Monday, April 04, 2011

Floor Wax or Dessert Topping?

People ride bicycles all over the world, in a variety ways. There are light, fast, carbon racing bikes ridden by people who wear lycra clothing and whose shoes make a clicking sound when they attach to the pedal. There are stately upright bikes ridden by stylish citizens who don't work up a sweat. There are bike messengers delivering the last bits of paper and other artifacts that somehow still can't be downloaded in our increasingly digital age. There are people on bikes hauling water from wells in Africa, snow bikes tracking across the tundra, BMX kids doing tricks at the skate park. In a million places, in a million ways, people are riding.

And yet, for all its virtues and versatility, we who love bicycles and advocate for their more widespread use often find ourselves, as a recent article in the New York Times stated "Caught Between Sidewalk and Street." We may have started with a useful metaphor or a compelling image and told ourselves that this is how we change the world. And in truth, we are right, we do change the world with our images and stories, but no image or story is the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And if we're not careful, we find ourselves run over by our own rhetoric.

"Vehicular Cycling" is a concept that has some value, but taken too far it quickly passes from sense to insanity. I realize that on the streets where I live and ride most drivers are not looking out for bicycles, but for other cars. Not wanting to be in blind spots, I ride where I will be seen.

But riding where the cars are does not make me a car. If, like the woman in the Times article, I find myself in traffic yelling "I'm a car, I'm a car", I would certainly understand if someone thought me insane. A bicycle is a vehicle with a lower top speed and a much less mass than a car. To ignore these basic facts, these laws of physics, is not a wise course of action. Thus "taking the lane" may be legal and it may be my "right" but I may not choose to debate that point on every road with every harried soccer mom in a two-ton SUV. In my experience the most "effective cycling" is pragmatic cycling and if a quieter street or a separated bike path gets me where I need to go, that is where I will be.

Some folks argue quite eloquently for "everyday" cycling without special clothes or safety gear such as helmets, but their rhetoric can also go too far and the message can go astray. I find a lot I agree with on the site at: but I find "Wheeled Pedestrian" loses me by saying "Cycling. It’s as easy as walking, but faster…."

Riding a bicycle is not as easy as walking. It's different. I don't have to think about locking up my bike when I walk to the market. I can't coast when I walk. I can walk places that I can't bike and I can bike in places where I wouldn't wish to walk. The wheeled pedestrian metaphor isn't making me think of cycling in a new way, it's making me think of ways the metaphor is wrong.

One place I diverge from some of the "wheeled pedestrians" is that I often find some personal value in placing a helmet on my head. While I don't advocate mandatory helmet laws, the "you don't wear a helmet while walking" argument never sways me. I carry a lot more potential energy when I'm in motion on my bike than I do while walking. I'm not a "wheeled pedestrian", I'm a person on a bike. And a person plus a bike is not the same as a person plus a pair of shoes.

In selling our mode of transport, we sometimes sell ourselves short. We ride a vehicle, but our vehicles are not cars. We can slow to walking speeds, but we are rolling, not walking. A person on a bike is neither a driver nor a pedestrian. They are a person on a bike.

In the early days of Saturday Night Live, Dan Ackroyd and Gilda Radner debated whether Shimmer was a floor wax or a dessert topping. Chevy Chase explained that they were both right, Shimmer is a floor wax and a dessert topping. It's delicious and just look at that shine!

My bike isn't a car and it's not a pair of shoes. And I'm pretty sure it would make a lousy dessert topping and it does nothing to shine my floors. But, as Grant Petersen noted, a bicycle is rideable art that just might save the world.

Bicycles are unique machines that amplify our human effort. A person on a bike can be faster that a person on foot, freer and more graceful than one trapped in a wheeled box.

I don't know the proper place for every bike in all the world, but I do know the right place for one bike, right now. It should be out in the world, with me turning the pedals.

Enough writing for now, I have a bike I have to get rolling.

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA
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