Kyle Boelte published an article in The Christian Science Monitor entitled “The Soul (and Sense) of Biking to Work.” While he makes both a wonderful, practical, and emotional appeal to would-be commuter bikers – which I am all for – he discusses biking as if it were a renegade counter-culture. This is, I understand, the case for some bikers, who like the feeling of defying cars, which Boelte calls “metal beasts of burden.”
But there are also those who like to feel the satisfaction of altruism in the form of burning leg muscles rather than fossil fuels. And there are those scrimpers and savers who have joyously come out of the closet now that championing thrift has become cooler. There are also those who are learning – or have been forced to learn – to find ways to cut $$$ corners. These too have opted for the bike in some cases. (As for me, I cut back on the Starbucks lattes and take the metro to work more often.)
Nevertheless, the joy and economic appeal that Boelte extols in his ode to renegade biking will be short-lived if we don’t make more permanent changes. Most people are not renegades for long, although they might play with fire from time-to-time just to test the water. And what goes down must go up: the economic recession won’t last forever.
Here’s an illustrative example: returning home for Passover my mother picked me up at Kennedy Airport, an hour from my home in New York. She remarked that you wouldn’t know that there was an economic recession going on from the number of cars on the road. We then missed our exit, and the congestion on the other side of the highway was such that taking a longer route home would have been faster than trying to backtrack one or two miles. We hadn’t seen that kind of holiday congestion in a while. Why the congestion?
I believe it’s because the gas prices in New York are down by 50 percent. (It cost me as much to fuel up my parents’ Prius as it did the sporty Acura Integra I drove in high school.)
To make permanent changes, biking has to be cool, accessible and safe enough to appeal not only to the renegade bikers (or would-be renegades), but to parents taking children to school and the elderly who want to get around town comfortably. That means building infrastructure that eliminates or minimizes the risk of Boelte’s “pickups [zipping] by on [the] left” and then “swerving in front…to take a tight right.” That means creating cities that offer similar benefits in the public sphere to families that seek private backyards and safe streets in the suburbs. We need infrastructure that promotes the kind of happy, locally-oriented, non-motorized culture we want to live in, irrespective of the economic recession or born-to-be-bad genes that might bring a subset out to conquer the “web of concrete” and the ” compact car full of teenagers…[flying] by”.
I applaud Boelte for his zeal, and I think his “drive” to encourage biking is great. But let’s be realistic. Not everyone’s a Boelte. And we need to build more egalitarian infrastructure accessible to more of our citizens.
That means building infrastructure that makes mobility a reality for the poor and the rich, men and women, children and the elderly, the abled and the different-abled, and so forth. That means increased pedestrian space, more and physically safer bike paths, and public transit that better serves demand. We need to think about moving human bodies rather than cars. And when we do this, people will “organically” or “naturally” reduce their car dependency. But Boelte’s right: now is the time for a new biking culture.
Let’s take advantage of it.