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Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Bicycle: "An Instrument of Experiential Understanding"

Being the verbose, overtly intellectual loudmouth that I most assuredly am, I've tended to get long-winded when talking about my bicycle before. (That's my wonderful, humble Trek 7100 to the right, upon which I've now put over 6000 miles of urban and suburban commuting.) I've even gotten all academic about the topic on occasion. Fortunately, there are better writers than I out there--and I've just run across one of them, thanks to Lee McCracken (who has just started using CapitalBikeShare in Washington DC to help him get around, and he loves it). He links to an essay, "The Real Reason Why Bicycles are the Key to Better Cities", and the author gets it exactly correct:

We all know the talking points. The benefits of bicycles have been tirelessly elaborated upon; bicycles improve health, ease congestion, save money, use less space, and provide efficient transportation with zero fuel consumption and zero carbon emissions....However, none of these come close to the most meaningful aspect of cycling, a factor that cannot be quantified but has endless value to those fighting to improve their communities. The most vital element for the future of our cities is that the bicycle is an instrument of experiential understanding.

On a bicycle, citizens experience their city with deep intimacy, often for the first time. For a regular motorist to take that two or three mile trip by bicycle instead is to decimate an enormous wall between them and their communities....I cannot approach the average citizen and explain the innate intricacies of land use and transportation relationships, how density is vital to urban sustainability, how our sprawled real estate developments are built on economic quicksand, how our freeways shredded the urban fabric like a rusty dagger, how deeply our lives would be enriched by a collective commitment to urbanism. Aside from glazed eyes, I will be met with outrage. No one wants to be told that they must radically alter their lifestyle, no matter how well you sell it.

The bicycle doesn’t need to be sold. It’s economical, it’s fun, it’s sexy, and just about everyone already has one hiding somewhere in their garage. Invite a motorist for a bike ride through your city and you’ll be cycling with an urbanist by the end of the day. Even the most eloquent of lectures about livable cities and sustainable design can’t compete with the experience from atop a bicycle saddle....Suddenly livability isn’t an abstract concept, it’s an experience. Human scale, connectivity, land use efficiency, urban fabric, complete streets… all the codewords, catchphrases, and academic jargon can be tossed out the window because now they are one synthesized moment of appreciation. Bicycles matter because they are a catalyst of understanding--become hooked on the thrill of cycling, and everything else follows.

Become hooked on the thrill, and everything else follows--yes! That makes as much sense as my theorizing ever will, as much as I might believe that there's something to all my connections between the bicycle, technology, simplicity, sustainability, and "socialism" (or as my friend John Buass has put it, "autarchy"). What really makes us bicycle commuters passionate (passionate, I think, usually in a rather different way than competitive sports cyclists are, though there is some overlap there all the same) is this experience of what the author of the above piece calls "enlightment"--or what I called "arriving at place where independence is connected to more people being equally familiar with their place and their capabilities, thus making civic life even more meaningful and fair". It's downright transformative, the bicycle is.

Anyway, had a great ride in this morning: blue sky, bright sun, cool wind, colors of growth and business and daily life all around. Looking out my window, hearing the sound of the lawn mowers and the birds, I'm already looking forward to the trip home. I suppose you can and do get all that sometimes in a car...but not nearly as often, I'm sure.

1 comment:

LBJ said...

I do a combined car/bike commute - I drive the first part and then ride the second on a Montague folding bike, and it really is amazing how much more familiar and connected I am with the areas I bike through than drive through - even though the areas I drive through are actually closer to my home.