Justice, revolution and bicycling

I envy the Portlanders in this BikePortland post for their charming assumptions that bicycles are key to livability and that Portland somehow holds the record for livability. I guess livability is the secret to Brooklyn; even though it’s more expensive than where I live, it’s got the livability rep going.

And I think what charms people about bicycling is the illusion that it is somehow a more sane, more basic, more elemental way to get around than motor vehicle or mass transit. As this Brooklyn Spoke post demonstrates, however, bicycles are caught up in the same politico-cultural milieu as every other form of transportation. It is fairly obvious to me that motor vehicle operation, as the default mode of choice, comes with the privilege (for privileged people) of never having to answer the question, “Why are you driving?” Mass transit, as New York’s people’s mode of transport, comes with the privilege of oblivion—nobody will pay any attention to you while riding the bus or subway.

There are no half measures. We can remake society to place bicycling as the default mode of travel, but why remake society if it is still as unjust and unequal as it is today? More precisely, I commute through the Bronx. I don’t see bicycling improvements being made along my route. Bike Snob, another Bronx commuter, has the right idea, often titling his posts “The indignity of commuting by bicycle.” What I see is that everyone in the Bronx should be indignant about their commute. Yes, bicycles could help, but we won’t get bicycles, because to shift to a bicycle-focused society, the perceived costs of getting the current motoring class around by bicycle will overpower all other considerations. The kind of socially promoted bicycling we would get would be so riddled with exceptions as to make it impossible to actually use a bicycle to get anywhere.

The fallacy of the mainstream

Invariably when people volunteer reasons why they are not cycling regularly, they say they cannot show up at work in a sweat. The traditional cycling advocate, schooled in Northern European culture, explains that cycling need be no more strenuous than walking, and that it’s possible to get somewhere on a bike without being sweaty.

I need not point out to careful readers of my last post the importance of basing bicycle advocacy in bicycle technique, not in imported habits from Northern Europe. Yes, you can bicycle at 15 km per hour (9 mph) and use the same amount of energy you are using when walking. You can also bicycle at 15 km per hour with an extra 20 kg (44 lbs) of cargo and use a lot less energy than it would take to walk with that extra 20 kg in bags. Because of wheels, it is a lot easier to go a little bit faster on a bicycle than on foot.

It is certainly true that people in Holland and Denmark often bicycle slowly, and without exertion. But why are we scared of exertion? Why are we scared of sweat? This is the fallacy of the mainstream; just because something is mainstream doesn’t mean that it has to be supported. The U.S. mainstream involves going everywhere in an automobile. The automobile is the default mode of transport. In most of the U.S., nobody will ever be questioned skeptically for using an automobile. One of the great things about the automobile is that it helps people get places without mussing their hair or clothes.

It seems to me, however, that the biggest reason for encouraging bicycling, as opposed to motor vehicling, is to encourage active transportation. People should move themselves in order to get exercise and stay healthy. Same reason why the Department of Health encourages subway riders to get off one stop early and walk the rest of the way, because exercise is good for you.

If would-be bicycle riders can’t get any exercise on the way to work because they will show up sweaty, it’s time to change the mainstream to support active transportation. This makes more sense to me than advocating for a pinched and inefficient bicycle technique derived from Northern European customs in order to help people avoid getting exercise.