Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Bike boom

Saturday, May 20th from Newcolonist.com.
There have been many in the news saying that a new bike boom has developed, and that, like the '70s bike boom, it is a reaction to gas prices.

Unfortunately for those facile theorizers (but perhaps more fortunately for us all), the bike boom of the '70s hit before the '70s oil shock, and was most likely another outgrowth of the celebrated/notorious '60s counterculture (of which I was a part, though, believe it or not, I skipped over the drugs portion). There was an emphasis on community, on environmentalism, on stepping gently, on stewardship, on open exchange--all things that both the car and suburban living impede most effectively, by isolating you from the land, from your neighbors, and from the consequences of your actions.

I suspect that if pervasive drug use hadn't sapped the ambitions of the movement--and it was a great deal more organized and consensual that most younger folk realize--we might be much farther along the road to a sort of society that nurtures community, local economics, and (not at all incidentally) bicycles, rather than being mired in a consumption-crazed, debt-laden morass of intense personal isolationism and social and environmental degradation.

That said, I nowadays see LOTS of clean, obviously middle-class folks of all ages (though mostly in the neighborhood of 30) riding bicycles for utility, and this in LA, a city extremely difficult for bicycling. Lots of the coffeehouse habitues I meet arrive on bikes, everything from an old Batavus road bike with suicide levers to top-end Dahon folders (my, those have certainly improved in ten years!) to plain-vanilla hybrids to fixies to carbon-fiber wunderradden. Noticeably more than two years ago, and my routine is pretty much the same as then--same commute, same hangouts, etc. As in the '70s, this little bike boom seems to have started before the run-up in gasoline prices--which, with inflation factored in, are still lower than back in the day.

Lots of the riders I know personally own cars too and don't mind using them when they feel it appropriate. They just often don't feel it appropriate.

You know what made it possible for me personally to start bike commuting again, some fifteen years ago, after laying off for a few years? U-locks. I quit riding a bike anywhere except to a friend's house or in a big circle on Sundays after having too many of them stolen.

The things that facilitate bicycling are not often what we'd imagine. Bike lanes, for example, are statistically not safer than lack of bike lanes--but they reassure people who are thinking of riding the streets that they are welcome there and that they have a defense of their presence if someone gives them shit about riding. Bike racks too. I usually use parking meters; they're easier to lock to. But bike racks simply say, "Bicycles welcome here." As do showers and bike lockers at workplaces, which also make it possible for people who must dress up for work to ride to work.

That gets more people out on bikes. And the more people out on bikes, the more people will go out on bikes. And the fewer accidents will happen, since bikes become a normal part of the traffic mix.

In London, bicycling soared after the train bombings and has still stayed high, even through last winter. And the rate of accidents for bicyclists has gone down in proportion to their increasing numbers.

So people begin riding bicycles a lot in the US because, I think, they start caring about the world more than is usual here, and about the quality of their own lives. They want to participate in the life of their culture in other than the passive and highly-mediated way that the mass media provide. They wan to participate in their own lives too, feel their own muscles and bones working and taste the air and rain and sun for themselves. Why spend your time watching documentaries--often three-quarters faked--about adventurers who live intensely, when your own daily life can have a dash of adventure in it,and remind you why you were born?

I think people are tired of slouching, of endless feeding and fattening to no end, of being disconnected from life. I think the recent increases in bicycle use reflect a desire to become part of life again, and to live one's own life, rather than that prescribed for one by politicians and industrialists. This may have been spurred more by thoughtfulness resulting from shock and awe at our hypocritical war in Iraq than gas prices, as the '70s bike boom may have been inspired, equally indirectly, by the equally hypocritical war in Viet Nam. But it is a real bike boom, or boomlet at least, regardless of cause, and it gives me hope. Let's see what we can do--or nag our politicians into doing--to keep this bike boom rolling.

Richard Risemberg, on 05.20.06 @ 16:24PST

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