Sunday, October 24, 2010

Why cycling?

Every few months, car manufacturers announce new models, with new features and more powerful engines. What’s not to like about a 400 hp power plant? It is a stunning piece of engineering, makes the most satisfying rumble, leaves the competition in the dust, recalls a time of empty roads and wind-swept hair, and says something about what you are—right?
Well, not so fast. For years advertisers have been behind these clichés, the public has fallen for them, a whole environment has been built around them, together with politics, the economy, and a way of living. It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s time to get away from it. What’s so special about squeezing the pedal to the floor, leaving tyre marks on the road, and glaring at other drivers through tinted windows? What’s the use of driving in spasmodic leaps between red signals? Why waste so much energy?

It's a cool street, Elm Street by Mikael. Photo: © Copenhagen CycleChic 

Why cycling? Many good reasons, that’s why. At the risk of wagging a figurative finger, let’s point out the health benefits that go with cycling, such as cardio-vascular fitness, muscular flexibility, and mental acuity. Needless to say, bicycles are cheaper than cars, emit no pollution, and require less energy to build.
You’ll like riding a bicycle, because cyclists are a friendly group. There are no barriers between us and the world, and we cannot retract hostility, anger, or disappointment into a steel shell. We are still a minority, and we acknowledge with a nod every fellow cyclist we happen upon the road. Any business with a bike rack on the sidewalk looks welcoming. Any time we want, we stop on the side of the road and appreciate the view, admire the sunset, or smell the roses. If you do so in your car, a line of fellow drivers behind you will make you aware of their gratitude.

Fall fell into Fell Street by Meligrosa. Photo: ©Bikes and the City

Personally, I like bikes also as objects and appreciate their essential qualities—everything is visible, nothing is superfluous, and where the shape of components is a consequence of the function they are destined to perform.

We live in exciting times, when people in communities of every scale are beginning to admit that something must be done about sedentary lives, traffic congestion, and pollution. Politicians, quick to listen to polls but timid when it comes to exploring unfamiliar territory, are taking notice of the shifting winds.
We have a high regard for cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, with their unhurried pace and orderly traffic, where bicycles are the norm rather than the exception. They seem friendlier and even more livable places than our own, its spectacular setting and architecture notwithstanding. That they’ve become so is no simple fluke of history; they’ve been engineered to facilitate ease of traffic and social harmony, giving preference to cycling and pedestrian pathways rather than the usual car and truck multi-lane highways. They weren’t always so but have changed their ways during the past four o five decades, adding 1 or 2 percent every year to their bicycle use.
Planners such as Jan Gehl have visited San Francisco from Denmark, met with public officials, and illustrated the advantages of policies that do not rely exclusively on motor vehicles for transportation. They’ve left us wanting for more. Even some of the members of the San Francisco Board of the Supervisors, such as David Chiu, its chair, are in favor of increasing bicycle use. We certainly own a debt of gratitude to non-profit organizations such as the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition or on-line publications, such as Streetsblog, for their vigorous campaigning in favor of  bicycle culture, road safety, and number of bike paths and lanes in our streets. It is thanks to their efforts that our longed-for San Francisco bicycle plan is being carried out—chapeau!

Various ways to pass the time on a city square by Mikael. Photo: © Copenhagen CycleChic

Even bloggers are in this mix. Daily postings by Mikael in and Cycle Chic or Meligrosa in Bike and the City in San Francisco (bike equal sex, get it?) illustrate cycling in an urban context as safe, energetic, and fun. The message is, anybody can do it, anytime. These are ordinary people on ordinary bikes, not athletes. Retailers, such as Public Bikes, are not far behind this populist drive.

With all this good will, how united are we, as a society, in our appreciation of cycling? Not very, judging from sketchy evidence. Cars, trucks, and tourist buses—completely sealed from the outside with dark, tinted windows—still dominate the roads. Public parks such as the Golden Gate Park and the Presidio are intersected by so many roads—so tempting for motorists to use as a speedy short cut—that it is difficult to find in them a place where we can feel secluded by nature. For some drivers, a bike lane is simply an parking space.
Some object to the presence of cyclists and express their resentment with occasional acts of insanity, as when, a few days ago, the woman at the wheel of an SUV tried to push me off the road. Drivers still think of cycling as exercise, something people do in their spare time, less significant than the serious work they perform at the wheel of their vehicle. Some see cyclists as an effete minority, out of touch with the main stream of American society. In the minds of such people, anything with an engine takes precedence over a bicycle.
One also questions how far cycling has penetrated the awareness of the administrators of public projects, who routinely place signs on bike lanes. In any infrastructure project, they still assign priority to—you guessed it—cars, trucks, and buses. Such is the case, for example, of The Marin Headlands and Fort Baker Transportation Infrastructure and Management Plan, a project of modest scope, despite the grandeur of its name, aiming at making the road wider and placing a parking lot at the top of Conzelman Road at the Marin Headlands. Cars can drive through roads in construction, but bikes are not permitted.

The view from the top of Conzelman Road, before its closure.

There you have it, there are roadblocks ahead of us. They shouldn’t deter us from indulging in our favorite mode of transportation.

Why cycling, indeed? Because it accomplishes so many things for us, it takes wherever we want, at the pace we like. While riding a bicycle, we are entirely responsible for our own actions, we must be constantly aware of our direction as well as of the other cyclists, pedestrians, other traffic, the condition of road in front of us, the sudden obstacles, and the puffs of wind that can easily push us to the side. Cycling is a lot more demanding than driving but, on the whole, requires little effort, in exchange for which it bestows a great deal of benefits. At the end of each ride, we enjoy a minute of contentment, not quite nirvana, yet, but a sensible alternate to the rush of time.

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