Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Wheeling to Work

I'm going to post a piece of bike related literature once a week from now on. It may be an article or chapter from a book, who knows! Enjoy. This piece is from former Washington Post Columnist Colman McCarthy.

Until Marcia Lowe told me, I wasn’t aware of being part of the silent majority.
In The Bicycle: Vehicle for a Small Planet, Lowe reports that in a world seduced by automobiles, the unseduced are still the majority. Bicycles outnumber cars two to one. Annual bicycle production has reached a hundred million, three times the number of new cars. As a commuting bicyclist for twenty years, I’ve been putting myself mistakenly in the minority.
In the daily traffic of the United States, where car addicts spew out of their tail pipes more pollution than form any other foulness, it only appears that a few of us are head-over-wheels in love with the world’s most efficient form of mechanical transportation. Globally, we are in the flow, in China, parts of Europe, India, South Korea, Egypt, Malaysia, and other nations, bicycles are in the majority. China has 300 million bicycles, 1.2 million automobiles. India has a ration of 30 to 1, South Korea 20 to 1. This mass transit is transit for the masses.
Lowe’s report, distributed by Worldwatch Institute, where she is a staff researcher, has 119 footnotes in 46 pages, a feast of facts for those who like conclusions and claims to be documented. The pro-bicycle arguments marshaled by Lowe would persuade anyone of even modest reasonability that this human-powered machine is superior economically, environmentally and for personal health.
Why, then, are only one out of forty US bicycles ridden for commuting and the rest used for recreation or rusting with flat tires in the garage? Car commuters pollute the air with three alibis for why they use gasoline power, not leg power:
Bicycling is slow. Let’s hope so. Hurriedness is the dominant ailment of urban living. Workplace Law I holds that those who drive the craziest get to work and save four and one half minutes by running then yellow lights are those who waste the most time settling down after they arrive.
Workplace Law II is the hurry-up-and-wait syndrome. A garage near my office regularly has a long cortege of cars waiting for parking attendants – amblers all – to snap to. Bicyclists are free of these excruciations, as we’ll tell you as we breeze by.
Bicycling is sweaty. The antiperspiration industry aside, why sweat sweat? Better to be a moist bicyclist than a dry motorist who must endure what Lowe reports: “The daily battle with traffic congestion, according to a recent University of California study, tends to raise drivers’ blood pressure, lower their frustration tolerance and foster negative moods and aggressive driving. Except when there is no alternative benefit but to ride in the same traffic stream, commuter cyclists benefit both themselves and their employers by being less vulnerable to hypertension, heart attacks and coronary disease, and arriving at work more alert. The proof that people enjoy cycling to keep fit is in the popularity of stationary exercise bikes. The irony, however, is that so many people drive to a health club to ride them.”
Bicycling is dangerous. Yes, if you’re reckless. Cautious commuters keep risks to a minimum. They know that the most threatening vehicle is another bicycle, too many of which are ridden by helmetless thrill seekers who see traffic as the combat zone and themselves as victorious road warriors. They win, until the law catches up with them – the law of averages, the most reliable of all.
In commuting, damage rather than danger should be the fear. It’s gasoline and diesel engines that damage the air with poisons. It’s gasoline and diesel engines that required oil companies to damage the environment with tankers that leak or spill in Valdez and elsewhere. It’s gasoline and diesel engines for which industrial cities give up one-third of the land for roads and parking lots. Lowe reports that for China to pave over as much land per capita as has the United States would mean giving up a total of 64 million hectares – equivalent to more than 40 percent of the country’s croplands.”
Politicians who rousingly damn drug addiction are mum on gasoline addiction. Which mayors have called for tax breaks for us bicyclists, who clearly deserve them? Which city council ask for stiff financial penalties against car commuters, as in Japan, where the government imposes a $2,000 registration fee every two years a car is used? How many Senate or House members give the public an example by getting around town on a bicycle? More than half of America’s commuting treks are less than five miles, but can anyone remember an editorial in his local newspaper urging readers to loosen up and wheel right?


yaj said...

I thought the author was spot-on until this comment:

"They know that the most threatening vehicle is another bicycle, too many of which are ridden by helmetless thrill seekers who see traffic as the combat zone and themselves as victorious road warriors. They win, until the law catches up with them – the law of averages, the most reliable of all."

I have to disagree with the statement that the biggest threat to bicycle commuters are other bicycle commuters. That just doesn't make sense to me. Thanks for the post though. :-)

gpickle said...

Great Stuff, C, and thanks for sharing!

I often think of writing a 2 wheeled manifesto but its a daunting task, plus I keep reading so many good ones I figure I just need to find my favorite.

I have been interested in the idea of tax breaks for dedicated cyclists before but now I think of it in different terms, the lifestyle and all it entails is reward enough for me, let the money go somewhere else.

yaj said...

I'm totally one of those helmetless thrill seekers/road warriors. The war paint and studded bracelets are just the icing on the cake.