When you choose to move across the country and reorder your life to ride a bicycle instead of drive a car, it’s easy for doubt to creep in. There’s a lot of self-talk that needs to take place when you know that people are laughing at you, sometimes behind your back but other times right to your face. These are the times you ask yourself why you’re doing this and hope that the answers are justification enough. So, for me as much as for you, here’s why…one more time.
Cycling Makes Us Better
I lost 80 pounds because of my bicycle. If you’ve ever lost a lot of weight, you know how magical it is. It’s like going to IKEA and buying new stuff, except that the new stuff is your body and it doesn’t require you to swipe a credit card to take it home.
When your physical body changes dramatically, your mindset changes right along with it. I didn’t know this until after it happened, but you become much more optimistic about life and the world and your ability to control destiny…mostly because you realize that you’re not nearly as powerless to change things as you thought just a short time ago.
That’s not necessarily all on the bicycle, but the bicycle is the catalyst that makes it happen. Bicycles are fun. Watch a kid on a bike and it’s obvious. It’s like that for us, too. I never think of cycling as working out. Workouts are drudgery. Cycling is anything but… Speaking of buts (or butts), mine hurt when I first started…but only a little while. It was inconsequential. I’ve ridden 8,000 miles this year. One hundred times eighty. My butt no longer hurts.
One hundred times is powerfully symbolic to me. I am no longer who I used to be. I am one hundred times different. My bicycle has healed me and made me well in a way that doctors, hospitals and nationalized healthcare never will. Even more importantly, it has empowered me and made me realize that if I can do this there’s a lot of other things I can do as well.
Cycling Makes Our Communities Better
Since bicycles can heal us personally, it really shouldn’t be all that surprising that they can also heal our places. When I first heard Enrique Peñalosa describe how he used cycling to change culture in Bogotá and turn it into one of Latin America’s safest cities, it just clicked.
Peñalosa is not alone. There is a growing cadre of professionals and a similarly growing body of research that recognizes that for the last 75 years or so, we’ve built our cities in a way that prioritizes access by motor vehicle. In a sense, we’ve elevated the machine to an almost mythical status. We have taken out sidewalks to widen roads, many of which do not have crosswalks at intersections. Our focus on machines has literally pushed people to the side and marginalized us. This comes with a a cost, whether we care to acknowledge it or not.
Machines pollute. They’re loud. When they hit people, people almost always lose. Machines require oil and gas, or electricity, which must be drilled or mined for and shipped halfway around the globe at great cost. People die defending those supply lines. Space must be allocated to store machines.
Machines also destroy intimacy. Sidewalk cafes are great if traffic is slow and controlled, but it’s no fun to eat lunch with machines roaring by. The oaks that once lined many a sidewalk have been removed as a “safety” hazard. Trees, even small ones, are more powerful than machines so they must be destroyed…so the thinking goes.
The good news is that as more people take the blinders off, the transportation model we’ve built our life around vaporizes. It becomes painfully apparent just how unsustainable it is. It only works when you ignore the costs.
If you want to heal a place, remove the machines and return the space previously allocated to them back to people. It is as simple as that. Now I realize it’s not possible to do that overnight, but we can and are doing it incrementally and this is good. We don’t have to completely remove machines, either. Cars are no more inherently good or bad than bicycles. It’s just a matter of properly attaching costs so that we can intelligently choose the best vehicle for each trip.
As we do, our broken and scarred places will heal. I am seeing this in Indianapolis. I saw it in Omaha and Council Bluffs earlier this week. I saw it in Memphis in January and Toronto last October. I see it in the urban cores and I see it in the suburbs. I look for it now and it isn’t hard to find. In every single instance, a place is made better by marginalizing machines and placing people front and center.
As I’ve aged, I have discovered that small things are really big things and that the way to effect change is not with some grandiose plan but rather through simple, seemingly insignificant actions. By choosing to cycle whenever possible, I am consciously choosing to make myself and my community better. I believe that…no doubt. None.
And so I will continue to cycle. Laugh at me all you want, but know this…the last laugh is mine.