The Carleton homepage has a picture of a snow-laden Sayles with piles of “hibernating” bikes poking out from deep snow banks. Most of those will have rusted solid and are further wasting away in junkyards now. With this image of wasted transit in mind, consider that we are coming into a vastly different world conditioned negatively, as it were, by fossil fuel use. Certainly there will be many innovations and technologies that I’m sure many of us are working very hard to bring into being. Yet we already have some nearly ideal technologies developed. The bike remains one of the most mechanically efficient machines ever created. Its utility to us hinges on how we choose to perceive it as a culture. If we come to think of the bicycle as a legitimate mode of transportation rather than a purely recreational one, we might take care of our bikes like we take care of our cars. From there, we might also enhance the image and popular attitude towards the bicycle in a broader cultural sense.
A couple years ago, Matthew Fitzgerald and I sent a letter to our Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar asking her to consider bicycle infrastructure projects in terms of utilitarian use, and the positive socio-economic benefits garnered for a population.
Basically, we tried to show that rather than a luxury option, or merely a recreational toy, it was actually a sort of proletariat tool, allowing low-income students to commute cheaply to our summer jobs, saving us money. In the same vein, I know a person in the cities who literally had to quit their job because their bicycle was stolen and they didn’t live on a viable bus line. A friend of mine who attended the University of Minnesota once told me he had chosen the bike repair shop’s services over a day’s worth of groceries because his attendance in class that week hinged on the former more so than breakfast. He had to fast so he could still get to class, fast.
Our letter came back from Ms. Klobuchar’s office mostly misinterpreted, as the responder espoused that Ms. Klobuchar recognized the importance of recreational cycling options. While recreation is an important (and wildly economy-friendly) component of cycling, if we really want to live in cleaner, safer, more verdant world, it will be good to bring our understanding of the bicycle into the more general transportation infrastructure vernacular. Copenhagen literally has bicycle freeways that run parallel to the regular ones. When it rains or snows in Copenhagen, everyone shows up to work in their business attire wet, or outfitted in sufficiently gaudy neon raingear because it is entirely socially proper to do so. They find snow- frosted hair to be not an unfortunate encounter with the skies, but the natural result of having traveled outside among the falling snowflakes while getting to work.
We need to broaden our understanding of the bicycle as not a purely recreational toy, but also very pragmatic tool for economical, healthful, enjoyable transportation. Commuting to work on a bicycle means regaining reciprocity with one’s world through immersion in the multisensory environment, in contrast to the micro-climate of the car, which seals one off from the physical realm and reduces the scenery to a rapidly advancing plane of obstacles to avoid. Basically, transporting ourselves with nothing between us and the sky, as we ride our chic, re-used, snow-tire studded bicycles places us in the world because it exposes us to its elements and to our own body’s ability to physically exert itself. I think this romantic image can in indeed co-exist with a sustainable transportation future formed of bike paths, lanes, and a greater recognition among us that the bicycle is in fact a vehicle, and a powerful one at that.