Sunday, August 19, 2012

Bonus Sunday philosophy post: Is Cycling a Constitutional Matter?

Dario sends this along to be posted:

Dear Tony,

Thank you for posting my response to the NPR segment dealing with bicycle culture in the U.S. ("NPR and Velosophy", August 4, 2012). And thank you to those that posted comments. If I may, I wish to respond and to elaborate on those comments because each commenter posed an interesting problem or perspective. My aim is to promote further discussion.

I wish to respond to what I see are two main issues in the comments: conceptualizing cycing culture (excuse the alliteration) and the relationship between consumerism and cycling. I will also try to respond to your (Tony's) three recommendations for improving cycling culture, I asked you, "If you were king for a day, what three things would you do ...?" and you responded succinctlty. I wish to discuss your recommendations. I'll limit this post to discussion of the first point (about conceptualizing cycling culture) and deal with the other topics in subsequent posts if that is all right with the blogs' editors.

Gabriel Sistare in his comment to my "post" writes that the mayor of Bogota, Colombia, Enrico Penalosa, has taken an innovative position about cycling. It would seem that Penalosa's view about cycling (vis-a-vis cars) is far reaching. Can you imagine taking Penalosa's view and informing American drivers that the right to park is not constitutional? Car drivers often behave as if it is their right to rule the road. Asphalt roads were created for driving cars, in fact. So, drivers must rule. But between the two, cars and bicycles, the mayor of Bogota has rightly deemed that bicycles are the more ethical means of transport because (I'll assume) they occupy less space, do not cause pollution, and are overall safer for the riders and other citizens on the street. And they reduce urban congestion. The one thing I disagree or, rather, wish to challenge Penalosa (and Gabriel perhaps) is on whether or not cycling is a constitutional matter. They seem to think not. I differ. I will make a case (likely an extreme one) for cycling being a constitutional issue.

Bicyles and arms (guns, forget about swords) have a lot in common. The BeatBikeBlog is based in Hartford, historically the city of Colt firearms and of Pope bicycles, two industries and two technologies that are intertwined. Guns are a polarizing topic. The bicycle, thankfully, less so, unless you live in NYC. The debate today about the right to bear arms has never been more heated and relevant especially because of recent tragic events. When the writers of the Constitution included the second amendment about the right to bear arms, they had a specific historical context in mind: to protect the citizenry against despots and tyrants and to be able to form militias against would-be usurpers of power. Our founding fathers had a lot more good sense than we do, so they didn't legislate transportation. They left that for us. Cars and bicyles had yet to be invented. But bicycles, like cars, are a sophisticated technology, not to the same degree as the automobile, but they are sophisticated because of the materials, design and construction. Cars, in particular, are arguably a weapon, not unlike guns. Whereas, fortunately, it is illegal for me to wave a gun around in public, there is considerable leeway in how I am allowed to use a motor vehicle. Road rage and indifference with mortal consequences (See Ken Krayeske's post about Mr. Harrison's death.) are just two instances of how the car is frequently a weapon in the hands of some people. Aside the occasional "scorcher" (the nineteenth and early twentieth-century term for rogue cyclists who terrorized the streets), cyclists rarely do harm. The bicycle is not technically a weapon because of its scale (speed and size) and because of its humanizing quality about which I talked in the last post, unlike many, especially, larger motor vehicles. Most cyclists are automobile drivers and would never think of their motor vehicles as a weapon. Most car drivers who don't cycle also don't think of themselves as engaging in a ballistics arms race when they drive. But how many drivers choose to purchase a vehicle for its defensive capabilities (the SUV versus the compact car in case of an accident)? That is a weapons choice, defensive, but still a choice about object/subject relations in terms of potential violence and harm. That is not generally how cyclists choose a bicycle, I think. When our founding fathers included the second amendment about the right to bear arms, they thought of protection. Hence, cars are analogous to, if not like, guns. Whereas the bicycle is not. Nonetheless, because cyclists and bicycles necessarily share the road … Well you get my picture. As I said, I'm trying to push the limits of discussion, but I don't think we can dismiss the argument entirely. What do you think?


Imported Bikes said...

it is true that Most car drivers who don't cycle also don't think of themselves as engaging in a ballistics arms race when they drive. But how many drivers choose to purchase a vehicle for its defensive

Tony C said...

Imported Bikes - you dirty spammer!

That is quite a long and winding paragraph Dario. Needed some time and space to chew through it.

Some cyclists (kitted racing subset) participate in an arms race of sorts, that of the machismo. But I do see your point when it comes to the life and death arms race on our roads. Buying a larger vehicle than you need to move you from A to B should be considered unethical to your average adult. The consequences for small car drivers and our planet are pretty damn clear.

Ethics unfortunately (or fortunately) aren't usually codified. I'm having trouble making the stretch from unethical to constitutional, unless you were just bringing guns into the argument for analogy.

In my opinion, ethics are nice and all, but most folks in the US make their decisions based on self interest.

dario said...

Hello Tony,

I'm just reading your comment now!

Ethics are crucial to social order, and not just "nice and all". Many of us behave quite ethically and, that is, doing the right thing when we have to and also when we don't necessarily have to. In fact, the latter is probably the mark of a virtuous individual. Acting in one's self-interest is not always unethical obviously. Ethics and self-interest aren't necessarily opposites. Selfish behavior, rather than self-interested behavior, is more likely to be unethical. In any case, acting in one's own self interest to the detriment and harm of others is selfish and unethical.

But, Tony, we all know that cycling is a constitutional matter. It improves your physical and mental wellbeing. :)

Tony C said...

Ah ha! Yes. Constitutional.