On The Wretchedness Of A Culture In Which People Get So Upset About Bicycles

By Dan Bertolet October 1, 2010

Have you not heard? The bike nazis are coming to kill and eat your children and probably tamper with your credit rating!

Okay, so the KIRO FM "bike nazi" rant in response to Seattle's first bike box was in large part just a PR stunt, but the truth is that in essence that rant is a pretty accurate representation of how mainstream America thinks.

While the Seattle Times may be dismissed as stunningly out of touch in certain Seattle circles, there is no better barometer of how the average greater Seattle resident sees the world. Last Tuesday's Seattle Times front page story framed the issue of parking rate increases as being all about righteous bikers attacking drivers: The opening sentence reads, "Mike McGinn, the bicycling mayor, is counting on cars to salvage the city's transportation fund." There are many other examples.

The comment threads on pretty much any online article that has anything to do with bikes in pretty much any publication are guaranteed to be overflowing with hissy fits about cyclists, most of which can be distilled down to the complaint that bikes get in the way of cars, or more bluntly, that bikes are annoying so who cares if they get run down.

And its not just venom being spewed safely behind anonymous computer screens. Any cyclist who's spent significant time on the streets has no doubt experienced drivers foaming at the mouth first hand.

Meanwhile, any rational assessment of the challenges we face in creating sustainable cities can only lead to the blindingly obvious conclusion that cars are part of the problem, and bikes are part of the solution. This is not to say that everyone who drives a car is a bad person, or that bike riders are saints. But there is simply no denying that if people are concerned about both the quality of life in cities, and how our way of life is killing the planet, then they should support the use of bicycles for transportation.

So how can there be such a gaping disconnect between people's animosity toward bikes in the city, and the reality that more biking would benefit all of us?

Short answer: Our society is psychotic. In a sane culture, the city's leading newspaper would be expressing relief and pride that the mayor of Seattle gets it about car dependence and walks the talk, rather than belittling him for being the "bicycling mayor." In a sane culture, drivers would be thanking every cyclist they see out on the road, whether or not they may pose a slight inconvenience.

For sure, it's part of our basic human nature to be self-centered and myopic, but American culture has turbo-charged those traits way beyond the norm of human history. And when it comes to cars, add to that our weakness for being intoxicated  by the power of machines. It's a virulent mix, and it's going to take some doing to rise above it.

First thing is coming to grips with the increasingly evident reality that while cars are incredibly useful machines, the world that we have built to accommodate them is a failure, and we must fix it. That shift in mindset is starting to happen, but our car culture roots run very deep, and so far the pace of change is glacial relative the the urgency of the situation.

Second thing is coming to grips with how effectively cars dehumanize us. I say this because I can see it happen to me whenever I get behind the wheel. Egged on by the overpowering goal of getting there faster---which is what traveling by car is all about---I find myself reflexively taking all kinds of little chances that increase the risk I am posing to others around me.  And that's how most people operate. But if not enclosed in a safe metal and glass cocoon, most of us would never behave so callously toward our fellow human beings.

In the end, though it may take a while, there is no question in my mind about how the so-called war on cars will end: Cars will lose. Not that cars will disappear, but their days of tyranny are numbered. If nothing else, the economics of dwindling resources will see to it eventually.

But I also believe that current cultural trends show unmistakable signs of that trajectory. The picture below shows a young woman in street clothes riding a custom, brakeless fixed-gear bike at 8:30 a.m, probably on the way to work. If you want a glimpse of the future, watch what the cool kids are doing today. Among young people, cars culture is slowly but surely losing its cachet. And that may be the most powerful change agent there is.

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