Thursday, May 1, 2008

Two-Wheeled Politics

I was only 9 years old when I was introduced to the idea of bicycling as liberation. My family moved to a new house about 4 miles from the house I had grown up in. Playmates were scarce in the new neighborhood, so I began riding my bike back to the old neighborhood to hang out on weekends and during the summer. Quickly, I understood the fact that my bike gave me the freedom to escape from my parents' supervision years before I was old enough to drive. By the time I was in my early teens, my friends and I were taking long "bike hikes" to local points of interest, delighting in the fact that we were able to escape the parental sphere of influence merely by pedaling the 13 miles to Valley Forge Park.

The summer before my sophomore year in high school, we moved to a refinery town in Texas. The terrain was absolutely flat, favoring bike travel, but, in August, at least, the Turkish bath-like climate deterred it. Nonetheless, when school opened in September I jumped on my bike to ride to school, only to discover that all of my classmates had obtained their driver's licenses the previous summer and would rather be dead than be seen riding a bicycle! Despite the fact that I was the one of only two people riding to school in a student body of almost 3000, I persisted in my two-wheeled commute the entire school year--my first experience with bicycling as rebellion! However, my non-conformity had limits; at the beginning of junior year I got my own driver's license and put the bike back in the garage.

In the years that followed, my biking was sporadic. Most notably, my student years in Austin began during the first OPEC oil boycott--I saved gas and avoided the on-campus parking problem by bike commuting. On leaving Austin for Houston, however, my biking fell to near zero. While Houston's topography favors pedal power, its traffic patterns are wholly auto-centric.

In the early part of this decade, my daughter, then a college student in New York, told me that some of her friends were engaging in mass bike rides in which they would take over the city streets, ignoring traffic signals and flowing through Manhattan like a force of nature. She seemed to view these rides as being, somehow, political, but I confess that I couldn't really understand the content of the politics.

Last year, a few months after moving to Austin, I bought a bicycle and began bike commuting. My motive for doing so was vaguely green, but, mostly, I was looking for a way to force myself to exercise. However, once I hit the streets on my bike, I soon realized that there is a war going on between drivers and bikers, a war that is simultaneously ideological, territorial, and cultural. In the decades since I had last biked, the motor vehicles, like the American empire, had grown larger and more hegemonic. At the same time, the downside of America's auto culture had become more obvious; global warming and a failed war for Iraqi oil were merely two sides of the coin first minted in Detroit. Given, this state of conflict, everyday encounters on the streets of Austin took on new significance--that guy in the Escalade who pulled out in front of me like I wasn't even there wasn't just a dangerous driver, he was trying to stop me from saving the planet!

Last October, I decided to ride with Critical Mass, a worldwide movement of anarcho-cyclists that stage monthly mass rides. (My daughter's friends in New York were part of CM). I loved it! After only a few months of bike commuting, I understood intuitively that the act of bikes taking over the streets was political, and so did the drivers whose commutes we disrupted. It was the most organic demonstration I had ever been a part of--the medium was the message!

This spring, I participated in a more conventional sort of bike politics when I attended a candidate forum sponsored by the Austin League of Bicycle Voters. More than 100 Austinites showed up to grill candidates for city council about how they planned to incorporate the bicycle as serious transportation into the city's plans for the 21st century. Some of the candidates seemed to actually get it, and I could see that the politicians were impressed by the turn-out.

So, I guess I'm a born-again bicyclist. Better that than other conversion experiences. At least, it doesn't require me to give up my vices or talk to imaginary beings.


kateg said...

Two-wheels good, Four-wheels bad!

I have to confess to a conversion of my own,though, away from anarcho-cycling, however. In New York, where the majority are subway riders and pedestrians, I'd like to see a struggle for improved, increased, expanded and better funded mass transit. That doesn't exclude cycling and bike lanes, of course, but I think it is the more democratic, inclusive priority, especially around questions of age and disability.

My reasons for this, however are not entirely political--the first time i got left behind by my longer-legged peers as cops closed in, I began to question the radical democracy of CM. Plus, I hate biking home from bars and wearing bike gear everywhere.

Now I mostly use my bike for transport to yoga and the gym and walk pretty much everywhere else.

BVG said...

New York City is probably the only city in the United States in which there is arguably a real conflict between improving mass transit and promoting bicyling as transportation. In the rest of the country, both are ignored in comparison to the support of auto transportation. Obviously the disabled and elderly (i.e., older than I am) cannot cycle, but lots of other people can and government ought to spend the money to make cycling easier, safer, and faster.

BTW, I prefer "anarcho-cyclism."

kateg said...

mom's with more than one kid have a hard time cycling for transit as well.

kateg said...

or parents, i should say. sorry dad.

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kateg said...

rachel said...

Trying to be a bike commuter when I lived in Detroit turned out to be a disaster. Besides the packs of wild dogs that would sometimes snap at your heels while you screamed and tried to peddle faster (really, I'm not making this up. Ah, Detroit: home sweet home). Detroit drivers have apparently internalized the whole "Motor City" idea of the politicians and businessmen that came before them: the only way Detroiters are to get around this sprawly city is on four wheels. Preferably your own, because public transit is unreliable and underfunded.

I was riding to work one day on an empty six lane boulevard, feeling happy enough, when a car pulls onto the road behind me and starts honking. At first I thought he was trying to turn in the right lane, so I moved over to one of the two empty lanes next to me and thought that would be the end of it. To my surprise (and terror), the guy pulls over behind me and continues to honk. I move over again, and now he's not only leaning on his horn, but screaming "Get out of the road! You don't belong here on a bike! Get out of the road!" He would not stop until I pulled over onto the sidewalk. He stopped his car and yelled a few more niceties at me before speeding off,in an empty, now blissfully bike free lane.

Scary and troubling experience--not unique to many of my biking pals in the D. I stopped riding soon after that for reasons other than just this experience, but safety was definitely at the top of my list.

Texan By Chance said...

It's amazing to me how offended drivers can be by the presence of bikes in their space. I am inclined to see it as being another case of guilty conscience: the bike rider confronts them with their own lazy, destructive behavior, so they blame him for it.
But their militancy is amazing. It's bad enough here in Austin. In Detroit, where the bike rider is also confronting the basis of the driver/auto worker's economic survival, I can imagine it's scary.

A co-worker mentioned to me several times that she had seen me riding my bike during her commute in a SUV. But she didn't say she had seen me; she always said something like, "I could have run you over!" I finally asked her, "Every time you step on your brakes to avoid hitting a car, do you think 'I could have run into that car!'? She laughed.

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