking time bomb. That high school graduation gift turns into a clunker after a few years and then a financial burden with more and more surprise repairs as it ages. Diagnosing car problems can be frustrating, expensive in it’s own right, and time consuming.
Working-class people rarely have the money to throw at mechanical problems, and often have little time and resources to do the work themselves.
And with the inclusion of more sophisticated car technology, the days when a poor car owner could tinker and intuitively solve any mechanical problems are long gone. Even the most apt home mechanic can’t typically afford the diagnostic computers used in auto repair these days.
Instead of making cars more reliable and rugged, or making them easier to maintain or repair, automakers have gone the opposite direction and created infinitely more complex pieces of junk.
It’s galling to think the Big Three had to be bailed out by the American taxpayer at a time when fossil fuel decline suggests less reason to prop up car culture. All the while, car design and manufacturing processes have worked to suck more and more wealth from the average car owner during the past few generations.
On top of all of that, predatory “lot-financed” car loans, the societal pressure to own greater vehicular status symbols, and the perception that each adult should own a car, compound the problems of complexity and the built in planned-obsolescence of the car industry.
Dollars and sense
As a young man, I didn’t understand why cars couldn’t be built to be reliable beyond the term of the initial loan. But it quickly became apparent to me that if each car owner had only one car throughout their driving years then the auto companies would fail to bring in big profits for the long term.
It makes no economic sense for car manufacturing companies to produce vehicles that never need maintenance or replacement. On the other hand, it makes no sense for car buyers to purchase vehicles that don’t have a lifespan exceeding their own.
Yet this is where supply and demand fall apart. The demand is for long-lasting goods; the supply consists of only those vehicles that generally become obsolete. Does this sound like freedom for the individual?
It’s no wonder that, given a choice between one or the other, bike ownership is more economically feasible than car ownership, at least for single persons, particularly in urban areas.
Bikes on the rise again
More and more individuals and families are seeing bikes as crucial to economic resilience. A bike is cheaper than a car to purchase, and replacement parts are cheaper too. Oh, and you don’t have to regularly put gas into the tank of a bicycle, nor pay yearly licensing and personal property taxes on them in most places.
Really, it’s not the car that’s a symbol of individual freedom, but that personal mobility symbolizes expanded options and freedom from the group.
Whether freedom from the group is a desired outcome is elsewhere debatable, but if individual freedom is what you seek, then personal mobility by an efficient, reliable and economic means is the way to go.
Compare the single occupancy car with the bike and the bike wins on the score of “freedom” every time. Simple personal mobility to meet most daily needs offers the most freedom over the oppressive economic, social, and cultural issues bound up in car ownership.
And there are gains in societal freedom too.
Once more riders use bikes, there’s little need for a massive infrastructure of oil extraction and refinement. And beyond the occasional replacement tire, you can travel thousands upon thousands of miles on a bike with far less cost and hassle than with car ownership.
You’re free from the concerns of rising fuel prices for transportation, fuel efficiency standards, insurance scams, traffic jams, parking shortages, and a host of other nightmarish realities that are the daily lot of most of your car-driving contemporaries.
For these reasons and more the bike must be and will be an integral part of any energy-based paradigm shift. It’s a vehicle to freedom and to change; the vehicle of the poor, the revolutionary, the enlightened, the prepared, and the downtrodden. The bike carries the resourceful and resilient individual to a place of strength and power.
Have bike, will travel
No modern vehicle carries as much enduring symbolism, as much empowering vitality, as the bike. Its simple form implies much more than transport. Pushing on the pedals awakens true inner strength and warms your muscles, both physical and mental, to more efficient action.
Bikes are obviously utilitarian. You can use them to transport yourself, others and goods. A bicycle can even be used to provide a service in exchange for money or other trade. First it was bike messengers and bike cabbies making news. Now it’s bike composters, bike soup carts and other food services, even bike blood banks and mini shops.
But beyond a livelihood or transport device, bikes symbolize a radical freedom at all ages.
Playing for real — and not
Bikes are toys. Well, some people think so. Children do. But even kids see the freedom in a bike. Mechanical advantage allows little legs to go farther and faster, closely matching, and sometimes exceeding, the speeds of bipedal adults.
It’s during the teen years, during the twilight of childhood, when young people yearn for freedom from their families and community, to go out on their own and find themselves, that they begin, at least in our culture, to want to drive. And it is no surprise that many of those young people, myself included, use bikes that had once been mere toys to begin experimenting with the larger freedom of the road.
But for most suburban adolescents bikes aren’t enough freedom. They eventually move on to cars and let the bike lean against the side of the garage forgotten, fooled by the cultural messages that say cars offer more freedom than bikes.
Many adults see bikes as mere toys as well. Instead of riding to a park, they strap them on the back of their car for a couple of measly miles to then tool around like they’re trying to stitch the sides of the paved trails together.
Or they ride in the middle of the road going the wrong direction and cut across the other lane of traffic at random, unaware that a bike must also follow traffic laws.
Or they leave their bikes by the side of the garage for months on end, rusting away to uselessness. Or, never using it to commute, they’re frustrated by the utility cyclists who are diligently obeying the law but naturally move more slowly than traffic.
Bikes can offer great recreation. It’s fun to ride! Bikes need serve no other purpose in your life. But if you only use a bike for recreation then you’re not recognizing or exploiting its full value and potential, particularly during a time of rising personal expenses and strain on our environmental resources.
Making the case for two wheels
Bike advocates and utilitarian cyclists constantly battle the notion that bikes are exclusively for leisure. And this has a larger impact. One of the ideas that must be dispelled from the minds of motorists, law enforcement and policy makers is that bikes have no place on the road.
In reality, adult bikes are truly the most appropriate single occupancy vehicle in use today. They have far less physical impact on existing infrastructure, and, if more widely embraced by individuals for transportation, could reduce the need for more costly maintenance and build out.
The first step to overcoming misconceptions about bikes is for cyclists to behave as responsible, rational, intelligent adults when riding them. Cyclists have to lead by example.
To move into a paradigm change from auto-centricity to a more common acceptance of all available modes of transportation, cyclists have to model both fun and function, accepting that, with a cultural barrier to cycling, they have to reach and inspire people where they are and gently move them on to new ideas about cycling from there.
Cyclists should strive for a level of nobility that’s unchallengeable. The larger cycling “community” can organize around this idea by communicating with each other at traffic lights, as they pass each other on multi-use paths and bike lanes, at bike shops, in forums, on trails, or by making bike activism a part of their personal biking passion.
If we can change the public perception of cycling from recreation to a legitimate mode of transportation, then the next step is to break down the other barriers to practical cycling that many people fail to overcome on their own.
In the beginning of this discussion I suggested that it’s personal mobility, not cars or bikes per se, that truly represents individual freedom. But a quick glance at the benefits of bikes versus cars revealed that yes, bikes are far superior to cars.
Riding a bike regularly gives you a distinct shift in perception from that of the average non-cycling citizen. You know the surface of the roads intimately. You interact with the wind. You smell the streetscape. Air conditioning takes on a whole new meaning.
If you ride daily, and forgo car ownership altogether, you tend to become oblivious to fluctuating fuel costs. All this is to say nothing of the health benefits of regular exercise and the time-saving benefits of having your exercise simply be the way that you live, rather than an added time commitment or gym membership expense.
The bicycle is a conduit to enlightenment. It opens your mind to new possibilities. If I can go five miles on the bike, maybe I can go fifty!
Bicycles can free us from corporate propaganda, revealing the truth of the strength in our bodies and bones, showing us our own power and resourcefulness, giving us the freedom of mobility in all places, wrenching from our minds the idea that we must conform to be successful in life.
It’s all connected
A recent blog post by the Taiga Company, a Golden, Colorado based sustainability consulting firm, expounds on the benefits of using cycling as a way to connect with nature and to promote sustainability.
Real estate firms are combining a passion for cycling with the recognition that there’s a growing demand and need for communities that are bike-ped friendly.
The power of the bicycle is real and pervasive.
The personal is political
I believe that finding the appropriate scale for your lifestyle is the key to happiness.
While travel and vacations are good, the necessity of commuting long distances on a daily basis is an absurdity that Americans should not settle for. If more people would carefully identify the maximum practical boundary of where they live, work, worship, and play then many more people would be happier, healthier and more satisfied with their lives.
If you use the bike as your measuring tool, instead of the car, regardless of whether you utilize a bike for transportation at all, the rewards are huge.
The obvious solution is bikes.
While there’s no readily available, and equal, substitute for fossil fuels to power our daily lives at the scale we’re used to, there’s also no readily available alternative equal in power and efficiency to us as bikes.
We won’t be able to transport large quantities of cargo across the continent by bike in the post-carbon age. But many have come to the conclusion that the post-carbon age isn’t going to be about how far we can go but how close we can get.
My bike isn’t an overt political statement for me. Only in the last couple of years have I equated cycling with my political beliefs. Ages ago I got on a bike because it looked fun. My seven year old self felt freedom astride my heavy steel banana-seat bicycle. Once the training wheels came off I never looked back.
I consider myself a conservative, but in no way do I align with the political Right. Even where my beliefs overlap the Right in black and white, I maintain that my beliefs are different. My cycling is a conservative practice: conserving personal resources, community resources and natural resources.
I don’t ride to make a political statement. I ride because it makes the most sense for me.
From a certain viewpoint, my choice of the bike over the car has been a natural evolution given a certain set of circumstances. My path has led me to the belief that more people would benefit from the car-lite or car-free lifestyle, and I do my best to help others see the benefits and mitigate the liabilities of choosing a bike over a car.
A fitting Transition
My bike has led me to the Transition Movement as well. My cycling interests took me first to readings that talked about transportation issues. Inevitably peak oil came into the conversation. From my personal discovery of peak oil, I cruised easily into an awareness of the Transition Movement.
I used to think those who used bikes as a political statement were a bit pretentious. As I’ve evolved in my thinking I have come to embrace bikes as the perfect soapbox, the perfect platform and the perfect vehicle for change in our world.
I don’t think it’s pretentious to care about the environment. I don’t think it’s pretentious to care about the world, both natural and built, that my children will inherit from me, my generation and my culture.
Bikes have a history of cranking out socio-political change. They’re making a comeback these days as they carry families to the farmers’ markets, to political rallies, on long tours of the world, and to work and to school each day.
Bikes help us move beyond the outdated notion that only a car can solve the unique transportation problems for every family or individual. Bikes are the mechanical embodiment of the Transition Movement and I’m more than happily going along for the ride.
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