I had the opportunity to be an in studio guest on the Colin McEnroe show this week to chat about bikes, bike culture, and infrastructure. Dario took a listen, and may have had some wine. Results below.
I listened to the replay of Colin McEnroe's show on NPR this evening. Nice job. You should consider doing a brief write-up about the show and posting it on the beat bike blog with a link. Allow me some random thoughts, maybe a little rant, but hopefully the beginning of a good discussion, besides our usual conversation concerning esoteric bike parts. Please excuse the length of this message.
A couple of things dawned on me as I listened to the show, one was inspired by a comment by someone (was it you or Tom Vanderbilt?) that we in the US talk about bike culture, whereas in some other countries there is little or no discussion about it. They sort of just do it. We talk about "bike culture(s)" because we really don't have one, I believe was the speaker's point. He overstated it in my opinion. There is a bike culture or bike cultures and in some places it's pretty healthy (Portland Oregon) and in others far less so (Hartford?). In Italy, I've seen bikes piled up one against another in provincial railway stations that belong to commuters who park their bikes and get on the train. The scene is even more impressive in northern Europe where the climate works against cycling commuters. Italians are also debating creating better infrastructure in their cities. Interestingly, the name of a major advocacy group there is "Salvaciclisti" (Save the cyclists!). The Dutch and the Danes have a long tradition, but theirs is also the result of conscious debate and awareness of "cycling" culture. So, I think that those cycling countries have rich cultures, but not to be taken for granted because they continue to advocate for legislation. The Danes, of course, are well ahead of us.
My point, actually a question, about the show's discussion is: Why does everything have to be a theological debate? Spandex vs. no spandex, racing vs. "just riding". We talk about cycling as if we were 17th C English Puritans dropped into the 21st C. Cycling is far richer and more nuanced than the hackneyed dualities trotted out during the show, even if it is modern radio and everyone has only ten seconds to respond. The problem on a practical level is certainly two-fold: educating drivers and cyclists to be more considerate (look who's talking, right?) of one another, and creating the appropriate infrastructure (bike lanes, etc…). Yet, I see the problem as being bigger than just educating drivers and cyclists to being more courteous and bigger than improving our cycling infrastructure.
Let me try my hand at "velosophy" (cycling philosophy) a word coined by Grant Peterson, although on the show he didn't express a crumb of it and he sounded very confused. The reason why he can write a book (and I'm sure it is a provocative book), titled "Just Ride" is the same reason why Michael Pollan can write a run away bestseller about food titled "In Defense of Food". Just go for a ride. Just eat real food. Their positions are tautological however because they don't explain the underlying problems in my view. (I haven't read Peterson's book, but I have read and re-read many of his "essays" on the rivbike.com website and I agree with a lot of what he says. Also I use Pollan's book in an undergraduate course about food culture.) What both books seem to be addressing is the lack of "good sense" and that we have to get it back (presuming we ever had it). My philosophical point?: We are detached (alienated) from food and nature. And we are detached from natural movement. Cycling requires that we interact in time and space differently from the way we do in an automobile, a train, a plane, which literally (and not just metaphorically) obliterate time and space. So does the bicycle vis-a-vis walking or running perhaps, that is "obliterates time and space", but we get the best of both worlds with the bicycle, expeditiousness and economy of movement with the psycho-physical engagement with the environment. The bicycle is a sophisticated technology, too, but one that potentially enhances our engagement with nature, not lessens it. In the U.S. I believe that we are generally alienated from movement. An example is the simple activity of walking. Walking or moving our bodies is called exercise, not simply walking (to work, to the store, to school). People go for walks to lose weight, to stay in shape, as if it were an unnatural activity, something one makes a point of doing; not something one does as necessary to existence. I bet you can buy a book about walking technique, too. And it will certainly state the obvious, "lean forward and put one foot in front of the other." We are (and I'll overstate the point) alienated from our bodies in no small part and inevitably because of technology.
I'm definitely low tech, but certainly not a Luddite. The particular brand of American capitalism has determined that certain technologies prevail over others, cars over bicycles, Facebook vs. face time, elliptical trainers vs. walking up hills to get to the store or to work. So the problem is not so much as between choosing low tech (riding a beater bicycle) over high tech (an oversized SUV with all the bells and whistles); rather, that our culture of consumerism and conformism compel many to purchase and to mis-use technological goods that are not in the collective's best interests, creating consequently other problems, like pollution and waste. Most people could get around on foot or by bike just fine, and keep the car for other longer trips. Right? However, the political, cultural, and technological framework we inhabit is such that it is actually advocating against cycling or walking for that matter. It's not even that our society is indifferent to cycling. It's against it. Colin McEnroe opined on the show that mini-van drivers are the worst because they have no sense of the size of their vehicles. Nonsense! The mini-van driver has bought a house on wheels and wants to moving his or heer fucking house on wheels wherever he/she pleases. When you've decided to buy a house on wheels you don't care about the "other", be it a smaller car, cyclist, or pedestrian. Obviously, ditto for SUV drivers. Houses were not meant to be on wheels. (Except for trailer homes, but you get my point.)
I understand quite well that it is a lot simpler to argue for bike lanes and for cyclists to not blow through red lights (especially when you're allowed only sound bytes) than it is to change our consumer and conformist bad habits. But I think that if we understand better the deeper roots of the fracture in our own society we can have a clearer discussion about the remedy. Cycling, food, the environment, and especially social relations (how we talk to and behave with one another) are all intertwined, of course. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that these conversations happen in such a vacuum. I'm probably not saying anything you don't know, but I was sort of disappointed that a deeper discussion about "culture" didn't develop.
One question I had for you (and I would for other guests) is: Were you "king for a day" what three things (legislation, etc…) would you change or implement to enhance cycling safety?
I'll answer Dario's questions soon, but want to give the internets first dibs.