Wednesday, September 14, 2011

four wheels bad, two wheels good

I have owned a bike of some sort or another since I was seven years old but only owned a car for a handful of years in my adult life. This isn't a holier-than-thou stance it's just a fact. When I was young a bike was a means of freedom, a way to expand my range from home, as it were. In high school and college it was a low-cost and practical alternative to public transit and the added expense of car ownership. As an adult I have come to a point where I am happier to live and work close enough that a bike is all I need. Which isn't to say that haven't and don't own a car, or that I don't use them, simply that it has always been important to me that a bike be part of the equation.

Earlier this year I started to think more about bikes and have come to believe that they are a vital and important part of our future. They can improve out health both physically and mentally, help reduce carbon emissions and oil dependency, and rebuild communities, all politics- and hyperbole-free.

In some ways this is a follow-up to Grazianohmygod's post a few weeks ago touting David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries. I have had an eye out for books on cycling that weren't hardcore shop manuals or insider tomes aimed at fixed-gear hipsters. What I wanted was something that laid out the argument for bikes without sounding like rabid dogma, and while the title The Cyclists Manifesto: The Case for Riding on Two Wheels Instead of Four by Robert Hurst might sound like an edgy hate-filled rant it isn't. And when Hurst says in the opening pages that he doesn't believe that the bicycle is the answer to all of our problems, he's lying, and he goes to great and subtle lengths to prove himself wrong.

Hurst starts out by giving us a history of the bicycle. Just writing that sentence is enough to make my eyes glaze over, but he doesn't set it up like a history lesson. Instead, Hurst weaves a sort of meandering tale about the Good Old Days when bike racers invented NASCAR, the first motorized vehicle in this country was essentially a moped, and an African American broke the color barrier in sports before the turn of the 20th Century.

Say what?

It's a crazy bunch of stories, stories I's never heard before and knew nothing about. Professional racers, who would zoom bikes on custom oval tracks, weren't just the precursor to auto racing, many of those cyclists were the first drivers of cars around the oval tracks. Henry Ford's first forays into building an automobile were derived from tinkerers who added motors to their bikes, funded by an investment from a former bike racer. Reading about the interconnected world of competitive bike racing and the rise of the automobile feels a little like pointing the finger at the ARPANET back in the late 1960s, the precursor to the modern internet, and blaming it for creating cyber bullying. Obviously no one could have perceived how the abandoning of bikes in favor of cars would creates the modern problems we see today, but it's a fascinating hindsight look at where the problems really started.

As Hurst proceeds he is careful to show how all modern problems, both pro and anti bike riding, have been with us since the beginning. Bike riders causing problems in the streets is not a new problem; a child was killed by a bicyclist who ran them down "speeding" through the streets of New York in the 1890s. The teamsters and other carriage folk resented sharing the road with bike then as now. And as someone who once received a speeding ticket on his bike (I was going 48 in a 35 mph zone, downhill) I laughed when I saw a $35 fine a hundred years ago. Same as it ever was.

Hurst continues forward to discuss bike lanes and how they present a false sense of civic attention (does painting a line in the road really do anything?) and suggests -- and here I totally agree -- putting teens on bikes instead of giving them driver's licenses when they turn sixteen. It's a simple idea, and well-reasoned when you consider that auto accidents are the number one killer of teens. Studies have already shown that if you delay putting teens behind the wheel they are much safer as a class of driver overall. Let them learn to navigate traffic, get a very real and up-close view of all that can (and does sometimes) go wrong on the road, and they will be more aware when they're in the driver seat.

In the end Hurst doesn't pump his fist in the air in triumph, he doesn't raise a call to arms against the politicians and their lack of including (much less mentioning) bikes as a part of any solution to our economic or energy problems. That's because he knows that an adult who hasn't spent time on a bike isn't going to see the benefits. Which is why it makes more sense for teens and young adults to read this book. It will take an entire generation of kids coming up on bikes to see the value and insist on cycling as being a part of the national dialog. I don't think we're that far away, really.

The Cyclist's Manifesto:
The Case for Riding on Two Wheels Instead of Four
By Robert Hurst
Falcon Guides / Globe Pequot Press

1 comment :

Ms. Yingling said...

Ooh. This is something I have to read. Did you look at Wheels of Change? My students thing it's weird that I ride my bike to work, but I think it sets a good example.